It’s the holiday season, so we all know what that means: stockings hung neatly on the mantle; frothy, warm mugs of seasonal nogs; and, of course, images of a flailing, wide-eyed, finally-defeated Hans Gruber falling in slow motion to his death, off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza.
Sorry. Let me back up a second: the Die Hard franchise is very near to my heart, especially so during the holiday season. For the past 30 years, my siblings and I have seasonally maintenance-watched Die Hard and (perhaps controversially for purists) Die Hard 2 as part of our annual Christmas tradition. In December, six Presidents ago, we were staring quietly and gleefully into a glowing TV as a VHS machine hummed along in the background, watching John McClane shoot the breeze with Argyle while Run-D.M.C. plays over the limo’s stereo, watching John make the same joke, year after year, about fax machines, a joke that gets incrementally more dated with each viewing, to the point that it stops being funny and then starts being funny again.
I get that this sounds potentially pretentious, precious, or irritating. It is what it is. Judge me. I don’t care. To my siblings and me, the Die Hard franchise might as well have been produced by Rankin and Bass, with a soundtrack by Burl Ives. This is our tradition, and we hold to it, patiently, fervently, annually.
I am writing this article, in part, because, supposedly, there is a debate about whether or not the first two Die Hard films are Christmas movies. I personally don’t subscribe to the belief that there’s anything to debate here at all. Truth be told, I actually have never met a single person who has argued to remove these titles from the Christmas Film Canon. Quite the opposite, in fact: my experience has been that there’s practically a whole cottage industry of producing and selling Die Hard-themed Christmas trinkets, shirts, mugs, etc. I should know: I personally own several of these items.
Regardless, I am here to state—in no ambiguous terms—that Die Hard and Die Hard 2 are as categorizable as Christmas movies as It’s A Wonderful Life or Home Alone and Home Alone 2.
In fact, I’ll go one step farther and say that John McClane is my personal, positive Christmas role model.
First, let’s discuss what sets these films apart within the vast landscape of 80’s and 90’s Action Hero Films (aside from the fact that Die Hard passes The Bechdel Test, which, while definitely not proof positive that a film is inherently super progressive, is still very important in and of itself, given the genre conventions of the era). In the first film in this franchise, the protagonist single-handedly thwarts an elaborate plot (one that at least masquerades as being perpetrated by terrorists) that involves detonating C4 explosives inside a skyscraper in a major metropolitan area. Mind you, this is in a pre-9/11 world. Thirteen years later and John would have received a Congressional Medal of Honor and a parade. Our hero is a one-man Department of Homeland Security whose name should invoke reverence and awe for anyone even affiliated with the fields of law enforcement and national security. But somehow as the franchise moves forward, he remains believably and endearingly our beloved, raggedy underdog. Case in point: in Die Hard 2, the first interaction that McClane has—with anyone—is to get his borrowed car ticketed and towed by a fellow cop who proceeds to trash the city John now lives in. He then spends much of the second film being on the receiving end of some of the most truly buck wild profanity-infused rants from the airport police chief played by a scenery-chewing Dennis Franz (A.K.A. Andy Sipowicz; A.K.A. the archetypal American TV Cop). So much for “team spirit.” Sorry, John.
This gets to one of the other reasons why the Die Hard franchise is incredible and important (particularly the first two films). John is our hero. John is a cop. And proudly so, as he tells people at every turn. However, these movies walk a delicate line by not being crypto-endorsements of Reagan or Bush 1 era policing practices. While our hero clearly takes great pride in working in law enforcement, these movies are markedly, carefully, not pure “copaganda.” Time and again, John saves the day, in spite of (and working emphatically against) the decisions of the law enforcement leadership in both films, embodied in Paul Gleason (I.e. America’s on-screen archetypal Vindictive High School Vice Principal) in Die Hard and Dennis Franz in Die Hard 2. Aside from his partnership with Al Powell (excellently played by Reginald VelJohnson), John appears to have more enemies than friends in his law enforcement career. In both movies—McClane and Powell aside—cops bungle things. Entire federal agencies equally bungle things. John—barefoot and begrudgingly—cleans up people’s messes and keeps everyone safe. For some inexplicable reason, from L.A. to D.C, cops get pissed off to the point of grinding their teeth if you even mention the name of John McClane, despite the fact that he personally stopped terrorist attacks on both U.S. coasts in just two years. John is the GG Allin of American Film Cops: hated and spit-on, he soldiers on for his trade.
