Happy Trails, Hans
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, motherf***er?
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.
Not So Fast
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."
Killing Karl: The Al Powell Redemption Story
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?
Limo Ride to Marital Bliss
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?