Ever heard of Chekhov's gun? It's a those-in-the-know literary term for the idea that, if you see a gun in the first act of a story, it's gonna go off in the third.
We've got a bit of a Chekhov's gun situation here in Die Hard, although we don't have to wait until the third act to hear it go off. We see McClane's gun in the very first scene of the movie, when his seatmate spots it poking out of his jacket and is understandably alarmed. We have to wait a long twenty minutes or so for that gun to go off, but once it does, all hell breaks loose. Guns, guns, everywhere. And his Beretta gets plenty of action.
But it's the last shot that counts.
John McClane's sidearm is with him throughout the entire movie. Sure, he hands it to Hans for a brief moment (but he's removed the bullets, so it's all good). And sure, McClane sets it aside on occasion in favor of the occasional machine gun, but it's clear that his Beretta is as trusty a sidekick as Sergeant Al Powell.
Once we see McClane's sidearm on the airplane, we'd be foolish not to notice the foreshadowing. But as the movie progresses and we see that McClane is going to be firing his weapon quite a bit, what we're really waiting for is the most significant shot of all: the showdown with Hans Gruber at movie's end.
McClane's only got two bullets left, and, as luck would have it, two bad guys to take down. But he knows he can't just waltz in there and blow them away—both Hans and his henchmen are armed, after all, plus, they've got Holly. So McClane cleverly tapes his loaded Beretta to his back as a ruse to make Hans think he's got the upper hand. And what do you know? It works. (For more on this, check out "What's Up With the Ending?")
Because McClane's gun is basically McClane, in gun form.
Allow us to explain. A Beretta 92F is a perfectly fine weapon. We're sure it serves John very well in the NYPD. But it's no rocket launcher. Much as John is no match for Gruber's well-oiled crime machine, his Beretta is no match for all the crazy weapons that Gruber brings to the party. Basically, he brought a handgun to a warzone.
Both McClane and his sidearm get the best of the bad guys precisely because they're both so underestimated. In the climactic scene, Gruber thinks he's got the drop on McClane as soon as he makes McClane put down his big, scary machine gun. But little does he know, McClane's got his trusty Beretta—with just enough bullets of course—to get the job done, once and for all. The lesson here? Sometimes all it takes is an everyman, with his everyman weapon, to slay the suave dragon. Underestimate McClane at your own peril.
"It's a Rolex."
… Just in case you were wondering.
Holly is so good at her fancy job that she receives a swanky gold Rolex from Nakatomi's resident cad, Harry Ellis. The watch first appears in a brief scene at the beginning of the movie, when Harry is introduced to John McClane. Smarmy as ever, he wants to assert some ownership over Holly's career accomplishments, so he tells her to show McClane the watch.
Holly's clearly uncomfortable with the whole thing—probably because she knows McClane isn't the type to go nuts over a chunk of gold jewelry—so she just says "maybe later." Harry's none too pleased.
We don't hear anything about the watch for the rest of the movie, until the climactic scene where McClane finally confronts Gruber. McClane gets the drop on Gruber, and sends him flying out the high-rise window with a mere shot from a handgun. Unfortunately, Gruber is still clinging to Holly, who he was using as a human shield. As he falls out the window, he takes her with him, grabbing onto—you guessed it—the watch. John unhooks it, and off Gruber goes.
What's all this mean?
Think about it. Holly receives the watch from pretty much the worst guy in the movie who isn't a criminal mastermind. And the whole reason he gives it to her is because she's really good at making the company money. In a weird way, it's Harry Ellis's way of staking claim on Holly and her successes.
And then, at the end of the movie, the watch is literally the only thing keeping Hans Gruber—pretty much the greediest guy ever—alive. Once Holly ditches the watch, Gruber's gone for good, and his plot to steal $640 million in bearer bonds goes with him. In a movie that celebrates the everyman—not the Wall Street man—there's just no way that gold Rolex could survive the night.
Congratulations. You're about to read an in-depth discussion of the world's dirtiest undergarment: John McClane's tank top. Y'all, this tank top goes through the ringer.