This gets to another reason why the first two films in the Die Hard franchise are important and how they straddle a careful line: especially in the first movie, aside from Powell (VelJohnson), John is largely alone and fighting crime. But these are categorically not vigilante movies. So they’re not pure wish-fulfillment vessels for lone-wolf antisocial resentment, and chiefly because John doesn’t set out to stop a single crime in either of these movies. John is not Bruce Wayne, processing his PTSD by crushing the proletariat. Nor is he (the supremely, tragically misunderstood, IMO) Frank Castle, stoically and violently working through his life of pain as he enacts his revenge on society and the institutions that have aided in his culture’s suffering (which, in the comic books, does very much include a problematization of both the police and the armed forces, but we can save all that for another article). And he’s definitely not Rorschach: shotgun-spraying his distorted Lawful Good tendencies all over a world he views as unjust. McClane is a poor bastard who is just trying to enjoy Christmas, and he keeps getting stuck in scenarios where he has to use his very unique skill set to save the day. Dad-style, this dude is just trying to get by and have a pleasant holiday, and he continues to be unexpectedly called to duty at the exact moment that he’s about to unwind. Or, in John’s own sarcastically delivered words, as he mimics the invitation he received to spend the holidays with his family, army-crawling through a ventilation duct after very narrowly avoiding death by falling down an elevator shaft: “Come out to the coast. We’ll get together. Have a few laughs.”
And in my read of these films, that line is memorable precisely because it gets so perfectly at why Die Hard and Die Hard 2 are, at their core, films about Adulthood Holiday Stress. Indeed, it’s the quintessential post-childhood Christmas struggle: Christmas is designed to be a time for joy and celebration, but there’s so much pressure around it. And as an adult you explicitly and implicitly take on the responsibility of dealing with that pressure more and more each year, which, let’s be emotionally honest for a second, can be burdensome, especially if you’re having a bad day like John is. Think about it. You have to do a million things: you have to fly across the country to see family; you have pick up your wife from the airport; you have to stab a bad guy in the eye with an icicle; you have to run barefoot through broken glass; you have to foil a terrorist plot to take over Dulles International Airport. It’s exhausting.
John is, therefore, coming from a long line of Christmas Grumps: from Ebenezer Scrooge to the Grinch to Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. In fact, viewed through this lens, I like to imagine that John McClane could be a distant cousin of Clark Griswold. The central comedy of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is, obviously, watching Clark poorly stifle his rage as he just barely navigates the ever multiplying suburban dad pressures of ensuring his entire extended family has a merry Christmas. Die Hard and Die Hard 2 take virtually that same narrative arc and swap the jokes out for snappy action-scene one-liners and switch the hilarious domestic crisis out for a series of terrorist plots. Imagine, for a moment, an alternate cut of Christmas Vacation where John McClane shows up at the Griswold’s for the holidays. Instead of Cousin Eddie going to kidnap Clark’s boss, it’s McClane. Those bonuses would be paid out so fast…
What makes Die Hard and Die Hard 2 my personal favorite Christmas movies, though, is that they avoid one of the silliest Christmas movie tropes: our hero endures a crucible at Christmas time, and he never has anything close to resembling a corny “Christmas Epiphany.” Not once does McClane ponder “the true meaning of Christmas” nor does he learn “what the holiday season is really about.” None of the events of either film seem to be an inflection point at all for his character.
And this is why John McClane is my positive Christmas role model: the holidays are approaching fast; pressures are building up; crises are looming; the stakes are getting higher with each minute, but bruised, bloody, and barefoot you’ll make it through and come out the other end to do it all again next year.
So, this holiday season, I invite us all to have a little bit of John McClane’s approach to Christmas—some “Ho Ho Ho, now I have a machine gun” energy, if you will. Yippee Ki-Yay, motherfucker!