John McClane doesn’t have the benefit of dressing up in oversized red sweaters or jackets. Hell, the man can’t even afford shoes! But that hasn’t stopped many from proclaiming one of the most influential action films of all time as a Christmas movie. But is it? Die Hard (1988) takes place during Christmas Eve, featured some timely Christmas music, and the setting of the film is an office Christmas party. But what’re the criteria for a true Christmas film?
Well, the first counterpoint to Die Hard’s status is that the holiday has nothing to do with the narrative of the plot, which is true. The film follows McClane, as he travels from New York to LA to attend his separated wife’s office Christmas party in the fictional Nakatomi Plaza. During the festivities, the building is taken hostage by a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Caught in an impossible situation, McClane must figure out a way to outsmart the terrorists, save his wife and her co-workers… and save Christmas? Admittedly, when you break Die Hard down, it is hard to see where the holiday season truly fits in the narrative. However, let’s look at a comparison in how horror films are viewed in relation to Halloween. Every October is littered with marathons of classic horror films, yet almost none of them are set during the actual holiday. For every Halloween and Trick ‘r Treat, there’s an abundance of October favorites that don’t reference the holiday at all. Friday the 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street, and Saw are franchises that have become holiday staples and feel like required viewing every Halloween season.
So if it isn’t the holiday’s prominence in the film that matters, then what makes them “Halloween” movies? It has everything to do with tone. In October, people want to be scared, to be tense, to be distressed. That’s the goal of every horror film and most horror comedies. That makes a Jason Voorhees outing just as appropriate for Halloween as a Michael Myers chiller. So does Die Hard, which is an operatic, high-intensity action thriller evoke feelings normally associated with the Christmas season?
There’s certainly some leanings toward camaraderie and the importance of family relationships while looking at Die Hard. While the film is credited as being a landmark in action filmmaking, it’s most timeless qualities are the dynamic characters and it’s an airtight script. The film is a clinic inefficient storytelling from the very first frame. It also features a slew of mind games as several characters, most notably McClane and Gruber, attempt to outwit and outmaneuver one another. But two of the key ingredients for the story’s narrative is McClane estranged relationship and subsequent reconciliation with his wife Holly McClane Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia), as well as his budding friendship with fellow cop Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson).
Powell, assigned to check out a disturbance at the Plaza, gets caught up in the action. He eventually strikes up communication with McClane via walkie-talkie while Powell awaits back up. Powell is positioned as our second hero, as he and McClane our contrasted against fame hungry news reporters, self-centered Nakatomi employees, and inept cops – all of whom have a hand in unintentionally making McClane’s fight that much harder.
But the heart of the film truly lies in the strained relationship between John and Holly. Holly moved herself and their 2 kids to LA when she received a new career opportunity, and McClane was too stubborn and too egotistic to join her. It’s only after their lives are put in danger that John finally gets the bright idea that he should have supported his wife, appreciated her more, and not let his ego wreck their family. It’s the key flaw that makes him such a relatable hero.
He’s not Arnold Schwarzenegger. He wins his battles more with wit, determination, and luck than he does with power. And just as importantly, John McClane the man isn’t perfect either. He, at times, can be a bad father or husband. He’s human, he’s us. The great writing behind this character not only draws us into the dramatic moments, but it also heightens the action – as McClane is presented with mishaps and unexpected developments, one after another. He can fail at any time, mostly due to the mistakes of those around him, and that’s the underlying tension of every scene.
So at the heart of Die Hard is an ordinary man doing extraordinary things, while trying to mend a damaged relationship, all while bonding with his new-found best friend. The film is a buddy cop movie. An action thriller with a romance at the center. But it is NOT a Christmas movie. While there are themes about friendship, redemption for multiple characters, and family, none of it is related to the holiday in question. Die Hard doesn’t feel like Christmas, it just takes place during it. But that shouldn’t stop you from making it a Christmas tradition! The holidays, above all else, are about having a good time. And there’s no better time watching a movie than watching John McClane kick ass, outclass his wife’s annoying co-workers and bumbling cops, and outsmart the incomparable Hans Gruber. That’s a helluva time, no matter what time of year.