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To call Die Hard influential would be an understatement as the film introduced not only a new kind of genre but a new kind of hero, an everyman character who completely changed the definition. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a tough street cop with a troubled marriage who travels West to try and patch things up, a challenge enough as it is, but when he arrives and finds the building overrun by a gang of machine-gun totting terrorists looking to steal the contents of the building’s vaults, he’s almost in over his head. Almost.
Directed by John McTiernan, the first in a long series that has grown more absurd with each iteration, the original keeps the reality mostly in tact and spends more time on developing McClane as a genuine guy in an impossible situation, which really makes the character much more identifiable. Up against a truly chilling adversary in Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), McClane is not a superhero but rather an average cop trying to keep himself, his wife, and the rest of the hostages alive the best way he can. While other characters detract from the experience, most especially a pair of FBI agents and the Deputy Chief of Police who all act and speak like they were given a script from a different movie, it’s not enough to mar this classic showdown movie that only gets better with age.
Well into the action, Gruber and his team have successfully taken control of the building and are holding all the hostages in the lobby on an upper floor. McClane has managed to not only elude capture but also get involved, causing a lot trouble, including killing a few of the terrorists (who are really just thieves) and acquiring a machine gun. He’s also contacted the police and is gaining an upper hand. Meanwhile, Gruber’s plan is to rig the roof of the building to blow, killing all the hostages and allowing he and his men to escape in the confusion below. With his men slowly becoming incapacitated, he heads up to the top floor by himself to check the explosives. It’s there that he runs into an exhausted, beaten down but still sturdy and well-armed John McClane. It seems he’s caught, but Gruber is not about to let this be the end. Figuring McClane doesn’t know who he is, he feigns fear and pretends to be an employee of the building who was able to get away, changing his accent from the German we’ve heard to a more Southern American. It works, and it’s not long before McClane has him on his side and even gives him a gun.
To this point, we’ve seen McClane demonstrate skills and abilities that have proven to the audience that his place in this story is earned. These clever and resourceful moments have been instrumental in developing the character and in assuring us of his eventual success. Each hurdle he’s faced, he’s overcome, even if some have come at great expense. That is the reason he is so endearing. On the other hand, all we’ve seen Gruber do is sit behind a desk and give orders. He’s vicious to be sure, having killed a very important man already (and one not so important), but menace is not enough to make him the bad guy we want. We need to see him in action, and this meeting is very important in establishing, if only for a short time, the kind of enemy McClane is really facing, because if it’s violence versus violence, then McClane is clearly the one with the edge, but what about intelligence?
The moment Gruber realizes he’s standing in front of the one man who has been causing him all the grief, he knows he’s got no chance if he chooses to fight. First of all, McClane has a machine gun. But, Gruber does have a pistol, but it’s tucked into the railing on the other side of the room. He shifts gears and plays scared, pretending to be an escaped hostage, thinking that McClane is a terrorist. This has immediate effect on McClane of course, but more so on the viewer who suddenly sees Gruber in a whole different light. Cold and calculating before, his cowardly cries are unnerving and we’re not sure what he’s doing until, just like McClane, we fall for it. Gruber, lying about who he is and how he got to the top of the building, weasels his way into McClane’s good graces and soon they are sharing cigarettes and talking about themselves. McClane confesses he’s just a cop from New York, which gives them a laugh, but finally tells Gruber who he’s up against.
By now, McClane seems happy to have a friend or at least a partner who can help, and he offers his pistol to the man, who says his name is Bill Clay (a name McClane actually saw on the company register). They begin to walk away and then Gruber, now behind McClane, uses German to call in backup, signaling McClane that the gig is up. Or is it?
Here’s where we also learn that our hero is not just fast on his feet, he’s equally smart, only tricking Gruber with the gun, having taken all the bullets out. Of course, more bad guys show up and the chase is on again, but now the two leads have met and both have shown neither is as dumb as the other might think. Essentially a stand off, the short moment has great value in leading up to the finale, as each has a sense of unfinished business with the other.
The scene itself, like much of the movie, is brilliantly directed, with McTiernan using sharp angles and slow pans with lots of steam and echoes to give the room a mechanical hell-scape feel. Gruber starts the scene by moving right to left, down to up, opposite what is typically comfortable for viewers as most read and view images in the reverse of the order. There’s a sensational beam of rainbow light that encircles Gruber as he begins to check the rigging for the explosives that is made by the camera flair but is a signal for us too that something is about to change. When Gruber jumps off a short step, he lands on all fours and is met by a towering McClane, the shot giving our hero the power while Gruber takes a submissive position. But we see how weakened McClane is as well, his body strewn with wounds and his bare feet exposed. With him falling immediately for Gruber’s ploy, he also exposes a vulnerability, one that Gruber exploits.
At this point, it seems McClane is fooled, and we can safely assume that’s true. So when does it change? How does McClane know this man is not who he says? McClane is a good cop, and very observant. It’s what we’ve seen him do so well from the start. He’s gained everything he has by watching, learning, adapting and acting. So he does here, too. The key is the cigarette. McClane has only two remaining, and offers one to ‘Clay’, taking one out and giving the pack to his new friend. Clay removes the last cigarette and then slips the empty pack into his suit coat pocket rather than toss it to the floor. This could be interpreted as a man in control, a person with organization and intelligence, but more importantly, not willing to leave behind anything that would incriminate.
More significant is the cigarette itself, which, in his hand is gripped by the the thumb and forefingers rather than wedged between the middle and pointer. These are two very distinct style, one European and the other American. It’s a dead giveaway, even if it is only for a second. It’s all McClane needs.
The entire sequence, with its lighting and sound design keeps the audience off balance and guessing, a masterful achievement in creating tension and fear. Both Willis and Rickman, who ran the scene with nearly no rehearsals to give the moment further imbalance are exceptional, knowing their characters so well that it remains one of the most authentic moments in the movie.
In the history of cinema, the meeting between antagonist and protagonist has long become one of the most built-upon tropes but one that audiences now demand, especially if there is substantial emotional investment leading to it. The meeting between Hans Gruber and John McClane is one of the best ever filmed, one that set new standards for the cliché, stripping away the choreographed fights and empty one-liners for a more nuanced and challenging interaction that gave their final encounter much more weight.