John McClane isn’t a guy with superhuman abilities or great wisdom. He’s just a New York City cop with police-officer skills and a salty East Coast perspective. And he tosses a bag full of all that over his shoulder and flies off from New York to California on Christmas Eve.
Of course, it was those NYPD sensibilities that led to fly out to California in the first place. You see, his wife, Holly, had gotten a huge promotion with the Nakatomi Corporation. And that meant she had to move to the L.A. corporate office—a glittering glass-and-steel high rise. John, however, dug his heels in and refused to go.
So now, if he’s going to see his estranged wife and kids at Christmas (and hopefully keep Holly from becoming his ex-wife) a California vacation is his only holiday choice.
For all of his disdain for Califoolya, he had to admit the limo that Nakatomi Corp sent to pick him up at the airport was kinda sweet. And the corporate office was pretty impressive, too. And when he finally connected with Holly at the lavish company office party, things didn’t go too badly. Sure, they argued a little. But she even invited him to stay at her house and have Christmas with the kids.
In fact, while John’s washing up in a very well-appointed executive bathroom and wriggling his bare toes in the room’s deep-pile carpet (a jet-lag cure that some guy on the plane had suggested), John is thinking some relatively positive thoughts.
That’s when the automatic gunfire starts.
John bolts out into the hallway, with no shirt, bare feet and his service revolver, to spot a dozen or more heavily armed men. He can’t get into a gunfight with these odds and survive, so he slips into hiding before they spot him.
Are they terrorists? High-tech thieves? Hired killers?
John doesn’t have a clue. And he soon finds out that he doesn’t have a lot of options either. The phone lines have all been cut, and the elevators to the lobby are turned off. All he has are a handful of bullets and … all those East Coast cop sensibilities of his.
Hopefully, this time they’ll help him make some good decisions.
John McClane doesn’t come off as an unstoppable superhero in this pic. And in a way, that’s a positive aspect of the film. He’s simply an average guy, an average cop, straining, working and bleeding in an effort to save the defenseless innocents being held at gunpoint. As the film progresses, he’s battered and wounded for his heroic efforts, but he still struggles forward for the good of others.
John’s wife, Holly, strives to help John and others, too. She doesn’t grab a gun, but she puts herself in harm’s way to care for her fellow prisoners.
It’s also obvious that the McClane’s love each other, despite the marital strife they’ve been experiencing. (John notes, “She is the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me.”) And they both love their kids dearly. But they find themselves in a difficult job situation that creates a great deal of understandable strain. The end of the film suggests they might find a way to work through that conflict.
John also makes a connection with an L.A. cop named Al. Al not only helps John and the innocent captives, he puts himself on the line, refusing to leave the area even when ordered to.
We hear one passing reference to knowing when it’s time to pray.
An office door is thrown open, catching a couple from the Christmas party who were being sexually intimate. We see them scamper off with their clothes in hand and the camera catches sight of the woman’s fully naked torso.
Later John comes across some pin-up pictures featuring naked women in different poses. One larger picture featuring a topless model is prominent. He runs across the same pin-ups again a few scenes later, commenting and tapping that model’s chest.
After his plane first lands, John spots and lightly ogles a blonde woman in very tight clothing who jumps up and wraps her legs around an arriving passenger. Elsewhere in the story, we hear a number of quips and smarmy statements made (by John and others) that have a sexual overtone.
While looking for help outside. John spots a woman in her underwear in an apartment or office window across the way.
John and Holly kiss.
Not only does nearly every bit of scenery here get blown up or ripped to shreds by gunfire, but the movie’s characters tend to share the same fate. There are gun fights and a parade of hand-to-hand battles between John and a bunch of the different criminal thugs. They battle, slam, choke, kick, cut and bloody one another mercilessly.
John, for instance, gets battered and slammed about, leaving his face cut and bleeding. He crawls over glass, removing large shards from his bloodied feet. He tumbles down an elevator shaft, grabbing desperately for a ledge. He’s shot. He leaps off a building top. Etc. John begins the action sequences of the story with bare feet and a white t-shirt and ends up shirtless and covered in bleeding gashes from head to toe.
People are shot with pistol fire and automatic weapons. A dozen or so are killed, several via point-blank shots to the head and a bloody splash. Other victims are riddled with bullets and left to writhe on the ground in pain. One guy is hung by a chain wrapped around his neck. Another lackey falls face first into plate glass, shattering it. A couple of people fall from several stories up to splat to the ground. We only see one of them hit below, the body smashing into a car window.
Thugs shoot an armored car with guided missiles, leaving the vehicle and its occupants ablaze. A high-rise rooftop is detonated by hidden C-4 charges, erupting in a huge explosion that also takes down a nearby helicopter. Similar plastic explosives are also thrown down an elevator shaft, resulting in a massive explosion that takes out an entire floor of a large building and its occupants.
FBI agents swoop in with a heavily armed helicopter, planning to shoot the criminals. They estimate that 20-to-25% of the innocent captives may die, too. “I can live with that,” one of the agents says. In fact, the crooks planned to use those innocents as human shields all along, killing them all. (That said, John saves many of the group.)
The movie’s dialogue is riddled with profanity almost as much as the scenery is riddled with bullets. There are more than 40 f-words and some 20 s-words, along with a handful of uses each of “a–hole,” “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” and “h—.” God’s and Jesus’ names are both abused a total of 18 times (with God being paired with “d–n” six times). There are also crude references to male genitals.
This late-’80s film had no qualms about its characters smoking profusely. Many of the thugs in the attacking group, the police, local reporters and the FBI agents smoke. And John himself chain-smokes throughout.
One of Holly’s coworkers snorts cocaine several times. People drink champagne and mixed drinks at the Nakatomi Christmas party.
The film doesn’t look kindly upon some L.A. police officers, two FBI agents or the media. All three groups tend to be completely arrogant and self-serving here. In one example, for instance, a zealous reporter uses John and Holly’s frightened kids as a means to get airtime. And by doing so, he puts Holly in direct danger.
People toss rude and crude comments at one another.
The debate still rages: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not? Well, whatever you think, it’s definitely an action flick. And an influential one.
Let’s face it: Many chest-thumping action movies featured heavily muscled heroes long before Die Hard came along. But this particular actioner defined something of a new hard-driving formula when it was released back in 1988. And many movies since then have followed it’s template. It features an everyman hero who hangs on by his bloody fingernails (and lacerated feet) as he singlehandedly takes on a slew of heavily armed baddies through quick wits and grit.
From a purely dramatic and aesthetics-focused perspective, this John McTiernan-directed flick is impressive. It has a steaming-locomotive pace and tightly crafted twists and turns that grab the audience by the throat until they gasp. (Die Hard also catapulted lead Bruce Willis into the A-list action hero ranks for pretty much the rest of his career.)
Of course, if any of the above things (or maybe that Christmas movie nod) pique your interest, you should also know that Die Hard’s cinematic stocking is chock full of messy content coal. There’s a topless woman, nude pinups and smarmy male quips scattered about. The hero chain-smokes through several packs of cigs without batting an eye (or, somehow, losing any breath). There’s an abundance of bloody deadliness and smoking rubble destruction, and enough profane language here to leave any respectable reindeer blushing.
Oh, and regarding the infamous question of whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, Bruce Willis expressed his opinion in 2018.
“Die Hard is not a Christmas movie,” he declared. “It’s a go-d–n Bruce Willis movie!”
And that profane assessment sums things up in a number of ways
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.