Friday, December 20, 2013

A Very Die Hard Christmas


"What is the greatest Christmas movie of all time?"  Why Die Hard of course, followed closely by The Ref, and yet this year, for some inexplicable reason, it seems people have begun to question Die Hard's status as a Christmas movie.

I imagine this is just some attempt to troll people who don't think A Christmas Story or It's a Wonderful Life should be in the top spot, but it's been a while since I wrote a post and it's a good a reason as any.  The fact is Die Hard is unquestionably a Christmas movie.

Critics of this classification boil their argument down to two points:
1. Die Hard was not released around/marketed towards Christmas
2. Die Hard is not about Christmas

That first one seems reasonable enough, except for the fact that the release and marketing of a movie are not bound by what's in the movie or by the people who made the movie.  For example, Miracle on 34th Street,  a film I doubt anyone would question is a "Christmas movie", released on May 2nd, hardly in or around Christmas.  Even the vaunted It's a Wonderful Life didn't see actual full release until two weeks after Christmas (and then it bombed.)

So clearly the release date (and thus marketing) isn't a particularly good indicator, especially if a movie has since come to be played a lot around Christmas in spite of it, as Die Hard is now.

That leaves us with whether or not it's about Christmas.  "About Christmas" is a very loose phrase that, depending on your definition, could easily exclude classics like It's a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, and A Christmas Story, so it makes more sense to ask whether Christmas is part of the plot of the movie or merely the time of year in which the movie takes place.

Well, the entire opening act of Die Hard relies upon the fact that it's Christmas. It doesn't just happen to be Christmas; Christmas actually informs the actions of the characters.  McClane was perfectly content to wait and hope that his wife's new job wouldn't work out and she would come crawling back to him, and based on her name change, she was perfectly content to forget about him too.  They can't even go ten minutes without fighting once he gets there. (Note that her name is *Holly* by the way. You know, deck the halls...)

So Holly's not going to invite him out there on a whim, and even if she did, he's going to make excuses as to why he can't come.  To do otherwise would be to give ground on their age old argument, and these characters are too stubborn for that.  Then Christmas comes along, the season of giving and forgiving, of bringing people together, and making people believe in magic again, and it gives both John and Holly the rationalization they need to put their pride aside, since if nothing else, they want their kids to have a merry Christmas.

At the same time, the villain's plans hinge on the setting Christmas provides. The building is empty because everyone else went home to their families.  The people who remain are clustered on one floor at the Christmas party, and thus are easy to corral as hostages.  Security is light, and nobody is monitoring the computer codes or the vault.  (Also, given the incompetence displayed by the cops, all the actual experienced and useful officers are probably at home with their families too.)

Thus, pulling Christmas out of Die Hard means changing some characterizations and/or creating a more convoluted setup.  Can it be done? Of course, but A Christmas Story could be re-written to be about Ralphie's birthday, the family in Home Alone could be going to Disney World during one of the winter school breaks, and Miracle on 34th Street could be about a guy who thinks he's the Easter Bunny or Jesus.  Would the films still work? Yes, but they'd lose something, just as Die Hard would, so yes, Christmas is integral to Die Hard.

"But those other movies have Christmas themes," chant the naysayers.  Well, what are the three things pretty much every Christmas movie ever made revolves around?  Recognizing the importance of family, overcoming an obsession with material things, and believing in magic and redemption again.  Die Hard actually has all three.

Clearly Die Hard quite easily fits the bill in that first one. A husband and wife are trying to reconcile and reunite their family because it's Christmas.  Moreover, the experience gives McClane a new appreciation for his wife.  He recognizes that he's been an idiot this whole time, that Holly was "the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me." "She's heard me say a 'I love you' a thousand times. She's never heard me say 'I'm sorry'," he laments, "Tell her that John said he's sorry."  They might as well have had him find Holly and kiss her under the mistletoe after that line.

What about overcoming some hang up with material wealth? Well, Holly has chosen to pursue her career rather than stay with her husband, to the point she won't use his name because it might endanger said career.  Classic Christmas setup right there.  Beyond that, one of the first things that happens is that Ellis tells her to show off the expensive watch he gave her to rub it in John's face.  That could have been a total throwaway, except that at the end of the movie, that watch is the difference between all of them dying or just Hans. He catches it as he falls you see, and it gives him enough leverage to pull her with him and turn to fire at McClane. Once McClane manages to release the watch from her wrist, thus discarding that symbol of materialism and Holly's pursuit of her career to the exclusion of their marriage, Gruber falls to his death.

Of course there's Hans himself, who is ready to kill a bunch of people and blow up the top of a building just so he can get rich.  His Christmas miracle is the vault opening.  He's the bad guy. Rejection of obsession with material wealth, much?

How about Christmas magic and redemption?  Al Powell can't bring himself to draw his gun anymore because of the tragic mistake he made.  In the end, through the magic of having bonded with a voice on the radio, he redeems himself by shooting the last baddie before he can kill John and Holly.  Are not Christmas movies rife with tales of someone having made a mistake and given up something precious to them, only to get it back as the Christmas magic brings them together with someone who can change them for the better?

Even the score fits these thematic elements, being a Chistmasy mix of Ode to Joy of all things.  So looking past the action movie trappings reveals a film that does indeed reflect the spirit of Christmas. Come to think of it, looking past base appearances to see the truth of something is one of those Christmas messages too, isn't it?

Finally, there is one overriding factor that makes Christmas essential to Die Hard being the classic it is today.  Consider that the most famous quote from the movie, aside from McClane's "Yippe Kay Yay Motherfucker" catch phrase, is "Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho."  Would anyone still be repeating "Now I have a machine gun. Gobble Gobble Gobble"?  Would the line be funny if the movie took place in the middle of the summer and the terrorist didn't happen to be wearing a Santa hat?  I don't think so.

So this Christmas, make some fists with your toes and enjoy the epic Christmas movie that is Die Hard.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.