At Christmas last year, I sat down to do what so many people do after they’ve finished the shopping, cooking, and screaming that goes with the holiday season: kick back and watch my favorite Christmas movie. I hadn’t seen Die Hard in a few years, and for a brief moment, as the old 20th Century Fox logo appeared, I worried that it wouldn’t stand up. I’d seen it so many times, maybe this would be the time where it would not be able to work its magic like it had all those years ago when I first saw it on TV.
In the end, the old excitement came flooding back. Re-watching Die Hard always feels like revisiting an old friend. You know all the big beats and revel in the little moments: the ‘fists with the toes;’ Argyle; Ellis snorting coke off Holly’s desk (classy), Bruce Willis crying while he pulls glass from his feet. Magic. And no matter how many times I watch Die Hard, one element remains as absorbing as the first time I watched it. He’s the reason why the movie works, and the reason why, after nearly 30 years, Die Hard remains in contention as the greatest action movie of all time: Hans Gruber. He is the movie villain we wish every movie had.
One of the key reasons Die Hard is still regarded so highly is its hero John McClane (Bruce Willis). At the time, and even today, he stands out because he is just an average guy in over his head. And not only is McClane an average guy, he is a guy with average problems and weaknesses. It’s worth remembering that at the beginning of Die Hard, McClane is kind of a dick. He’s on the outs with his wife, mainly because he is totally unwilling to make compromises to keep their marriage together–rather than taking the easy option of transferring across the country, McClane would rather have his wife’s career options revolve around him. His pride is more important than her importance as chief bread winner, and McClane is unwilling to concede that Holly has her own ambitions and career goals.
Ultimately, what makes McClane so identifiable is the fact that he feels like a human being. He gets scared, he gets hurt, and he’s constantly being outflanked and outsmarted by the villains. You don’t see that in most action movies nowadays–generally, filmmakers evade putting the hero too far behind the eight ball, leaving obvious loopholes and easy outs to get the hero to the final showdown. McClane is completely outclassed because the writers have taken time to conceive an antagonist who is completely out of his league.
Hans Gruber is the kind of villain that other action movies could only dream of. Gruber is always the smartest guy in the room–his plan is well thought out, he knows a bit about everything (his ‘Alexander’ speech; the way he clocks Takagi’s suit brand; his hilarious list of demands to the FBI), and, most importantly, he can think on his feet. Every time McClane tries to take the upper hand, Gruber out-maneuvers him–think about the Bill Clay scene. Within a split-second of meeting McClane, Gruber has fallen into character as a helpless victim.
The great quality that Gruber has over most other villains is that he is always thinking ahead and is never at a loss. Even while he is temporarily detained, and under McClane’s ‘protection’, Gruber is constantly improvising and looking for a way out of his predicament. Having noted McClane’s bare feet, Gruber is able to use that to his advantage when his men corner McClane. There are no script contrivances to make Gruber temporarily stupid so that McClane can get from point X to point Y — he has to think ahead constantly to try and avoid getting killed. Gruber’s actions force McClane to work harder, and not just as an action hero.
When Gruber has his men “shoot the glass,” McClane is severely wounded. He is at his lowest point—and this is where Die Hard goes from being a great action movie into being a great film. As McClane pulls glass out of his feet, and talks to Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) on his walkie-talkie, he is finally forced to confront his own mortality. This brush with death, and with the odds stacked against him, McClane is forced to recognize his own failings — if he doesn’t rescue Holly, he will never be able to make up for the mistakes he made in their marriage. Only by pushing himself beyond his own limits and fears can McClane hope to survive and best the bad guy. The fact that Gruber is the obstacle he has to overcome is essential to McClane’s transformation. And because McClane is able to overcome those odds, we are more invested in him as an action hero.
Why is Gruber such an exception in the genre? The main reason is simple: it is really hard to write a strong bad guy. This is especially true when the screenwriter is already sweating blood trying to drag their hero/ine toward the finish line. You want someone tough, but not too tough. Too often writers are afraid to make the villain as all-powerful as possible. In the case of Die Hard, writers Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza took great pains to make Gruber as formidable as possible.
He is the Reason Why the Movie Exists
William C. Martell wrote an excellent breakdown of Die Hard’s script in which he noted that the most important key to a great action film is the Villain’s Plan. Ultimately, despite Bruce Willis’ mug and name being on the poster, Hans Gruber is the reason why this story exists–if he hadn’t turned up at Nakatomi Plaza, the movie wouldn’t exist–all the other characters exist as reactors to his actions.
Steven de Souza admitted this outright in an interview with Creative Screenwriting. De Souza says he wrote Die Hard as though Gruber were the protagonist, making him the active presence who forces the plot into motion. Hans Gruber is the catalyst that puts the world of the movie out of balance. In this capacity, Gruber also acts as the catalyst for John McClane’s evolution as a character. If it were not for Gruber and his scheme, John McClane would never have grown up. He would have gone to Nakatomi, made no compromises, and he and Holly would have probably divorced. And then we wouldn’t have Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his daughter in the sequels (although we would have also avoided Die Hard 5, but let’s ignore that hot mess).
The other component that makes Gruber work is the superlative work of Alan Rickman. Originally, the part was conceived as a tough military man along the same lines as Die Hard 2’s Colonel Stuart (William Sadler). Rickman’s casting was not a case of a casting director thinking outside the box. The main (practical) reason why Rickman wound up being cast was the simple fact that he was cheap. Rather fortuitously, this helped make the movie better because with the svelte, intellectual Rickman in the role, the filmmakers were forced to re-conceive the character.
With little time, John McTiernan and his writers began to make on-set rewrites, recalibrating Gruber’s character to match Rickman’s performance. Hans Gruber went from being a simple mercenary into the ‘exceptional thief’ we all know and love. Unlike so many action movie villains, Gruber is a more sophisticated and cerebral presence–but one who can still throw down if the occasion demands it.
The celebrated Bill Clay scene is the most prominent example of these changes. Ironically, it was not a natural development, but the result of serendipitous inspiration. McTiernan came up with the scene after he heard Rickman do an American accent. Thanks to the talent of the people involved, this sequence far more complex than its contrived origins, revealing more of Gruber’s cleverness (note just how quickly he notes McClane’s bare feet and slips into character) and, in the final reversal with the empty gun, how much he has underestimated McClane.
Scenes like this, where two rivals have a purely intellectual face off, are what help elevate Gruber and McClane above their contemporaries, and Die Hard above most action movies. Instead of taking the easy way out, the filmmakers find a way to develop the role of the villain in an interesting and unexpected way. In reciprocal fashion, it also reveals the strength of the film’s heroic protagonist. Ultimately, this scene works because it is based on a clearly defined conflict between two characters whose goals and personalities force them against each other. It is classic, inherent conflict, and marks Die Hard out from the more contrived clashes of other action movies where hero and villain have to fight just because the genre demands it (see Rambo: First Blood Part II‘s evil Russians or Jack Palance in Tango and Cash).
For all these reasons, Hans Gruber remains the undisputed champ of action movie villains. He is a great character, and epitomises a standard in cinematic knavery that few filmmakers have replicated. By presenting their villain as the antagonist, and defining his goals in stark opposition with the those of the film’s hero, the filmmakers behind Die Hard set a template that should serve as a guide for creating strong genre villains.