What's the definition of a "Christmas movie?" Is it a simple matter of setting in time, a more complex question of tone, an ineffable connection to the Christmas spirit? I can't answer that, but I can tell you one thing.
Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
It's bloody, brutal and base; it's punchy, puckish and profane ... and it's unequivocally a Christmas movie, or it wouldn't be in the rotation at my house -- and, I suspect, some of yours -- every December as reliably as it is, nor would that annual process of returning to my mind seem as welcome as it is. Normally, in a piece about a film, here's where I'd recap the plot, but seriously, do you need one here? Have you been in cryogenic suspension? Are you leaving the Amish faith after 20 years and figured you'd turn to the internets to catch up? It's Die Hard. You know the plot. And if you need a refresher, go watch it. Right now. We'll be here when you get back.
Many film fans will dismiss or deny Die Hard; after all, it inspired so many ham-handed follow-ups. But we don't blame Nirvana for Nickelback. You can hear the development meetings and pitch sessions that led to Under Siege, The Rock, Toy Soldiers, Hard Rain, Passenger 57 and too many lesser copycat action films in your head: "Just put one cool guy in one place with a bunch of bad guys -- how tough can it be?" Well, the answer seems to be: Real tough. In fact, hard. There are a plethora of action films that followed in Die Hard's footsteps, but the great irony is that even as a movie where our hero is crucially without footwear, Die Hard swaggers in a pair big boots that have proven damn difficult to fill.
It's also worth noticing that the Christmastime setting of Die Hard doesn't just hang on the film like a shiny decoration but is instead the root and trunk of it. Die Hard takes everything we hate about Christmas -- long-haul travel, awkward family interactions, tedious company parties -- and puts Bruce Willis's working-class hero John McClane through them, too. He's experiencing what we experience - and when his holiday hell goes ballistic, we're along for the ride thanks to that brief, brisk sympathy-generating tactic by screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Sousa.
And Stuart may not work as much these days as he did in his heyday, and de Sousa may be working too much, but let's be honest: If you write Die Hard, you have your legacy. Die Hard isn't just blessed with an iron-strong story (and some credit must go to novelist Roderick Thorpe), it's also structurally perfect -- it's fast but you can follow it, it keeps the rules it sets, and our villain (Alan Rickman, in the first outing of the poison purr that would make him a star) is a truly worthy adversary. And while the Christmas setting is intrinsic to the film, it also provides a certain degree of flash, from Rickman's sherry-dry reading of the line "'Ho, Ho, Ho ... Now I have a machine gun ... " to the fact that the vent-crawling McClane pretty much spends a lot of the movie coming down the chimney.
And if you still doubt that Die Hard is a Christmas film, ask yourself: What's Christmas about? Family? McClane's only trying to stop Gruber's crew to save his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia, a perfect piece of casting). Pausing to remember the things that really matter? McClane does that, too -- with a scene in a blood-spattered bathroom that did a lot to make Willis a star. Giving? Well, uh, John McClane gives plenty of beatings - and while they're crunchy, cruel packages for all involved (including the viewer; I still wince during Die Hard's brutal hand-to-hand fights), director John McTiernan, cinematographer Jan DeBont and stunt coordinator Charlie Piecerni always craft them exquisitely.
And while Die Hard may not mesh with the public myth of Christmas as a time of peace and cheer -- the superego version of Christmas, if you will -- it very much speaks to the Christmas id. No, you can't elbow that person who shoved you at Target -- but watching Bruce Willis and Alexander Goudunov go at it like two angry cats in a sack helps with that tension a little bit, even as the film's finale brings us back to family, turning rage into redemption, homicide into happiness. And what could be better at the holidays than a little vulgar, visceral venting in the face of chaos and conformist cheer? No, it's not A Christmas Carol or It's A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story, but I'll always have a place in my DVD player in December for Die Hard, because a truly great action film is in itself a gift that keeps on giving: Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good fight!