For reference, check out this shot of McClane at the beginning of the movie. His tank top is blissfully white—perfectly untarnished. And this is what it looks like by the end of the movie. It seems McClane has found some time to take a fully clothed mud bath during the Nakatomi siege. (N.B. Technically, by the end of the movie, the tank top is so far gone that McClane is actually shirtless, using the tank top as a bandage for his bloody feet.)
This poor, poor tank top's descent into dirtiness parallels John's arc in the movie. The more beleaguered our Mr. McClane gets, the grosser his tank top appears. As he shimmies through air ducts, hurls himself out of windows, and shoots bad guys, he's bound to get a stain or two or twenty. For every lick he takes, the tank top takes two.
The tank top similarly highlights McClane's vulnerability. When Gruber and his henchmen take over, John's busy washing up in the bathroom, utterly unprepared for cowboy cop mode. He's half dressed and barefoot. We wouldn't call that battle gear. The dirtier his tank top gets, the more vulnerable he is in the movie. And finally, he sheds that tank top in his most vulnerable moment of all—when he's hiding out in the bathroom, nursing his bloody feet and pouring his heart out to Al Powell.
P.S. Fun fact: A while back, Bruce Willis donated the tank top he wore in the movie (or, more likely, one of many) to the Smithsonian. Now that's some culture worth preserving.
They're everything a growing boy needs.
Twinkies make their first appearance when we meet Sergeant Al Powell. He's at a convenience story, buying so many Twinkies you'd think they're being discontinued. He swears they're for his wife but the store clerk—and we, for that matter—know better.
We see Twinkies again when John McClane spits one out in a rare quiet moment. It's old, and we're guessing he's not as into the whipped-cream filling as Al is. Still, the mention of the snack gives Powell and McClane a chance to bond and banter, helping to solidify their friendship. Al recites the ingredients from memory (proof, perhaps, that those earlier Twinkies were most definitely not for his wife?), and soon enough the men are talking about their kids.
It's also worth noting that Twinkies aren't the classiest of desserts. They're not something Wolfgang Puck would serve at Spago (where, presumably, Richard Thornburg is headed later). They're an everyman snack, built for everymen like McClane and Powell. They're the workingman's treat.
Let's flip the script for a moment.
Die Hard is obviously John McClane's movie. He's the hero of the story. He vanquishes the villain and lands the girl. But we can't forget that while he's running, climbing, and hurling through Nakatomi Plaza, Hans is also on a bit of a quest himself.
It may not be honorable, but Mr. Gruber really wants what's in that vault. And there are a whole lot of obstacles and tests along the way (which Theo handily takes care of—for the most part). So while McClane is questing for his wife, Gruber is questing for his dough. It may be less noble, but it's no less essential to him. Just check out the soundtrack when he finally gets it open: total triumph.
Gruber's cracking into the vault is paced in such a way that it parallels McClane's quest to take down Gruber and save Holly. They're both on simultaneous Hero's Journeys. It's just that McClane is actually a hero, and Gruber is, well, not.
So it makes sense that even though Gruber achieves his objective—he gets into the vault and packs up his bearer bonds—he's thwarted in the end. Being decidedly not a hero, he doesn't get the happy ending of a typical hero's journey. Nope, he gets hurled off a high-rise instead.
P.S. Did the Nakatomi vault throw you off your thriller game? That's because it's a MacGuffin. That's the point.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Every ordinary world needs an everyman, and we meet ours—Officer John McClane—in a state of relative vulnerability. He's on a plane, and clearly not enjoying himself. He's also got a marriage on the rocks, and a very awkward Christmas holiday with his wife and kids ahead of him.
There's no better call to adventure than machine-gun fire. When McClane hears Gruber and his terrorists take over the party, he immediately swings into cowboy cop mode, armed only with his Beretta and bare feet.
John McClane may seem pretty invincible, but at the beginning of the movie, he's not exactly Rambo. In fact, he spends much of the first half hour or so simply hiding from the baddies and trying to get the cops involved.
