-OR- Why I always wish it was John McClain instead of Hans Gruber who gets pushed off Nakatomi Plaza.
It’s no secret my love for Die Hard.
I love the fact that I always ask myself new questions every time I watch it: Why didn’t one of the German terrorists drown in the giant fountain of the lobby of Nakatomi? Head baddie Hans Gruber has exactly 12 apostles: Karl, Franco, Tony, Theo, Alexander, Marco, Kristoff, Eddie, Uli, Heinrich, Fritz and James. Is that because he is, after all, an allegory for Jesus? And whatever did go down between Argyle and the teddy bear? Incidentally how did a New York cop afford a coach seat for a stuffed animal? And why?
But this is all conjecture. What I do know, after dozens and dozens of viewings of the Original Recipe Die Hard™ (not the four to follow or the inevitable prequels to come) is that if one thing is clear, Hans Gruber deserved to live.
For starters, Gruber, played by the dearly departed Alan Rickman, was action cinema’s first multi-faceted, nuanced and overall sympathetic bad guy. The anti-hero prototype. He paved the way for Don Draper, Walter White and Saul Goodman. Basically, Hans Gruber built AMC which is probably why the network stretches Die Hard into four-hour appointment viewing on Christmas to square off against TBS’s A Christmas Story marathon in the battle of who does Yuletide binge-watching better.
Gruber, as opposed to John McClane’s (Bruce Willis…then on furlough from Moonlighting) self-loathing one-trick pony of a possibly alcoholic, possibly brain damaged, possibly delusional detective from the East Coast, is positively fluid and justifiable in his actions. He had a plan. He executed it to near perfection. And overall, his goal to limit the collateral damage (both human lives and property) to one security guard—who really just died in the line of duty—and a bunch of broken windows, was brilliant.
The meddling McClain should have taken the Gruber team captors by surprise in the lobby near the fountain by grabbing estranged wife Holly McClain (née Gennaro played by Bonnie Bedelia) and getting the eff out of there in the first act. Instead, he decides to sneak around Nakatomi Plaza in bare feet like Carl from Caddyshack but hunting Krauts. McClain continues to play American nationalist cowboy swine and kill nine of Gruber’s henchmen—and eventually Hans himself.
Juxtapose that with Gruber, who kills but two: The first is Nakatomi CEO Joseph Takagi who needed to be offed for multiple reasons: 1) numerous unnamed human-rights violations that the Nakatomi Corp. has committed on Takagi’s watch and 2) as crowd-control statement killing. Think: when a company is taken over and the CEO is immediately fired. Incidentally, Takagi would have also been a good candidate for a lobby fountain drowning. Gruber’s second victim is office horndog Harry Ellis (“Hans… Bubby!”), the smarmy coke-snorting, free-wheeling, nephew-of-Takagi’s-golfing-buddy who got the job at Nakatomi as a favor. Harry is the amalgam of every dickhead who was the first guy your ex hooked up with after you broke up. If you didn’t audibly cheer the death of Ellis, you should skip straight over to A Good Day to Die Hard.
Ultimately, Gruber’s needs were on the surface strictly utilitarian: Steal $640 million (1988 dollars) in bearer bonds. Perhaps his only flaw, but maybe a bit of subterfuge to hide his soft side, Gruber admits he is using terrorism as a ploy to break into the Nakatomi basement vault and steal. Though I don’t buy the modality of that excuse. I think Gruber did have a statement to make against corporate greed and the worship of money. Otherwise, Theo (the black head safe-cracker/IT guy—proving that Gruber was also an equal opportunity employer and not just an end-of-the-Cold-War-era Aryan nihilist) could have popped that vault underwater and blindfolded…and in less time than it takes Argyle to rewind Christmas in Hollis.
My love for Hans has grown to the point where I have to turn the film off during its final scene. I don’t want to see Gruber die. It’s not that I don’t want McClain live to meet up with believer cop Al Powell and try to talk him out of taking that cush gig on Family Matters, but I also feel McClain’s and Gruber’s fates didn’t have to be so symbiotic.
Couldn’t McClain have called “check”? He could have said Hans, you give me Holly back and I’ll let Argyle take you and $40 million to LAX and it’s up to you after that—we’re good. Thankfully, Bruce Willis to me made up for this cinematic transgression of letting Gruber go with the Butch/Marsellus reconciliation after Butch rescued Marsellus from a pair of inbred sodomizing pawn shop owners.
To jog your memory:
…After this holiday’s Die Hard bender, I realized it was actually Alan Rickman, not his Hans, I so admire.
Die Hard’s best scene features Gruber—the majordomo of cerebral manicured beard stroking—demurring to McClain upon their first meeting as to not blow his cover. Rickman shifts gears from completely in control control freak to faux cowering hostage so fast, you half expect director John McTiernan’s camera to pan down and catch his dropped transmission in the form of a gathering puddle at his feet.
And you ask yourself, who, besides Rickman could pull that off? And THEN you find out Rickman and Willis ad-libbed that entire scene the first day of shooting after it was discovered on-set that the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts-trained Rickman was almost as good at an American accent as he was at a German-sprechen-English accent.
McTiernan also thought a face-to-face before the building toss was a good idea and so, based on Rickman’s lead, the two cobbled together the greatest affably evil trope of all time.
The scene, but for the dry ice, was unrehearsed…and is it me or is their chemistry ten fold of that and either of them and Holly and her always-about-to-explode blouse.
More than this, Rickman imbues the Hans character with a bit (a lot) of himself. This is no more apparent than when McTiernan needed to cut away from his face whenever he fired a gun. Rickman apparently flinched every time he pulled the trigger on set. And if you pause on Rickman’s face when he shoots Takagi, you can see him wince. A lot. So. And that’s when you know Die Hard is more than the cinematic debut of a lifetime—it was personal.
Yes, Die Hard was Rickman’s first film, but it could have been his 30th. There was this knowing him on first glance; you’ve seen that face, heard that voice…and nobody ever glanced over his shoulder with disdain and familiarity quite the same way—and nobody ever will. Like a lovely song you swear you’ve heard somewhere before or an unexpected first kiss, the performance will always set me aglow.
And every time I hear “Ho ho ho” it’s in Rickman’s voice.
…On the stage, Rickman was Mark Antony opposite Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra at the Olivier Theatre in London. He portrayed the titular character in Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and then again in New York. He won acclaim as a creative writing professor in Seminar on Broadway. A decade ago, Rickman directed My Name is Rachel Corrie, which he and Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner compiled from the emails of the student who was killed by a bulldozer while protesting in the Gaza Strip.
And then there was a little matter of Severus Snape, but that’s a discussion for a different tribute.
Alan Rickman was an actor, an activist and by all accounts, as sweet and swarthy in person as he was on screen. But to me, he’ll always be Hans Gruber, the villain who even in freefall never lost focus. Letting the rest of us know that even at the very end, there’s always a plan.