Analysis

Why Die Hard is the ultimate Christmas movie — despite naysayers

Like many other Christmas classics, Die Hard tells the story an imperfect protagonist with a dad bod who must overcome obstacles to learn the meaning of Christmas. Except in this case, it's all while under fire from a group of terrorists.

Action flick touted by some to be better than holiday classics like the Grinch

Bruce Willis stars in Die Hard. The 1988 action movie is subject to debate about whether it's a good holiday film. (IMBD)

Like it or not, Die Hard is here to stay as a Christmas classic.

By now, you may have come across the debate over whether the 1988 explosive action film, starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, even counts as a holiday flick.

Sure, it's different from some of the more traditional movies we watch around this time of year. A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life — now these are the "real" Christmas movies.

Except they're all just so earnest.

"A modern day Christmas movie has to have a sense of self-awareness," Mario Trono, film reviewer forthe Calgary Eyeopener, told the show.

"The Charlie Brown Christmas special that comes on every year, I can't go back to it. I can't go back to Grinch, I can't even go back to Jim Carrey's Grinch."

The movie, Die Hard, is set around a terrorist group trying to rob a corporate Christmas party. (IMBD)

Like many other Christmas classics, Die Hard tells the story of an imperfect protagonist with a dad bod, John McClane, who has to overcome obstacles to learn the meaning of Christmas.

McClane is a police officer who tries to save his estranged wife after a group of terrorists break into an L.A. downtown tower to rob a vault during a staff Christmas party.

But the movie deviates from the happy Christmas movie genre to incorporate cartoonish gunfights.

That's led some to argue Die Hard isn't really a Christmas movie, but those folks "obviously haven't seen what a man will do, or just how many panes of glass he's gonna break through" to save Christmas.

That quote is lyrics in song called The Greatest Christmas Movie, written by Dan Perrott as part of Forte Musical Theatre Guild's annual stage musical, Naughty… but Nice!

The Calgary-based holiday show features a tongue-in-cheek scene in which a couple gets into a fight over Die Hard.

"I've watched a lot of movies and I've come to the conclusion that Die Hard ticks so many of the boxes of what a great Christmas movie should be," said Perrott, who first saw the film when he was 14 years old.

Dan Perrott of Calgary is a Die Hard fan. He referenced the film when writing a song for local play, Naughty ... but Nice! (Falice Chin/CBC)

Among the many holiday nods — 12 bad guys, wife named Holly, giant teddy bear gift in waiting and endless Christmas decor — there's also a film score featuring ominous renditions of Beethoven's Ode to Joy sprinkled with the jingling of sleigh bells.

"The composer was asked by the director to include Beethoven and he actually protested because he didn't want to do any sacrilege to Beethoven," Perrott said.

"The director insisted and so the whole movie is underscored with this Ode to Joy that's been dissected and taken apart. It was a bit revolutionary at the time because action movies didn't include classical music."

A woman is held hostage in the Christmas movie, Die Hard. (IMBD)

The usual obstacle of money and greed, as seen in A Christmas Carol and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, is fully realized in the John McClane story. Those obstacles motivate the chief bad guy and his German goons to crash the equally selfish corporate Christmas party.

But there are other obstacles, too: glass panes, incompetent cops, coked up Harry Ellis and, of course, Hans Gruber — the villain, terrorist and ultimate Grinch figure played by Alan Rickman.

The actions movie with cartoonish violence is an odd Christmas movie, some people say. (IMDB)

For some fans, Rickman's dynamite performance is what makes Die Hard great.

"My case is for Alan Rickman," said Rebecca Zahn, 28, who wasn't even born when the film came out.

She grew to love it when her father rented a copy from Blockbuster during Christmas one year.

Now she has organized a Die Hard watching party Friday at 10 p.m. at the Globe Cinema in downtown Calgary, as part of the screening club, the Fifth Reel.

"When everyone talks about Christmas movies, Love Actually seems to make the top of the list — and I'm here to take that movie off the list and supplant it with Die Hard," she said.

A giant teddy bear gift is featured in the movie, Die Hard. (IMBD)

Both unconventional Christmas films feature Alan Rickman, but, Zahn said, only Die Hard does the late actor justice.

"Love Actually is the worst Christmas movie of all time and I want to give Alan the accolades he deserves," she said.

Perhaps the most salient feature that separates Die Hard from the likes of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the violence — like when Gruber says, "Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho  ho."

The Eyeopener's Falice Chin examines reasons why some consider the 1980's explosive action film the ultimate Christmas movie. 4:48

That's where many people draw the line.

But, Trono pointed out, the gun fights are cartoonish and can serve as a "release valve" for viewers.

"It's a way of purging the negative stuff at Christmas," he said.

Bottom line: It all comes down to our perception of what makes a Christmas movie.

"It's not Die Hard that reinvented the Christmas movie, though I guess you could say they tried to do that a little bit," Trono said. "It's our willingness to expand the definition."


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

About the Author

Falice Chin

CBC Calgary

Falice is an award-winning producer who's been working for CBC since 2006. Her career has taken her across Canada and the Middle East. Falice grew up in China and has lived in ten cities around the world. falice.chin@cbc.ca