We wouldn't call Sergeant Al Powell a mentor—he's really more of a sidekick—but it's true that once John meets him, and gets him involved in the Nakatomi crisis, things start to turn around for our hero. Powell believes in him and helps him out as best he can from the ground.
Once he's got the police in on the game, McClane's got a new spring in his step. So he hails Hans on the radio, and that's when you know: McClane's in it to win it. The two exchange some witty, taunting banter, and McClane makes it clear that he's not going to back down until his wife's safe and Gruber's taken down.
Where to start? McClane evades and takes down several of Gruber's groupies throughout the rest of the movie. He also manages to blow up an entire floor of the building and make some enemies on the police force while he's at it. He even meets his ultimate enemy: Hans Gruber himself. Let's face it: much of the second half of the movie is simply McClane being McClane—kicking butt and taking names.
After his run-in with Gruber, McClane reaches a low point. He's bruised, bloody, and hiding in a bathroom. Here, while on the radio with Al Powell, he acknowledges that he's gonna stick with this thing, but he also admits that he's not entirely sure he'll make it through it. So he asks Powell to get a message to his wife.
In Die Hard, we've got a double ordeal. First, McClane has to take down Karl, who's out for blood and will stop at nothing less. It's a gruesome, brutal fight, but McClane manages to take him down, because, hey, he's angry, too.
Once McClane has defeated Karl—the last test in his way, you might say—he can move on to the real deal: getting his wife back from the clutches of Hans Gruber. He's outmanned, outgunned, and straight outta ammo. Still, he manages to outwit the villain, sending Gruber to a grisly death.
John's got Holly. And wasn't that really what this was all about anyway? Once McClane does away with Gruber—and manages to save his wife from being hurled off the building, too—the two share a kiss. It's not just any kiss, though—it's a sign that not only has McClane saved his wife's life, he's also saved their marriage.
When McClane and Holly emerge from the wreckage of Nakatomi Tower, he's finally able to meet Sergeant Al Powell face to face. Holly also introduces herself as Holly McClane, taking back his surname as a final indication that McClane's life is being restored to its former domestic bliss.
Oh Karl. That dude just won't die. He emerges from the crowd like some kind of evil blond dragon, rears his ugly head, and aims his gun right for McClane and his wife. Looks like McClane's brushes with death aren't quite over. But in a nice twist, it's not McClane's heroism that saves the day; it's Powell's.
"Merry Christmas, Argyle." Need we say more? The movie ends on an oh-so-happy note, with McClane and his wife smooching in the back of the limo as the jaunty tones of "Let it Snow" rise on the soundtrack. His final reward? Marital bliss. He's home for the holidays.
We never thought we'd feel sorry for a building, but boy do our hearts go out to poor Nakatomi Plaza. Over the course of the movie, the building gets blown up—twice. It's not having a good night.
Still, the building serves an incredibly important role in Die Hard. Almost all of the movie's events—except the first scene at the airport—take place in and around the building. It's a limited location that lends the movie a taut sense of purpose and vision. In fact, this choice to set a blockbuster in one single space spawned a whole slew of action movies in the late eighties and nineties that drew on this technique for inspiration:
By setting the movie in a single, contained location, Die Hard breaks away from the sweeping action movies of the late seventies and early eighties—films like Mad Max, Terminator, Rambo: First Blood, Commando—whose settings were much bigger in scope.
Still, despite ushering in a new era in action movie style and technique, Die Hard does pay homage to its predecessors in its setting. Roderick Thorp, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, found inspiration for its plot after watching The Towering Inferno, a 1974 disaster flick about an uncontrollable fire in a swanky skyscraper.
And the building itself—its interior structure and the way John McClane moves through it—takes its cues from guerrilla warfare flicks like Rambo and Red Dawn. According to Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie, by Eric Lichtenfeld, production designer Jackson DeGovia says it best:
When I first read the script, I saw a jungle maze. It reminded me of the book High Rise by J.G. Ballard, in which a modern building becomes a tribal battleground. I wanted to make a building where that kind of action could take place.
And, in a later interview:
When the building is a jungle, people revert to utter realism, which is savagery… There are entire sequences where McClane moves through the building not touching the floor, like a predator in a jungle.
