Looking back now, it seems strange to think that there was a time when people weren't sure if Die Hard was going to be a hit. Bruce Willis was a television star looking to make a jump to the big screen (which doesn't always work out -- just ask David Caruso ... ) and it was a summer action movie with a Christmas setting. Of course, we all know how things turned out -- Willis went on to become a huge box office draw and Die Hard turned into a franchise with four films completed and a fifth potentially on the way. The original is still the best -- filled with unforgettable characters and classic scenes.
Die Hard may be a film known for its over-the-top action and witty one-liners, but one of my favorite scenes is the complete opposite. Willis' cop character John McClane is running around the Nakatomi Building, which has been taken over by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman. Huzzah!) and his band of Euro-thieves. Gruber would probably be content to let McClane run around uncaptured if not for one thing: McClane has his detonators. Gruber's plan involves blowing up the roof of the Nakatomi Building with lots of C-4 explosives, but it won't work if he doesn't have the devices to trigger the explosions. McClane comes into possession of them early in the film when he kills the terrorist/thief who was responsible for carrying them. What follows is a tense game of cat-and-mouse between the suave criminal and the street-smart cop.
Things come to a head near the middle of Die Hard, when McClane and Gruber finally meet face to face. Gruber has left the comfy office where he oversees the operation to check on the roof explosives for himself. While doing this, he runs into a machine gun-carrying McClane. Gruber knows who McClane is instantly, but we don't know if the cop knows that his arch nemesis is standing right in front of him or not. McClane introduces himself and director John McTiernan cuts to a close-up of Gruber's face. His expression conveys more than a page of description could as he knows he's being tested. Gruber says his name is Bill Clay, which conveniently happens to be a name on the building's office directory.
McClane asks Gruber if he knows how to use a gun and hands him a pistol and starts to walk away. Now armed, Hans drops the facade and calls -- in German -- for his crew to come to his aid. There's a standoff between the two men and McClane walks toward Gruber, who's got the gun pointed at him. It's a tense moment, and finally Gruber pulls the trigger -- only to discover the gun is empty. McClane has Hans right where he wants him, but before he can do anything, the elevator dings and Hans' men burst in with heavy weaponry. In the gun battle, McClane loses the detonators, but escapes with his life -- at great cost to his bare feet.
The best part of this particular scene is that it's the first time we get to see John and Hans together. Prior to this point, any scenes involving both actors are handled with dialogue through walkie-talkies. We spend a great deal of time imagining what it's going to be like when these two finally do cross paths, but McTiernan subverts our expectations by giving us not the all-out fight to the death action scene we were anticipating (although it seems unlikely that Hans would ever engage in that in the first place), but instead something much more subtle.
We learn a lot about both characters during the course of this scene. Hans is every bit as clever as we've been led to believe. His quick thinking when asked his name and the hiding of his accent tells us he can adapt on the fly. He has a master plan at work for the heist in Die Hard, but he's prepared to deal with any unexpected events that arise as well. McClane, meanwhile, shows that he's not just some marginally intelligent cop. He's every bit as cunning as Hans in this sequence, and at the conclusion we believe that the two adversaries are nearly equals. We still think McClane is outmatched by Hans, but we start to believe Willis' character actually has a chance. Hans is one of the greatest film villains to ever grace a screen and proves that creating an unforgettable adversary is just as important as a strong hero. The interplay between these two characters is not only what makes this scene so good, but what makes Die Hard one of the best action movies of all time.