Hans Gruber Is Not Your Average Terrorist…
… Mainly because he's not a terrorist at all. When the siege of Nakatomi Plaza begins in earnest, and we see Hans addressing his hostages, he goes off on a rant about the Nakatomi Corporation's corporate greed. At this point, we all think we're in for your standard terrorist-villain-driven-by-zealotry fare.
But as he starts to question poor Mr. Takagi in the fancy-schmancy boardroom, we begin to realize that this may not be about principles after all. Dude just wants some dough. As Holly so saucily puts it later in the movie, he's "nothing but a common thief."
The twist in Gruber's motives is one of the many ways in which he stays one step ahead of the police. While he's got them running around in circles, trying to free members of the Asian Dawn and their ilk, he's busy commanding his crony to crack the Nakatomi vault's fabled seventh seal. It's a clever bit of misdirection, don't you think?
Dapper Dan with a Degree
That cleverness is exactly what sets Hans Gruber apart from your garden-variety villain. He's no oaf with an uzi. He's a well-dressed, well educated, straight up suave gentleman. When he steps out of the back of that Pacific Courier truck to begin wreaking havoc at Nakatomi Plaza, he oozes cool: he's got the collar of his coat turned up like some sort of film noir hero, and he walks with a sense of steady purpose. Everyone around him is busy carrying gear or loading weapons, while he just waltzes in like he owns the place.
And soon enough, he does.
In the first half of the movie, Gruber drives the plot with a sense of steady, sinister calm. He proceeds slowly, smoking out Mr. Takagi by simply walking through the crowd of hostages, coolly reciting Takagi's personal information. And he's cold-blooded, too, gunning down Mr. Takagi while seated at the boardroom table as if the poor guy's merely one half of a doomed business meeting. Gruber is, in a word, unflappable.
He's also stylish as all get-out. He's wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and clearly knows his haberdasheries. When he compliments Takagi on his suit, he namedrops Arafat and his tailor as if it's no big thing he shares the same suitmaker as the onetime Chairman of the PLO. We'd like to think that if Gruber were a little nicer, and a little less criminal, he'd be a member of the Finer Things Club. And if he were a member of the Finer Things Club, we bet Gruber would be super into the book discussions. How many über-villains do you know who quote Plutarch? As he explains it, them's the "benefits of a classical education."
The Customer Loses His Cool
Gruber's steady-as-a-rock façade slowly slips away as the movie progresses. Each time McClane manages to one-up Hans and his henchmen—from sending Tony's dead body down the elevator in a Santa hat, to getting the police involved by launching Marco out the window and onto Al Powell's police car—Gruber starts to get a little hot under that popped collar.
Sure, he may still be sitting behind a desk in the corner office, cocky as can be. And he may spend much of the first half of the movie encouraging his livid lackeys to keep their cool. But there's no denying McClane is getting under his skin. As the movie approaches its climax, we see the physical evidence of this descent into flappability:
- He yells, finally.
- He shoots a gun wildly into the air when he grabs Holly.
- He goes a bit ballistic when she calls him "a common thief."
Common? Who you callin' common? He's "an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane."
P.S. For more on Gruber's highbrow-boy to McClane's cowboy, see "What's Up with the Ending?" And for more on their relationship, see "Character Roles."