McClane totally does move that way, doesn't he? He crawls through air ducts, swings from fire hoses, scrambles up staircases and crawls underneath tables. And he uses the setting to his benefit, taking advantage of the building's features to both escape the baddies (as when he climbs down the elevator shaft and into an air duct) and to take them out (as when he uses an industrial chain as an improvised noose on Karl).
He's a lot like Rambo, only his Vietnam is Nakatomi Plaza. Just think of that scene when he swings off the rooftop and back onto the building's 30th floor: he moves through waterfalls and plant life and dives underwater when there's a nearby explosion. Maybe there is something to Agent Johnson's earlier comment: "Just like fucking Saigon, eh, Slick?"
Nakatomi Plaza is played by the brand-spanking-new (in 1988, at least) Fox Plaza—a Fox-owned office building in Century City. When Die Hard was filming, it was still under construction, and the filmmakers were able to use that to great effect. Everything in the building is sleek and new, which underscores the corporate success of Takagi and his employees, while simultaneously befuddling John McClane. He progressively makes the building his own, though, destroying some of its sleekness with the rough-and-tumble methods of a New York cop.
The building's slick and swanky features point to Die Hard's interesting relationship with wealth. As viewers, we're allied with the working-class cops—McClane and Powell—and are disdainful of, even disgusted by, greedy characters like Harry Ellis and Hans Gruber. But perhaps the wealthiest of them all—Takagi—is seen as a noble figure, someone to admire and respect (as Holly clearly does). Die Hard questions greed—whether corporate or criminal—and celebrates the everyman. But it doesn't go too far. These were the 80s, after all.
While the movie may be set almost entirely at Nakatomi Plaza, the backdrop of the city of Los Angeles plays a key role, too, mainly in Die Hard's early scenes.
When John McClane arrives in Los Angeles, he seems pretty skeptical of the whole shebang. He sees a hot blonde in a skintight outfit fling herself on a man and just says, "California" (with an implied "sheesh!"). Then, when the limo arrives to pick him up, he sits in the front. It's a priceless sight gag, reminding us that when it comes to L.A., McClane is a fish out of water.
That is, until the sequel.
Clocking in at two hours and twelve minutes, Die Hard has quite a bit of story to tell. But the crazy thing is, most of the story happens in real time, with merely a few hours passing between John McClane's arrival at LAX and the final resolution of the hostage crisis. That's some taut storytelling right there.
Much as Die Hard makes use of its single, confined location to lend a little verve to the movie's pace, the narrow window of time forces the plotting to be both taut and a little frenetic. On paper, the movie might sound simple: terrorists take over a building, and a cowboy cop saves the day.
But Die Hard also weaves in subplots about the law enforcement politics on the ground, the reporters covering the story, and, of course, Argyle. These subplots help pace the movie and give it a sense of scope that its confined location may have otherwise denied it, as the narrative jumps among the three main settings—the Nakatomi offices, other sites in the building where John McClane and the terrorists are hard at work, and the scene on the ground, with all the local LEOs frantically trying to figure out what to do.
Still, it's not like Die Hard's screenwriters are pulling any fancy narrative tricks. Everything occurs chronologically, in almost real time, with no flashbacks or flash-forwards to be spoken of. So while the movie looks long on paper, its pace is designed to keep the forward momentum going.
Basically, you're on this ride 'til the end.
If you, like Shmoop, enjoy watching Die Hard over and over again, much to the annoyance of everyone else around you, then you've probably noticed the movie's meticulous attention to detail. One of the defining characteristics of Die Hard's narrative is the fact that tons of little details—whether lines said by a character or objects that get mentioned in passing—come back in some way. The movie sweats the small stuff.
Want a run-down? Oh, we're so glad you asked:
Holly's watch. It gets an early mention in an awkward moment and then becomes a pivotal object in the plot when Gruber clings to it as his last lifeline, while hanging from the top of Nakatomi Plaza. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more.)
