Let’s Talk About This Moment In ‘Die Hard’ When Gruber Meets McClane
Die Hard is a 1988 thriller about a New York cop who goes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife at a company Christmas party atop the Nakatomi Plaza tower at the same time a team of terrorists storm the building and take the guests hostage, leaving him the only one who can save them.
Calling Die Hard influential is like calling Star Wars a successful film franchise. Technically, it’s correct but it’s also an astronomical understatement. Die Hard made leaps and bounds in its genre while creating a whole new kind of hero, an everyman who completely changed the definition. And better yet, somehow, because the world is magical, it also become a staple Christmas classic, you know, because, duh. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.” Best line ever.
You know the story: John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a tough street cop with a troubled marriage who travels West to try and patch things up, challenge enough as it is, but when he arrives and finds the building where his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) works (having a late night Christmas party) overrun by a gang of machine-gun toting terrorists (er … thieves) looking to make off with the contents of the building’s massive vault, he’s almost in over his head. Almost. Yippee Ki-yay. We all love the action and shooting and swearing and all kinds of other Twinkie awesomeness, but want to know why it’s really great? Keep reading.
Directed by John McTiernan, this first in a long series of films 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 far more identifiable. Up against a truly memorable adversary in the now iconic nasty 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. That ain’t so easy. While sure, a few 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 that only gets better with age.
While the film is stuffed with many well-directed action sequences, I want to draw attention away from the many booms and bullets and zero in on one of the more subtle moments, one that stages an unconventional meeting and reveals that our hero is far more than he seems … and yes, to be sure, the booms and bullets are sensational, we all agree, but in terms of what makes Die Hard so memorable, it is the personalities in play that matter, and if you don’t give characters depth, then there is no diving in. Die Hard makes diving in easy, and this scene is reason why.
Well into the story, 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 mischief, including killing a few of the terrorists and acquiring the aforementioned machine gun. He’s also managed to contact the police and is, remarkably, gaining an upper hand. Meanwhile, Gruber has a sneaky and decidedly flashy plan that will allow he and his men to escape in the confusion. However, with his men slowly becoming incapacitated, he heads up to the top floor by himself to check on the progress. It’s there that he runs into an exhausted, beaten down but still sturdy and well-armed John McClane. It seems Gruber’s got himself 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 twang. It works, and it’s not long before McClane has him on his side and even gives him a gun. What?
Let’s pause a sec. To this point, we’ve seen McClane demonstrate some impressive skills and abilities that prove (at least to the audience) that this is a resourceful guy. These clever moments have been instrumental in developing the character and in assuring us of his eventual success. Met with one deadly hurdle after another, he’s come through, though hardly unscathed, and it’s that last bit that is so important, his vulnerability that has us so invested. Conversely, all we’ve seen Gruber do is sit behind a desk and bark orders. Oh, and kill in cold blood. He’s done that, too. He’s a bad man, living up to the standards of such, but what happens here is where we see Gruber evolve, shifting a step up from the one-dimensional kingpin, à la a video game boss where McLane works his way to the top, but rather a creative and devious villain, making him all the more ‘likeable’ for what he is. If the movie was simply violence versus violence, then it’d be a boring showdown, mostly because we’ve already seen that McClane has that end all wrapped up. Now, adding some intelligence into the mix, Die Hard goes big. Time to dig in. Oh, and spoilers.
The moment Gruber realizes he’s standing in front of the one man who has been causing him all the grief, he knows right away that he’s got no chance if he chooses to fight. After all, McClane has a machine gun. And he’s bested several of his men already. Gruber does have a pistol, but it’s tucked into the railing on the other side of the room. It leaves him with only one option. He plays scared, pretending to be an escaped hostage, thinking that McClane is a terrorist. This has immediate effect on John of course, but more so on the viewer who suddenly sees Gruber in a whole different light. Cold and calculating before, his cowardly cries and surprising change of voice are unnerving and we’re not sure what he’s doing until, just like McClane, we fall for it, too. 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. This is when McClane confesses he’s just a cop from New York, which gives them a laugh, but in truth, informs Gruber of who he’s up against.
Honestly, it looks to McClane that he seems downright happy to have a friend in all this, or at least a partner who can help, and in so doing, he even offers his pistol to Gruber, 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?
I love this in movies, where we are set up to believe the worst only to have the rug pulled out from under us. Die Hard does it just right here, where we learn that our hero is not just fast on his feet (even without shoes), he’s equally smart, only tricking Gruber with the gun, having taken out all the bullets. 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 very well 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 that order. There’s a sensational beam of rainbow light as well 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 attempts to exploit.
Right here, 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? Well, 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 secret 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 styles, 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. Willis and Rickman, who ran the scene with nearly no rehearsals, are really fun to watch, each 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 gives their final encounter much more weight.