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Defending Die Hard: A Look At Subtext & The Story Behind The Story

February 10, 2015
Bruce Willis Die Hard

A couple of weeks ago I agreed to meet what turned out to be a charming young woman on a sort of blind date. But when asked to name some of my favourite movies, I came up with ‘Die Hard’. It genuinely is one of my favourite movies.

Her face fell. I watched it as she said, “Why did you have to go there?”

As you’re about to see, ‘Die Hard’ is an action masterpiece from an artistic point of view and the most successful action franchise of all time from a commercial perspective. Such titles are not earned by shallow and empty story telling.

Why Die Hard Is Not Just Another Action Movie

Die Hard was released in 1988 by a team of film makers more-or-less fresh out of film school looking for something to shoot on a low budget. They took Bruce Willis, now an enormous star, but then, a TV actor looking to break into movies and turned him into an action hero.

Being produced at the end of what is generally agreed to be the golden age of action movies, when the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone were massive stars playing invincible action heroes who could spend 20 minutes fighting, being shot at and blown up and yet remaining undamaged.

John McClane was a different kind of ultimately more human action hero. While James Bond can escape peril and still have his quiff and the crease in his tux, John McClane is fragile. He gets hurt. A lot. By the climax of the film, he’s half dead, bleeding from everywhere and absolutely filthy. We believe he’s a human being and not some super cop.

The Subtext of Die Hard

The script is close to perfect. And, being based on a novel, it is unlikely that the story would not have subtext, since novels don’t have the ability to wow you with explosions, guys jumping off roofs with hosepipes, Alan Rickman’s voice, or Bruce Willis’s facial expressions.

If you ask most people what Die Hard is about, they will tell you it’s about a New York cop who single handedly defeats a gang of German terrorists who take over a skyscraper in Los Angeles. And they’re not wrong. But they’re not entirely right either.


From the protagonist’s perspective, Die Hard is about a working class guy who helps his wife quit an unethically capitalist job that is destroying their family. And as you see from the very first line, John McClane will do whatever it takes to achieve this.

The opening dialogue exchange features McClane speaking to his flight mate as his plane lands in Los Angeles:

“You don’t like flying do you?”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

So already, McClane has done something he didn’t enjoy and didn’t really want to do in order to achieve his current goal.

The terrorists don’t take over the building until 20 minutes in. And if that’s all the movie was about, we could cut the first 20 minutes off and start the movie with Alan Rickman taking over the party. This is a tip off that a lot of the subtext is presented during the first 20 minutes.

When John arrives at the Nakatomi building, his wife is going by her maiden name and not her married name. This is another kick in the teeth for John and reflects the state of his relationship with his wife. Quite deliberately, it also turns out to be very important in protecting him from discovery later on in the story.

There are plenty of references to cultural differences between McClane’s native New York and the seemingly foreign land of California where he now finds himself. He does not feel at home here. And he feels equally alienated at the Christmas party in the Nakatomi building by the high society employees. He rejects champagne, a symbol of high society.

There’s a shot of the party in the opening minutes which shows two or three women and a man through the indoor fountain. It looks almost like a paradise. It’s almost like an old greek painting. And it’s the image that corporations like to portray that working for them gives you. But minutes later we see the dark side of big business when John is lead into Holly’s office to catch Ellis snorting cocaine off her desk.

Then there’s a smart bit of dialogue about a Rolex that Holly has been given. It identifies Ellis as a competing male for Holly against John and is also a symbol for capitalism which becomes important in the ultimate pay off scene at the end.

When Gruber’s men shut down the party and the guests become hostages, there’s a dialogue exchange between Gruber and Takagi during which Gruber draws parallels between the two men. They both wear high priced suits and shop at the same stores. The meaning behind this is that Gruber as a terrorist and Takagi as a corporate CEO are not so different.

When you design stories, drama is based around the polarised desires of two characters: the hero and the opponent. Takagi is killed 20 minutes into the film because Gruber does not defeat him, but becomes him. If Gruber defeated his opponent 20 minutes into the story, the script would lose momentum and fall on its face.

We only need look at the documentary INSIDE JOB, to see what big business is capable of. The 2008 recession could have been avoided perhaps. But Goldman Sachs saw fit instead to let it happen and profit from it, while the whole world suffered massive set backs.

It could be argued that this is no different from Takagi’s project in Indonesia which seemingly aims to exploit a bad situation by destroying infra-structure. Isn’t that effectively what terrorists do?

Once Gruber’s men have locked down the building, we then get what the real story is about. The action packed face off which dominates the rest of the film between McClane and Gruber could be said to be a metaphor for the internal struggle that would have gone on between Takagi and John if Gruber hadn’t picked that night to take over the building.

There are other interesting points too. The skyscraper, a common iconic symbol for big business and capitalism, is never harmed by Gruber or his men despite their enormous military arsenal. McClane blows out the bottom three floors with a makeshift bomb built on the fly out of a computer and stolen detonators.

In the ultimate pay off scene, Hans Gruber falls out of the building, grabbing onto Holly as he goes. But he doesn’t actually grab her hand. He grabs the watch. To the last moment he is still greedy. And in order for John to save Holly, she must lose the watch, lose her greed and be freed from the shackles of extreme capitalism.

And THAT is what Die Hard is really about. And that’s why it isn’t the shallow action movie that many blindly accuse it of being.

I rest my case.

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