Here is a fun little fact I learnt today: In an action movie the protagonist is reactive.

It is the antagonist who has the plan, the one who has thought of everything, and the one who is prepared for all (or at least most) contingencies that might stand between him and his goal. So it goes without saying that a good action movie needs a very good villain. Which is where the brilliance of Die Hard shines through.

Hans Gruber as played by Alan Rickman is just plain awesome. Immaculately dressed and unflappable, he knows exactly what to do when the fire alarm is set off or when cops arrive on the scene; he has a specific role in mind for the FBI and he even aces the moment when he is caught off-guard by the cowboy cop 3000 miles away from his beat who has repeatedly mutated Gruber’s perfectly laid plan. To have written such a powerful villain into a script is to have done everyone a great service. Even on my most recent viewing of Die Hard I was not convinced that Bruce Willis’s John McClane had the situation under control.

This is not a battle between equals, this is class difference at its best. The script, as well as the actors, did a brilliant job of conveying the differences between McClane and Gruber. The latter is meticulous, well-educated and several steps ahead of everyone else in the game while the former is boorish and hard-headed but also a quick learner with serious street-smarts and adaptability.

Though this is (largely) a single-location, single-plot film, several characters are given goals to work towards.

  • Gruber has to steal 640 million dollars;
  • McClane has to save his wife;
  • Holly has to maintain morale and speak up for the people in her charge;
  • Al has to remain supportive of a man he has never met;
  • Karl has to avenge his brother’s death;
  • FBI agents Johnson have to neutralize the terrorists…

You get the picture.

And through it all McClane and Gruber are the ones who face the biggest challenges: Gruber has to find a way to open the seventh lock on the vault, make sure his men recover the detonators and keep the cops outside the building and busy; McClane really only wants to call in the cavalry but when it becomes clear that the authorities are no match for Gruber and gang’s preparation (and superior firepower) he has to take it upon himself to neutralize the terrorists, protect the hostages and save his wife.

What this is really, is a high-octane chess game between a classicist and a rule-breaker.

Maybe it is because Die Hard was Bruce Willis’s first movie, or maybe they didn’t coddle movie stars as much back then, but things are never made easy for the Hero. Or at least not ‘movie’ easy. There was more than one opportunity for Gruber or one of his men to kill McClane but each escape by the resourceful New York cop is tense enough that we continue to suspend our disbelief. It helps that McClane is forced to listen to Ellis’s murder. Or endure a pretty serious beating at Karl’s hands. Or deal with bloodied feet because of the way the ‘fist with your feet’ suggestion sets up Gruber’s revenge later on in the movie. Though he is severely battered and bloodied by the time the end credits roll, McClane is every bit the Hero (and also a spiritual predecessor to the character Bruce Willis plays in Unbreakable) because he just.won’t.die!

But boy does he bleed!

That scene where McClane tells Powell to apologize to Holly on his behalf…that is believable acceptance of possible defeat by a man who until that point was behaving like he was bullet-proof. All those cigarettes, all that checking out of other women who walked past at the airport and even at Nakatomi…those are not the moves of a man who appreciates the idea of ‘consequences’.

But back to why Die Hard is awesome.

All those action sequences are tied together with genuine consequences for most characters. And there’s all the little touches that pay off at various points during the movie. Though McClane is witness to Takagi’s murder he doesn’t see Gruber’s face, which is why he cannot immediately identify him when he meets him on the roof. When we first see her, Holly is so overcome with conflicting emotions about her husband’s visit to LA that she has to cover up the McClane family photo. So it isn’t until very late in the film that Gruber realizes that the Ms Generro he has been dealing with is also McClane’s wife. Delicious details like that are peppered across the film, making it a joy to rewatch this movie, because let’s face it, beyond a point there is only so much of clattering gunfire and booming explosions that one can enjoy.

If you haven’t watched Die Hard in a while, I suggest you pop it back in the DVD player and allow yourself to be transported to a time when heroes and villains were flesh and blood and the stakes seemed believable. I guarantee it will feel more satisfactory than watching impossibly huge robots destroying real estate in sequence after sequence that leaves us with little more than temporary hearing loss.

Hilarious tweeter Arjun Sankalia (follow him @arjunsankalia) drew my attention to this awesome infographics: Nakatomi Plaza: Who Died Where?