Though unmistakably a product of its time, it represented a significant departure from its contemporaries. Most 80s action flicks tended to come in one of four flavours: Spy/Cold War narratives (the James Bond franchise), soldier/ex-soldier stories (First Blood, Delta Force), sci-fi (Alien, Terminator), or buddy cop (48 Hrs).
Die Hard didn’t conform to any of these, yet in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – it became the most influential action film of the decade, spawning so many knockoffs that it practically qualifies as a subgenre all its own.
The 1990s recycled Die Hard over and over again, serving it up Sam-I-Am style in every conceivable location: on a plane, on a train, on a trip and a ship, in the snow and the ice, in a school with a fool… well, you get the idea.* And that’s not even counting the sequels: Die Harder, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Die Already, Why Won’t You Just Die (or some such… I lost track after a while.)
Much the same could be said of the film’s iconic baddie, Hans Gruber, played by the inimitable Alan Rickman.
Trawl the internet for “greatest all time movie villains” and you’ll find him again and again, sometimes at the very top of the list. At first that might seem puzzling – isn’t he kind of the standard action movie villain? – but that’s just the point. He is the standard: the gold standard against which all comers are judged, not necessarily the first but unquestionably the best, and Hollywood has been trying to recreate him ever since. So much so that when Rickman passed away last January, the tributes flooding the internet overwhelmingly singled out Hans Gruber among all his roles – pretty amazing when you consider the man’s body of work. (Severus Snape, anybody? Colonel Brandon? Or my personal favourite, the Sheriff of Nottingham?)
So what’s Gruber’s secret?
It’s tempting to give all the credit to Rickman, but that would be to overlook the vision of producer Joel Silver and director John McTiernan. After all, they cast Rickman – a stage actor who had yet to appear on the big screen – after seeing his turn as the Vicomte de Valmont in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. That’s right: they cast the bad guy of a testosterone-fuelled action flick on the strength of his portrayal of a suave French aristocrat. Not just any French aristocrat, mind you, but one of the most notorious seducers in all of literature. That speaks volumes, I think, about their intent for Gruber. They weren’t looking for your run-of-the-mill action movie villain. They wanted a Valmont: seductive, debonair, and cruelly calculating. And boy howdy, did they get him. From the moment he strides on screen – cool and purposeful, collar turned up, the unmistakable alpha of his gun-toting pack – it’s clear we’re dealing with a different breed of baddie. One who quotes Plutarch and can spot a Saville Row suit at a hundred paces.
His first line, “Ladies and gentlemen,” is delivered with the weary disdain of a high school principal calling his unruly students to order. He then consults his little black notebook as if to make sure he’s got his heists straight. (“Which one is this? Oh, yes – Nakatomi. And then we have squash, chess club, and the Bank of America vault at seven.”) His detached manner makes him all the more chilling, suggesting not only a casual disregard for human life but a certain boredom with the whole affair, as if he does this sort of thing every day.
Which, if the meticulousness of his planning is anything to go by, maybe he does. He certainly knows how to play every piece on his chessboard, from the unfortunate Mr. Takagi to the police to the FBI. The only one not dancing to his tune is the wise-cracking hero, John McClane, and really, we can’t blame Gruber for that; how was he supposed to know Holly’s ex would be in the building? So thorough is Gruber’s mastery of the details – he recites Takagi’s entire CV from memory – we’re left with the impression that if Holly hadn’t reverted to her maiden name, Gruber would somehow have planned for John McClane too.
And speaking of McClane, another bit of genius from the filmmakers is the relationship between hero and villain. From his first few lines, Gruber establishes himself as the perfect foil for Willis’s blue collar cop. In case the visuals aren’t enough – contrast Gruber’s suit and shiny Oxfords with McClane’s bare feet and grimy undershirt, or the way Gruber spends much of the film behind an opulent desk, calm and in control, while McClane blunders through crude, unfinished floors of the building – Gruber ticks just about every box on the Thinking Man’s membership application, name-dropping Yasser Arafat, citing 60 Minutes, Time, and Forbes, and whistling Beethoven in the elevator. McClane, meanwhile, is the archetypal Doing Man, making a list of his own as he “waxes” henchman after henchman.
Not that they don’t have anything in common. Gruber isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when he needs to, and he’s every bit as resourceful as McClane, whether it’s putting on an American accent to masquerade as a hostage or shooting out glass partitions to make things difficult for his bare-footed nemesis. He’s quite the all-rounder, really.
Oh, and Alan Rickman.
Never has one man played so many glorious villains with such relish. That sonorous voice, Darth Vader without need of a mask. That subtle sneer that says, I’m smarter than you and we both know it. The expressiveness of his eyes, the starchy dignity of his bearing…
Yes, I’m crushing. What of it?
I’m not the only one. All of Hollywood wanted more of Rickman after Die Hard. His career took flight – as did the knockoffs. Suddenly, casting a True Thespian as the villain in an action movie was de rigeur. Gary Oldman, John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper, and Jeremy Irons took their turns, among others. It’s tempting to think Rickman single-handedly convinced Hollywood to up its game. If that’s going too far, we can surely agree that he made the case more eloquently than any other.
But before you start thinking I’ve gone soft, I give you The Machine.
Strengths: Brains, patience, and a virtually unflappable temperament. A meticulous planner, but also thinks on his feet. More than anything, he’s a consummate con man, adopting whatever guise is required to lull his enemies into a sense of complacency before he strikes.
Weaknesses: Honestly, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific weakness. Sure, he ends up plummeting thirty stories to a grisly death, but right up until that very moment it looks like he might actually win. If he does have a weakness, it’s overreach: he tries to control a situation that simply has too many variables, and it results in his downfall. Literally.
Best Quote: “I’m going to count to three. There will not be a four.”
Lair: Though he only makes a temporary home of the Nakatomi building, he occupies that corner office like a throne room, ruling his skyscraper from the comfort of his leather chair. 2 points.
Toys: Some guns and C4. Meh. 0 points.
Henchmen: Not only does he have loads of them, they’re all pretty capable. Plus, unusually, he treats them with dignity and respect, more like colleagues than underlings. 6 points.
Intimidation factor: Gruber relies more on charm and guile than intimidation. 1 point.
Schemes - Scope: $640 million in bearer bonds. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1.3 billion. Pretty ballsy. 4 points.
Schemes - Complexity: Hans is running an elaborate con here, manipulating everyone so effectively that he actually uses the FBI to his advantage. 6 points.
Overall Badass Rating: 19
As always, if there’s a villain you’d like to see put through The Machine, let us know in the comments!
Next month: The White Witch!
*Air Force One, Under Siege, The River Wild, Under Siege 2, Cliffhanger, Sudden Death, and Toy Soldiers, if you’re keeping track.