When you ask most people what their favorite holiday movie is, they'll usually trot out a genuine yuletide classic. Either a sentimental masterwork like "It's a Wonderful Life," or a more recent pick like "Elf" or "Home Alone" or "Love Actually." While there have been a whole bunch of Christmas movies over the years (and even more who use Christmastime as a backdrop, like this summer's "Iron Man 3"), the pool of holiday favorites is a remarkably small pool. Which is why when people ask me what my favorite Christmas movie is and tell them "Die Hard," they seem so shocked. But it really, really is.
In fact, "Die Hard" might be the greatest Christmas movie ever. It basically has all of the greatest bits of your favorite Christmas movie, all rolled into one. Plus, some boobs and a scene where a guy snorts cocaine off a desk and says, "I was just making a phone call." A classic '80s move.
On a story level, "Die Hard" doesn't have a whole lot to do with Christmas. John McClane (Bruce Willis, at the time cast incredibly against type) is in Los Angeles visiting his estranged wife and their young children. He arrives on Christmas Eve and is shuttled to Nakatomi Plaza, the high-rise where his wife works. Then all hell breaks loose. A band of thieves (spoiler alert) posing as terrorists, take over the building and it's up to McClane to stop them before they murder all of the party guests... including his wife.
But, in a weird way, it's just as moralistic and uplifting as "It's a Wonderful Life." In that film, a man, despondent and morally conflicted, is shown the beauty of life (and what his life would be like if he was no longer in it), and is reborn, literally and spiritually, at the film's close. He's reconnected with the things that are really important in life. So is John McClane.
At the beginning of "Die Hard," John McClane is a gruff jerk, apparently unhappy because his wife is using her maiden name (leading to a clumsy, wholly unnecessary justification on her part), while never actually accepting that he could be a part of the problem. During the course of the movie, McClane is transformed. When he emerges, bloodied and burnt, at the end of the movie, his wife can barely recognize him. And how does she address him? "Jesus Christ," the kid whose birth we're ostensibly celebrating on Christmas Day. But his transformation is also spiritual. At the end of the movie, you get the sense that he's recommitted to being a fully present parent (and there is some evidence to suggest that he followed through, at least in the second movie).
In another Christmas classic, "Home Alone," a child (Macaulay Culkin) is left alone in a house, leading him to fend off the burglars using crazy, hyper-violent pranks. McClane does the exact same thing, except while occasionally dropping the F-bomb. Both characters are full of the creative Christmas spirit, although one is attempting to save a building full of people from a fiery death, while the other is trying to ensure that his parent's hi-fi system doesn't get jacked by some petty criminals.
Another reason that "Die Hard" is the perfect Christmas movie is that it's loaded, front to back, with Christmas imagery. It's shocking, re-watching the film, how many Christmas trees are in the movie. Most are tiny, but they're all fully lit and totally cinematic (my favorite on is in the Los Angeles police station dispatch room). There are decorations all around the building, and the movie is one of the few to truthfully recreate the drunken, sloppy, under-the-mistletoe flirtatiousness of a work Christmas party. Even more than that is the fact that McClane uses these decorations -- at one point he taunts the thieves by sending a corpse down the elevator wearing a Santa hat (his sweatshirt reading, "Ho-Ho-Ho Now I Have a Machine Gun"), while at the end of the movie, he saves the day by affixing a gun to his back using gift wrapping tape.
There's also the music, both the fact that "Christmas in Hollis" by Run DMC is featured predominantly in the opening sequence (this was supposed to be called back in "Iron Man 3," but rights issues tripped it up) and the fact that "Ode to Joy" is utilized throughout the film's musical score, which might not be an explicitly Christmas move, but it sure does sound like it. (Elsewhere, sleigh bells are used in the script.) Director John McTiernan had previously compared the movie to William Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," where everyone is transformed and madness unfolds, only to have normalcy restored the following day. You get that sense watching "Die Hard;" there's something downright magical about it.
John McClane's journey, too, somewhat mirrors that of old St. Nick. He travels down a chimney (or in this case a steely, multi-veined ventilation system), gets covered in soot, and awards the people of Nakatomi the biggest present he can afford: their lives. He also laughs, a lot, although if you were to phonetically spell it out, it probably wouldn't be ho-ho-ho. Instead, it'd be something more along the lines of yippe-ki-yay.
But maybe the biggest reason that "Die Hard" is the best Christmas movie ever is that it's just Christmas enough to put you into the Christmas spirit, without ever drowning you in it. There aren't any carolers and not a single reindeer, but man does it get you in the mood for egg nog and questionable sweaters. Watching "Die Hard," even in the dead of summer (which is when it was initially released), will cause sugar plum fairies to dance in your head.
Christmas is about giving. And for the past 25 years, it has given me an obscene amount of pleasure. Here's to "Die Hard," the ultimate Christmas movie. Not even a succession of horrible sequels can tarnish your good name.
categories Best Movies Ever