John's teddy bear. We see John McClane haul a giant teddy bear—presumably a gift for his kids--down from the overhead compartment as he disembarks the plane at the beginning of the movie. That bear then sits in the back of Argyle's limo for the entire rest of the movie. Argyle even talks to the bear, when he thinks it's judging him for his inaction. Fun Fact: A very similar bear—also with a red bow—makes an appearance in John McTiernan's next movie, The Hunt for Red October, also on an airplane, when the protagonist brings it home for his daughter.
Tony's Zippo. After he kills Tony in the stairwell, John McClane searches his body for anything he can pilfer. He swipes Tony's Zippo lighter, which then makes a reappearance in the air duct scene, lighting John's way through the vent.
Twinkies. In a coincidence to beat all coincidences, John tries to eat a really old Twinkie while he's on the radio with Sergeant Al Powell, which gives Powell a chance to expound on his favorite snack's virtues. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more.)
The family portrait. When Holly overturns the family portrait prominently featuring John because she thinks he bailed on his flight to Los Angeles, she has no idea that, for much of the movie, this action keeps her safe. It's only when Gruber sees the McClane children on TV, and turns the portrait back over, that he knows who Holly really is: the cowboy's wife.
How can we put this clearly? Die Hard is probably the most important action movie of the late 20th-century. We're not exaggerating either. Its influence on the genre is visible everywhere, it's the first movie in a franchise that spans 25 years (and counting), and it singlehandedly redefined and rejuvenated the genre.
We guess you could say there's some romance in there—and perhaps even some comedy—but Die Hard is interested in one thing and one thing only: thrilling its audience with the kick butt antics of its central action hero.
We've got a question for you. Who dies harder: John McClane or Karl?
We're inclined to say Karl, simply because we had so written him off for dead when John leaves him dangling by the neck from a chain. And when he shows up again at the end, it's a pretty impressive moment of near-resurrection.
But let's get serious here. No one dies harder than John McClane. After all, dude. does. not. die. He gets blown and beat up six ways to Sunday. Check it out. McClane survives, in no particular order
So yeah, we think it's safe to say that John McClane dies hard. Hence, Die Hard.
For further proof, see all four sequels.
We know you know how influential the Die Hard franchise has been in the action movie world. And we know you know John McClane is a big part of that. A huge part of his appeal is that he's an everyman, an average Joe, who manages to withstand some pretty rough stuff, and who still rises to the occasion.
By the end of the movie, you might be thinking that John McClane seems, frankly, invincible. And that sense of invincibility only increases in the sequels, where the plots are forever upping the ante on the crazy stuff that he can survive. That one-upmanship drives the action movie genre to continue topping everything that comes before, a phenomenon that has more than a few detractors. In fact, it's this very phenomenon that has some folks arguing that John McClane dies a bit too hard, if you catch our drift.
Die Hard ends as it must: with Hans and McClane finally facing off, ready to put these shenanigans to bed, once and for all.
Of course it couldn't possibly be as easy as all that.
After McClane has rescued the hostages and rappelled off an exploding roof with a fire hose (NBD), he charges around the Nakatomi offices in search of his wife, Holly—who's stuck in the clutches of money-grubbing Hans Gruber.
McClane's not exactly in a position to go in, guns blazing. He's almost out of bullets (with exactly two left for his Beretta), he's been shot, and he's outmanned. Hans and his henchman Eddie are both alive and well.
How's he going to figure this out?
As McClane approaches Hans, Holly, and Eddie, he appears out of the smoke and sparks in such bad shape that a shocked Holly actually says, "Jesus." Hans grabs Holly to use her as a human shield, which gets John to put down the machine gun. But this is far from over. The two then exchange a rather revealing dialogue:
McClane: You got me.
Gruber: Still the cowboy, Mr. McClane. Americans, all alike. Well, this time, John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.
McClane: That was Gary Cooper, asshole.
Gruber: Enough jokes.
McClane: You'd have made a pretty good cowboy, yourself, Hans.
Gruber: Oh, yes. What was it you said to me before? Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker?
