“Who said we were terrorists?” — Hans Gruber, Die Hard
It’s in this very moment — in Alan Rickman’s amused, conversational delivery of that simple line — that John McTiernan’s genre-defying classic Die Hard begins to toy with our expectations on its way to becoming more than anyone ever guessed it could be. And it’s also here that we get our first clue that Hans Gruber may not be your everyday movie heavy.
We know he means business from the start, when that Pacific Courier truck backs up into the loading dock underneath the Nakatomi Plaza. Hans steps out from the back of it leading a group of armed thugs, and it’s immediately obvious from his steely glare and commanding presence that he’s the guy in charge. But, as the movie progresses, there’s something about Rickman’s performance that elevates it above and beyond the call of being merely a badass. Rickman brings a level of professionalism and class to the role that actually suits Gruber, and you almost see the actor relishing the opportunities the character provides. Hans is delightfully evil, a man who doesn’t let a few lives hinder the progress of reaching his goals. The proof is in Joseph Takagi’s brutal execution, served early on in a scene that still manages to shock no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Nothing like brains splattering a glass door to set the tone of things to come.
And the great thing about Die Hard is that the movie gives Gruber a plan that matches Rickman’s suave yet chilling theatrics. Knocking over the Nakatomi Plaza vault and getting to the $640 million in bearer bonds under false pretenses of global terrorism and political protest is an ingenious setup that echoes throughout the entire series. The joy is not just in Rickman playing Gruber, but in Rickman playing Gruber playing a terrorist while he’s really just a super-inventive thief. And Rickman as Gruber sells the shit out of pretending to be a political freedom fighter. Just think of when he hilariously reads his list of demands to the police:
Hans: The following people are to be released from their captors. In Northern Ireland, the seven members of the New Provo Front. In Canada, the five imprisoned leaders of Liberte de Quebec. In Sri Lanka, the nine members of the Asian Dawn movement…
Karl: [mouthing silently] Asian Dawn?
Hans: [covers the radio] I read about them in Time magazine.
Hans doesn’t mind fucking with the police because he’s the man with the plan and a pretty good team to back him on it. There’s practically no reason to think he’d fail.
It’s difficult to pin down one scene you can point to as Rickman’s best work in the film. He’s literally running on God mode through most of the movie. But there are few scenes in film history, let alone in action-cinema history, that are as tense and gripping as when Gruber and McClaine first meet face to face.
The way the scene plays out is one of the more original and unusual moments in an action film, and a lot of the credit has to go to director John McTiernan and writers Steven E. DeSouza and Jeb Stuart. Often in these types of films, the hero and villain don’t meet face-to-face until the epic final battle, but in Die Hard, they quite literally run into each other by accident in the middle of the film. And because McClane can’t be sure that Gruber is one of the terrorists, a little game of wits plays out between the two of them which features some of Rickman’s finest work in the film. McClane comes out on top, but Gruber is still able to escape and, showing his impressive capacity for quick thinking, deals McClane a good deal of damage by having his henchman Karl shoot the glass windows in the server room where all the action is taking place. McClane escapes, but his bare feet are mangled by the shards of broken glass. Gruber is content to go back to work on his plan, happy in knowing that he just fucked McClane’s shit up big time. The man is a true professional with little time for the monkey in the wrench, annoying as he may be.
There’s so much one could touch upon in regards to Hans Gruber. His appreciation for fine-tailored suits. The joy in his voice as he informs Theo that Christmas is a time of miracles. The matter-of-fact way he tells the party-goers that their boss won’t be joining them for the rest of his life. The shaky, faux American accent he hastily puts on to throw McClane off. His handling of Ellis. His offended retort to Holly’s accusation of him being little more than a petty thief.
Die Hard is a film with not only a great hero, but also a villain who is formidable in a different way than we were used to seeing from that crazy decade we called the 80s. As much as this post is an appreciation of the character as written, it’s also an ode to Rickman and his ability to create a memorable villain who audiences continue to love to hate 25 years after the movie was released.
Sad as we were to see him drop those 40 or so stories to his well-deserved death — as much as we love Hans Gruber, let’s face it, the dude was an asshole; even his revenge seeking brother admitted as much — we here at Cult Spark are still happy to induct him posthumously (which is usually the case) into the Cult Spark Movie Villain Hall of Fame, albeit with bowed heads and heavy hearts.
Here’s to you, Hans. Hope you’re earning your twenty percent on the beach, wherever you are.