By James Hibberd
December 24, 2020 at 01:24 PM EST
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Credit: 20th Century Studios

He's been called the greatest action movie villain in Hollywood history: Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, the meticulous mastermind behind the Christmas Eve Nakatomi Tower heist in 1988's Die Hard.

Even though Die Hard was the British actor's feature film debut, Rickman reportedly (and rather successfully) pushed writers Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, producer Joel Silver, and director John McTiernan to reconceive the film's antagonist into a character that was more suave and urbane and less militaristic, in order to better suit his strengths. Their collective efforts aligned to generate a performance that many consider perfect: Every line delivery is ideal. Every physical gesture is just right. Even his beard is sublime. Viewed decades later, Rickman's performance remains admirable for — to borrow Gruber's line — "The exactness, the attention to every conceivable detail."

Here are 10 times Rickman stole the show in Die Hard.

Gruber's elevator jauntiness

This is the first moment when we realize this movie's villain is something special. Gruber and his gang have taken the Nakatomi Corporation's holiday party hostage. Gruber escorts the company's captive CEO, Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta, in a rather effective and oft-overlooked performance) in an elevator where Gruber is humming "Ode to Joy," bouncing a bit, chatting up Takagi about his suit as if this is just another day at the office. Takagi's reaction echoes our own bewilderment at Gruber's surreal casualness — who is this guy? Also, it's a credit to the tightness of the Die Hard script that even these seemingly jokey throwaway elements — "Ode to Joy" and the reference to Takagi's suit — are later paid off in different ways.

"I am going to count to three…"

Perhaps the most frequently knocked-off scene in a film that's been endlessly knocked off: Gruber demands the tower's vault code from Takagi, or else. Notice how your eyes keep being drawn to Rickman's hands in this scene as he rather deliberately unscrews the silencer, then places the silencer on the table, then places the gun on the table, then splays out his fingers to hover over the gun, then slowly grasps the gun again, and finally aims the weapon at Takagi. Gruber is giving Takagi a verbal countdown, but he's also performing a countdown with his hands (Hans?) in each of these beats. Rickman is literally mesmerizing, and Takagi looks hypnotized in his terror.

A favorite bonus within this scene is when Gruber is distracted by some banter between Theo (Clarence Gilyard) and Karl (Alexander Godunov) discussing what we later learn is their bet ("It's not over yet…"). Gruber gives a perturbed glance as if to say, "Knock it off, you're embarrassing me in front of the hostage, I'm doing serious villain stuff here."

"Now I have a machine gun: Ho-ho-ho"

In reaction to McClane's (Bruce Willis) gory Christmas-themed taunt, Gruber's delivery of that "ho-ho-ho" embraces his role as the film's Scrooge/Grinch. It's also one of the film's glimpses at what would become Rickman's signature pro-tract-ed enunciation (a characteristic the actor would take to parody levels as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies).

"And if he alters it?"

This is perhaps the first time Rickman shows a bit of weakness, and it's wonderfully slight. With just a quick glance, Gruber allows Karl to win a moment during an argument over the impact of that meddlesome John McClane. Gruber: "We do not alter the plan." Karl: "And if he alters it?" Gruber looks just a bit uncertain with a nod that says, "Okay, fair point, Karl."

Gruber's relationship with Theo

Gruber is stern with his men, but takes a far lighter tone with his young hacker. It's not clear if Gruber respects Theo's intelligence, recognizes he requires gentler touch, or — most likely — goes easy on Theo because he's the most essential member of the team (only Theo can get the vault open). Gruber puts up with his wisecracks and at one point assures, "It's Christmas, Theo. It's the time of miracles!" in a uniquely cheerful and chummy tone. An aside: Rickman noted in a 2015 interview that Die Hard was progressive for its time and its genre in at least one respect: "Not to get a sledgehammer out to it, but every single Black character in that film is positive and highly intelligent. So, 28 years ago, that's actually quite revolutionary and quietly so." Indeed, Theo, Sgt. Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), Argyle (De'voreaux White), and FBI Special Agent Johnson (Grand L. Bush) were each distinct and formidable.

"Bill Clay"

This "who's fooling who?" showstopper between McClane and Gruber was reportedly added midway through production after McTiernan heard Rickman perform an American accent. Every beat from Rickman in this is a win — from Gruber's shocked reaction to McClane's feet, into his brief moment of indecision, and then a sudden pivot into pretending to be a terrified American hostage. Acting like you're acting is always tricky, and Rickman deftly lets us see both Hans Gruber and a somewhat-convincing Bill Clay at the same time. Yet Rickman's finest bit here was the sly-yet-miffed delivery of his bogus name, "Clay… Bill Clay." Gruber gives the correct answer to McClane to protect his cover, yet he cannot resist slipping in some character-breaking condescending arrogance because McClane is so obviously testing him, and Gruber finds this effort insulting: You think I didn't memorize the names of the Nakatomi executives? You think you can outwit me so easily?

"Who cares?"

Gruber negotiates with the FBI, giving them a list of bogus demands to keep them occupied, including the release of terrorists he "read about in Time magazine." When Karl asks if he thinks they'll actually do it (adding a nicely sardonic moment for the psycho henchman) Gruber does a delightful throwaway: "Who cares?" Part of what makes Gruber such a great villain is that he functions as a terrorist for the purposes of the plot but is, in effect, a simply playing the role of a terrorist, and having so much fun while doing it.

The "Ode to Joy" moment

There are so many different ways that Rickman could have played Gruber's reaction to the Nakatomi vault opening. What he gave was another shade to his character, yet one that makes sense and is emotionally impactful. Gruber has a sort of starstruck religious awe as the steel fortress swings open. You realize that this moment is everything he's ever wanted. You might find yourself actually wanting Gruber to get away with his crime, which is partly thanks to Rickman's performance but also baked into the structure of the script. De Souza pointed out he wrote Die Hard as if the villain was the protagonist: It's Gruber who sets the plot in motion and is the character going after a big, impossible goal, and almost all the action is driven by Gruber's choices, while McClane must react to survive (and his reactions, in turn, cause Gruber to continually adjust and improvise). And when was the last time where you saw a movie where the music swelled into a rousing, well, "Ode to Joy," when the villain gets his heart's desire instead of the hero?

That scramble!

Holly Gennero (Bonnie Bedelia) calls out Gruber in the vault as he loads up a duffel bag with stolen bearer bonds. "After all your posturing, all your speeches, you're nothing but a common thief," she says. Gruber may retort that he's an "exceptional thief," but his actions betray him: He angrily scurries across the floor to Holly like an animal. So Holly calls him pathetic, and then Rickman, in turn, shows the audience she's right by acting pathetic.

Happy trails

McTiernan clearly knew what he had from Rickman in this iconic exit shot, given he played it back to the audience in such slow motion, so we get to enjoy every micro-expression on Rickman's face. Behind the scenes, the stunt involved rapidly dropping Rickman onto an airbag roughly 25 feet below and, as lore has it, McTiernan tricked Rickman by releasing him when he wasn't quite expecting it, adding some real panic to his look of shock.

Also, for the millionth time, Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

Related content:

Die Hard

type
  • Movie
genre
mpaa
  • R
runtime
  • 131 minutes
director
  • John McTiernan

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