I first saw Die Hard as a teen living in England during the early 2000s. It was a formative time in my life, watching U.S. culture from afar as an expat. The five TV channels we got showed old, generally terrible content after 9 p.m. and had a penchant for the macabre and titillating. Having recently watched a particularly dreadful episode of “The Red Shoe Diaries,” I was skeptical.
By then, the film was already starting to look a bit old, and the aspect ratio was off. But I was also obsessed with learning through movies, a semi-professional anthropologist of American film and TV. So I began to watch.
Immediately, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I knew nothing of corporate culture, had never been to L.A. But it was clear to me even then that this was a storyteller in absolute command of his narrative. Every scene built towards a cohesive whole. I felt relaxed—unusual for me as a viewer, since it’s easy to disrupt my suspension of disbelief. But this, as Hans Gruber said, was “something else.”
Hans Gruber. Oh my God. Extravagantly smart, effortlessly suave. And I didn’t believe that halfhearted attempt at a German accent for one second. Goddammit, that man was BRITISH. The slick one-liners. The condescension of his deplorable surroundings. The nearly visible cogs turning in his brilliant mind. The dark, blacker-than-black humor. I was in love.
We’d lived in England for a couple years by that point, and I’d learned how to quietly assimilate into a culture that, by and large, seemed to look down on its American counterparts. As I remember, “American” was shorthand for “bumbling and clueless” on British TV. One daytime host snarked that the diluted and soapy Shakespeare in Love was the only way that Americans could truly appreciate the Bard. I learned how to dial down my accent and lose the harsh Philadelphia notes. If strangers asked, I was Canadian.
I’d also fallen hard for British culture, and I ached to inhabit the same cultural suavity and surgically precise sarcasm. Hans Gruber was the perfect distillation of it. In reality, I’d probably fallen for Alan Rickman. The way he lovingly creates and inhabits his characters invites viewers to love them, and him, in the same way. But what he does in Die Hard is unique even by his incredible talent.
It would have been easy for that character to become an over-the-top parody. The Rewatchables’ recent podcast of the movie points out how much the character owes to campy, old-school Bond villains. But the contextual brilliance of Hans Gruber and his henchmen is that they’re fish(es) out of water: Bond villains transplanted into a dirty, greedy American culture that they have to endure in order to get rich. You see it in every exquisite eye-roll Rickman makes. To a British viewer, this might as well be a horror story, with American excess triumphing over their prestige and historical superiority.
In a spiritual sense, then, the movie becomes that grand struggle — European smarts vs. American grit. I felt a grudging kinship with the graceless, grimy John McClane, himself a transplant fighting against forces much cooler than him. Neither of us was ever going to be Hans Gruber, but we could admire (and even envy) him all the same.
It’s not just John McClane on the defensive, it’s all of American culture. I felt a small glimmer of pride: we might all be balding New Yorkers in dirty white tank tops, but we still managed to throw a British guy off a building and blow up a bunch of stuff.
And I’d fallen in love with the Englishman-impersonating-a-German who spoke to my American-impersonating-an-Englishwoman. I envision the title of my grand memoir to include Gruber-Rickman, Rickman-Gruber: A Study in Duality.
Rickman’s creation might have ended the movie broken at the bottom of the Nakatomi Plaza (an ignominious and insulting end, in my opinion — they should have preserved him like Lenin), but he’s still the best movie villain of all time. He never loses his sneering condescension or his nerve, even as he plunges to Earth in a perfectly tailored suit.
The best movies speak to us with different messages as we continue to watch them. These days, Die Hard’s a memorial to Rickman and a loving throwback for me. But its first impact will always be the strongest: a reflection of love for British culture, and a grudging acceptance of my unpolished American identity. Yippee-ki-yay, motherf*cker.
Photo adapted from Flickr.