Big news everybody. Die Hard is not a Christmas movie.
If Die Hard is a Christmas movie, where do we draw the line? Is Iron Man 3 a Christmas movie? It takes place in December, and he gives that kid a bunch of presents at the end. Is Prometheus a Christmas movie? Idris Elba decorates a tree in that one scene. The answer from a lot of people will be a collective scoff. Of course those aren’t Christmas movies. Prometheus is a sci-fi story. Iron Man 3 is a superhero story. There’s a line to be drawn somewhere on what constitutes a Christmas movie, and these don’t cross it. Of course, there is one genre spectacle we all tend to give a pass–Die Hard.
We cherish Die Hard because it has more heart than a lot of proper Christmas movies, which increasingly boil down to cynical, condescending stories about petty neighbors fighting to have the best light display in a never-ending pissing war. Maybe we embrace Die Hard because proper Christmas movies are all a bunch of cynical consumerist propaganda. Even well received films like Christmas Vacation and Home Alone have mean streaks running through their core.
Or maybe we simply embrace Die Hard for the surface. Christmas in Hollis. Santa Hats. A corpse wearing a Santa hat. Now I have a machine gun. Hohoho. A candy cane colored murder spree.
What is it about Die Hard that captures the yuletide spirit? I hailed Batman Returns as my favorite Christmas film in my teens, because it so well captures seasonal depression, but truthfully, the Christmas setting is one of my least favorite aspects of Batman Returns. I do love Tim Burton’s snow-covered everything, but not as much as I love the characters or the story or literally every moment the Penguin is onscreen. It would be disingenuous for me to call it a Christmas movie. Die Hard contains none of the attitude that sets Batman Returns apart. Die Hard just has attitude with a capital TUDE. It’s a straightforward story with no discernible message. Is John McClane a Christ figure? Is John McClane Santa Claus? Is Hans Gruber Santa Claus? Is Argyle? Am I looking at this the wrong way? Let’s ignore metaphor and look at John McClane’s journey for what it is.
Die Hard begins with John McClane flying from New York to Los Angeles. He’s reconnecting with his wife and kids. They’re estranged, but not yet divorced. His unclear marital status adds emotional stakes to the importance of this visit. It’s not the be-all end-all of their relationship, but it ups the ante enough to feel appropriate in a late ’80s action movie like this. Somebody coming home for Christmas is a plot we’ve all accepted as part of our secular Christmas mythology. There’s the song, the Jonathan Taylor Thomas movie named after the song, and Die Hard, of course, among many others. John’s trip to LA is pleasant and non-eventful. He receives some advice about stretching his toes on the plane, he’s bewildered by the glamorous L.A. lifestyle, and he befriends a limo driver on the way to the Christmas party. That’s about it. His real journey is the struggle to safely get everybody out of Nakatomi Plaza.
I’m not a Christian, so I won’t waste any space on Christ metaphors. Tonally and textually, Die Hard is unconcerned with such things. It celebrates a much more secular version of Christmas. The Nakatomi employees are there for the gold Rolexes and the free booze. Hans Grueber is there to gift himself six million dollars of stolen bonds, and yes, John McClane crawling around in the air ducts is reminiscent of Santa Claus coming down the chimney, if you think about it. The high and mighty yuppies of the Nakatomi corporation even throw their bash on Christmas Eve, firmly bumping into what most people consider family time. John McClane never comments on the inappropriate timing of the party, but I imagine it does go against his average Joe sensibilities and expectations.
This being Christmas Eve also brings the cheer out of the city of L.A. Decorations are in full bloom. Argyle introduces McClane to “Christmas in Hollis” on the ride to the tower, and that giant teddy bear stays with McClane until the action kicks in. Is this Christmas cheer a genuine gesture from the filmmakers or are they simply giving us a false sense of security before the shooting starts? Because once it starts, it doesn’t let up. It gets bloody. John McClane cracks wise, but it’s mean and sarcastic. He’s exasperated, he’s exhausted. He just wanted to come out to the coast, get together, have a few laughs, but circumstances have cancelled those plans. Now he has to fight for a merry Christmas! He has to kill all those terrorists to have a merry Christmas, and that’s about the point when Die Hard stops being a Christmas movie.
Violence gets in the way. Look, you wanna say Die Hard is Christmas-adjacent? Fine. Want to make it an annual Christmas tradition? Fine. You want to tell everybody that Die Hard is THE Christmas movie? You should really think again. Die Hard’s a lean, mean action machine and that’s fine. Adding this Christmas-movie status to it perverts Die Hard’s message and it perverts the Christmas spirit. Now yes, talking about a vague nebulous Christmas spirit is corny as hell but I feel like we have draw a hard line against violence in the name of it, real and fictional. Does this mean stop watching Die Hard? Fuck no. I’m probably gonna watch at least one Mad Max this season. Just let Die Hard be Die Hard. Don’t twist it into something it’s not. I mean jeez, John never even gets to Holly’s house. He doesn’t get home for Christmas! We have no idea what his Christmas day was like. How’s John dealing with the trauma of the night before? I wonder if he made his kids share the giant teddy bear.