At this, the beaten and beleaguered John McClane can't help but laugh. He's got his hands up behind his head in the standard "I surrender" posture, but we know he's got a trick up his nonexistent sleeve. Just as Hans and Eddie join in his laughter, a bit unsure as to what's so funny, McClane pulls his Beretta—which was cleverly Christmas-taped behind his back—on the two baddies, shooting Eddie in the head and Hans in the chest. "Happy trails, Hans," he says.
Now there's a kiss-off.
Let's break this down. Gruber and McClane have returned to their subject of choice—Hollywood westerns. But once again, they're not quite on the same page. Hans attempts to reference High Noon, a famous western starring Grace Kelly and, of course, Gary Cooper, which ends in a similar standoff situation, with Gary Cooper's character taking on the baddies all by himself. But Hans gets the details wrong, mentioning John Wayne instead. John McClane, the cowboy cop, corrects him and insults him all at the same time.
See, Gruber may think he's on a high horse here. After all, "Americans, they're all alike." But McClane's right. And if you're gonna make a pop culture reference, you might as well be correct about it. That's Shmoop's motto, anyway. So McClane manages to make a bit of a fool of Hans in these final moments. Of course he makes an even bigger fool of him just moments later, what with that gun-taped-to-the-back ruse.
Here, the cowboy beats the fancypants; high culture beats low. And a wee bit of good old-fashioned American ingenuity beats all the careful plans Gruber has laid out. In fact, McClane's been improvising this whole movie. Gruber? Not so much. This High Noon moment is the final proof that winging it for good is far better than scheming for evil. Victory goes to the toughest—not the best dressed.
And just to rub salt in Gruber's wounds, McClane gives him one last snark: "Happy trails, Hans." How perfect. "Happy Trails" is, in fact, Roy Rogers's signature song. Once again, McClane takes up the mantle of the down-home, rough-and-tumble western hero, and wears it with pride.
Ah, but there's just one problem. Hans isn't actually dead. At least, not yet. As he goes flying out the window from the gunshot to the chest, we can't forget that he's still hanging onto poor Holly, so she goes flying, too. As Hans falls, he drags her with him, until he's left dangling from her wrist.
In slow motion, we see Hans turn up towards Holly and John. We see John desperately trying to free Holly from Hans's grip. Hans slowly turns his gun toward them, until finally, John manages to send him to his death once and for all.
How? By unhooking Holly's fancy new Rolex, of course. To see what we have to say about that little detail, check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory."
So it's all good, right? Hans is dead. Holly's free. McClane's a little worse for wear, maybe, but he's still truckin'. What's there to worry about now but who's gonna stuff the stockings for the kiddos in the morning?
Karl. That's what.
When Karl emerges from that blanket, all blond and bloody and bat-crap crazy, it's no longer McClane's moment to shine. He dives to protect Holly, sure, but he's pretty done being the hero. This time, it's Sergeant Al Powell who gets a shot at glory. He blows Karl away with five shots from his six-shooter, finally proving for once and for all that he's over his past mistake (for more on this, see our "Character" analysis for Powell).
The moment is also a neat way to give Die Hard some storytelling symmetry. John McClane's trusty sidekick—the Pal to his Roy—vanquishes Hans Gruber's most lethal henchman. How's that for a neat narrative bow?
Not to be outdone, Holly McClane also gets her day in the sun. Her big moment arrives when Richard Thornburg sticks his mic in John's face, wanting to know all about the ordeal. Recognizing him as the cad who endangered her children by putting them on TV, Holly socks him right in the kisser.
It's a triumphant moment for the movie's key female character, and it makes sense for her to be riding high. After all, she's just reunited with her estranged husband, taken back his last name, and is about to bring him home for the holidays. Despite that whole hostage situation thingy, it's a good day for Holly.
As John and Holly hop in the back of Argyle's beat up limousine, we hear the familiar tones of "Let It Snow." And what do you know? It is snowing. Or at least, it's as close to snowing as you can get in Los Angeles: hundreds of pieces of paper are floating down from Nakatomi Plaza's upper floors, a lovely, jolly effect of a rather destructive explosion. How's that for Christmas spirit?
Hmm. Let's see:
Yeah, we'd say that earns it an R.