Every year, film scholars gather to debate one of the most important philosophical issues of our time: Is Die Hard, starring Bruce Willis, a Christmas movie? Opinions on both sides of this argument are surprisingly heated.
Of course, it’s all in the spirit of the season. Die Hard fans don’t necessarily need the excuse of the holidays to watch what is widely regarded as one of the best action movies of all time. The 1988 thriller about a lone cop taking down terrorists who’ve seized a high-rise building, made Bruce Willis a huge movie star. It also established a long-running franchise with four sequels, to date.
Still, there’s a clear case to be made on both sides. Here’s the evidence you need to debate whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
In the first scene of the film, New York City police detective John McClane (Willis) disembarks from a plane that’s just landed in Los Angeles and the flight attendant wishes him a merry Christmas. He’s also carrying a giant teddy bear with a bow on it—a Christmas present for one of his kids.
From there, the movie never lets the audience forget it’s Christmas Eve.
Christmas music, including classical compositions to Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” plays throughout the movie. John heads to Nakatomi Plaza, where his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), works to attend her company’s Christmas party. That’s where he’s trapped when terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), take over the building.
As John and the terrorists engage in a protracted battle of wits and weaponry, they often employ Christmas-themed exclamations. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho,” John writes on the body of one of Hans’ henchmen. When hacker Theo (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.) wants to warn his fellow criminals of the impending arrival of the cops, he starts with, “‘Twas the night before Christmas … ”
Thematically, Die Hard focuses on John’s need to reconcile with his family, which is one of the most common messages of Christmas movies. Even his wife’s name (Holly) is Christmas-themed.
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Just because a movie is set at Christmas doesn’t make it a Christmas movie. Over the years, movie studios and TV networks (like Hallmark) have honed in on the precise ingredients for a Christmas movie. In these films, the holiday is always central to the story. This applies to both Hallmark’s mega-successful, mega-cheesy Christmas romance movies, but also to the thriving subgenre of Christmas horror movies.
True Christmas movies are about Christmas from beginning to end. They would completely fall apart without the holiday element.
Could Die Hard take place on, say, Independence Day, Halloween, or just a random Tuesday? Of course, it could. The holiday has no bearing on the actual story. Hans Gruber and his cohorts aren’t attacking Nakatomi Plaza because it’s Christmas. Even John’s visit is more about reconnecting with his wife and children than any specific holiday tradition.
Yes, Die Hard begins and ends with wishes of merry Christmas and features some token holiday themes in the background. But there’s nothing Christmas-related at all about the plot of the film.
Die Hard is a great action movie because of its expertly constructed screenplay and the tight, dynamic directing of John McTiernan, neither of which has anything to do with Christmas.
Clearly, plenty of fans consider Die Hard a Christmas movie. There’s even a huge industry of Die Hard-related Christmas products, including the children’s-style illustrated storybook, A Die Hard Christmas: The Illustrated Holiday Classic. There are also ugly Christmas sweaters and ornaments, as well as other authorized (and unauthorized) pieces of merchandise.
Of course, during his 2018 Comedy Central Roast, Willis made his opinion pretty clear.
“Die Hard is not a Christmas movie,” he declared. “It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!”
The debate continues.
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