(Ho, Ho, Ho.  Tons of Movie Spoilers ahead.)

It’s the holidays.  And to help me get in the yuletide spirit I popped my favorite Christmas movie into the DVD player, Die Hard.  Released in 1988 and best known for launching Bruce Willis’s film career, Die Hard is an integral part of the wave of action movies set during the holiday season that began with 1982’s First Blood and runs on into Lethal Weapon, Batman Returns, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Reindeer Games (there’s also a similar subgenre of horror films).  Now, while many may think that titles like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street are quintessential holiday movies, I’ll make the argument that in fact Die Hard is the perfect cinematic embodiment of Christmas.

What makes a good Christmas movie?  Watch enough movies about the holidays and you begin to pick up on what a film about the most revered and commercialized celebration on the planet needs to succeed (they’ll also annoy you into becoming a cynical alcoholic).  The first key is pretty obvious: setting.  It needs to take place during the Christmas season.  Even Elf , a film in which the title referencing character is a year-round embodiment of the holiday,  wouldn’t work if Will Ferrell, who plays a human raised by Santa’s little helpers, came down from the North Pole to New York looking for his biological father, James Caan, in the middle of July.  The film’s plot also needs to force at least one of its characters to reexamine his or her life in a moment of self-reflection.  In It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart realizes just how valuable his life is by seeing what the world be like if he’d never been born (though such an epiphany is generally meant for the main character, it can also apply to a supporting cast member like the previously mentioned Jimmy Caan in Elf).  This usually results in the troubled characters redeeming themselves through some act that ends up reaffirming the concept of family and togetherness.  In Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin’s exuberance at being alone is replaced with wishing for his family back and then “earning” their return by defending the family home from burglars Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, maturing himself in the process (Catherine O’Hara, who play his mother, does the same for Culkin by enduring travel hell, including sharing a ride in the back of a U-Haul with John Candy.).

So how does Die Hard do when stacked up along side these rules for Christmas movies? Well, as we’ve already mentioned it’s set during the holidays.  At an office Christmas party no less (seriously who hasn’t wanted to shoot one of those  up?).  Willis plays a New York City cop who flies out to L.A. to see his wife and kids for the holidays.  You see, the Mrs., played by Bonnie Bedelia, has a successful corporate gig and was promoted to the Los Angeles office (taking the children with her) and can’t decide to go by or her maiden name (Gennaro) or her husband’s last name (McClane). Willis is driven from the airport straight to his estranged wife’s office building, where, while in the midst arguing with her and changing for the party in her suite like office, terrorists burst in and take over the place. Willis slips out during the mayhem and spends the rest of the movie fighting the bad guys in nothing more than black slacks and a tank top (barefoot, too) throughout the building.

It’s interesting that the terrorists (lead by Alan Rickman) aren’t actually terrorists, but rather posing as such so they can steal $600 million in untraceable bonds in the company’s safe.  Greed and avarice are constantly vilified in Christmas stories and the motivation behind the most archetypal holiday seasonal tale villain, Scrooge. It’s also a driving force for Bedelia, whose character has clearly chosen her career over her family.  In essence, she, like many modern women, has two different lives, but her’s are each distinctly named for us.  There’s the Holly McClain, wife and mother of two children and there’s Holly Gennaro, successful corporate executive.  Her internal struggle is between the Gennaro and McClain personas.  At the start of the film, Holly Gennaro is in charge.  She places the family portrait with Bruce Willis and the kids face down in her office, calls the Hispanic maid whom she’s shirked her maternal responsibilities on to (“What would I do without you? She proclaims to her surrogate over the phone), and is rewarded with an expensive watch for all she’s done for the Nakatomi  corporation (“It’s a Rolex,” her coked out coworker brags to Willis).  But at the end of the move, we know the Holly McClaine role has won out.  In the climax, after dispatching all the other villains, Willis shoots Rickman, who stumbles out a shattered window and grabs Bedelia’s wrist (the one with that watch) on the way, thus dangling precariously out the building and about to take her with him.  Willis then saves Bedelia by unhooking the Rolex’s clasp and plunging Rickman to his death. In essence, Willis’s character is forcibly destroying his wife’s professional persona (the Gennaro role) and hoisting her back into the traditional wife and mother function—something she confirms when Willis introduces her afterwards as Holly Gennaro and she corrects him by saying: “McClane. Holly McClane.” Thusly reaffirming the traditional (and completely sexist) family roles.

But Bedelia’s character isn’t the only one who “redeems” herself.  Willis (besides mimicking the bloody image of a Christ like sacrifice by the end of the movie) also his own culpability to the state of his family.  In one scene, he makes a rather odd speech over the radio to his one ally, Reginald VelJohnson as  an LAPD Sergeant with whom he spends the majority of the movie talking to for moral support, and instructs him to find Bedelia and apologize to her on his behalf for the vague infraction of “being a jerk.” VelJohnson, with whom Willis hugs after the ordeal—projecting the theme of togetherness—experiences his own redemption in regaining the ability to use his service weapon (he explains in one radio hear-to-heart with Willis that after accidentally shooting a kid with a toy gun he could never pull his gun on anyone again and was regulated to desk duty) and shoots the last terrorist (he’s thought to be dead, but isn’t).

So you see how Die Hard meets all the requirements of a Christmas movie, but let me explain why it’s the perfect Christmas movie.  The genius of this film is that carries the same message of Miracle on 34th Street and accomplishes the goal of It’s a Wonderful Life under a completely different genre.  It’s still an action movie with a healthy serving of gratuitous violence (is there any other kind) and explosions (so many explosions), things that one would imagine might offend Christian morals.   It’s just been co-opted by Christmas, a holiday early Christians adopted from pagans.

By simply taking place during the holiday season, having characters redeem themselves after self-reflection, and affirm traditional family values and roles, the movie allows itself to be drafted into the Christmas movie category and as such parallels the actual history behind the holiday.  Thus Die Hard is the perfect Christmas movie.

[Pic via]

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