Here it is, the single greatest Christmas movie of all time — no joke, no doubt, no question, it’s Die Hard. And before any quibbling begins, can we agree, in general, that it’s a good movie? Seriously. Step back from the Christmas assertion for just a moment and consider the film as a whole. Die Hard is a classic.
Die Hard ranks 39th on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Thrills list. Die Hard turned Bruce Willis from a television star into an A-list movie star. Die Hard spawned three sequels (look for Live Free or Die Hard in summer 2007). Die Hard spawned countless imitators and wannabes. And, Die Hard takes place during Christmas.
Sure, it’s not a “traditional” Christmas movie. But it takes place during Christmas, has Christmas carols, and follows a number of standard tropes of Christmas films.
First, let’s look at John McClane (Bruce Willis’s character) and who he is. To start with, there’s his name, John McClane. In Irish the prefix “Mc” means “son of,” making him John son of Clane, or J son of C, or, to shorten it further, JC. McClane is therefore a stand-in for Jesus Christ, something the “son of” portion only aids in, as he, Jesus, is the son of God.
And, certainly, McClane is a Christ-like figure. Where do we find him at the beginning of the movie? In an airplane, returning to Earth. It’s as though he were descending from the Heavens, being sent, as it were, by God back to Earth. And, in Die Hard, it’s on Christmas that John McClane is reborn.
Additionally, this night also represents McClane’s walk in the wilderness, which was a crucially important time in the life of Jesus. Nakatomi Plaza (the building the movie takes place in) is a perfect stand-in for the wilderness, and it is only after McClane leaves Nakatomi, exiting the wilderness, that he is a changed man. McClane has faced his nightmarish opposite in the form of Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Gruber is everything that McClane is not; he is the anti-McClane, much as the Devil is often referred to as the anti-Christ. McClane, like Jesus, has been tempted, and has passed his trials.
Putting aside this blatant analogy, the plot of the film as a whole is unquestionably Christmas movie-themed. Outside of their ornamentation, Christmas movies are all notable for having several common tropes. Often there is a love story element to these movies (It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol serve as two perfect examples); these love stories always have the couple overcome their difficulties to be stronger in the end. Check. McClane and his wife are estranged when the film starts, but by the end are together again.
Another trope that the truly great Christmas movies all have is that they create phrases that enter our popular culture. These include: "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings;" "God bless us, every one;" and, "You’ll shoot your eye out" (there are many more, but these are enough of an example). Die Hard actually contains one of the most well-known entries into this category: "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker."
It is also essential to note that the film itself is quite clearly trying to be a Christmas movie. It understands that it is not a typical Christmas movie, but it still wishes to be counted in the genre. Remember McClane’s discussion with his limo driver, Argyle, once he gets in the car. Upon hearing the up-beat rap music Argyle has on the radio, McClane asks Argyle about Christmas music, and if there are no carols on. Argyle laughs at McClane and says they are listening to Christmas music and turns up the volume. Sure enough, once the lyrics to the song start, they’re all about Christmas. True, it’s not your traditional Christmas carol, it’s updated, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are several updated versions of the film A Christmas Carol that are wonderfully fun to watch. Bill Murray’s fantastic take on this, Scrooged, comes to mind immediately. Just because it is a Christmas movie does not mean it need take place in the past.
So, to recap, Die Hard is a great movie and Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Is there anything then that separates a great movie that happens to take place during Christmas from being a great Christmas movie? Any number of criteria would push a movie from the former to the latter; chief among these criteria is that the movie should promote the spirit of Christmas and the holidays. Die Hard, as a film, does just this. It is a movie about the triumph of good over evil; more importantly however, it is a movie the throws into stark relief the importance of the family, particularly during the holidays. McClane makes his family, during the holidays, the most important thing in the world. He goes through hell in order to rebuild his family and strengthen those bonds. And McClane certainly makes Christmas morning one of the happiest days ever for those he saves.
It’s not easy to believe, but it’s undeniable. Die Hard just may be one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made.