PerfAction returns with a tribute to the greatest villain of them all…
Under usual circumstances, Die Hard would be almost too obvious a choice for ILT’s PerfAction series. I mean, come on, everybody already knows it’s the perfect action flick. The 1988 vehicle that launched the international career of Bruce Willis may be the same age as yours truly, yet it’s popularity shows no signs of waning. Indeed, even to this day it places frequently not only on all time action movie lists, but on numerous regular all time lists. To discuss it at great length for the umpteenth time would be like flogging a dead European terrorist-burglar, or walking a well worn path that just happens to be littered with glass. Barefoot, of course. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve probably gotten off at the wrong floor. Best turn around and get back in the elevator.
Having said all that, it would seem that the circumstances under which one would currently watch Die Hard are, unfortunately, far from usual. Alan Rickman, legendary villain of the big screen, passed away last week at the far-too-young age of 69. I mourned him the only way I knew how. By watching Die Hard. At the time I fully intended to construct a write up covering each aspect of the overall production, à la my previous PerfAction piece on Michael Bay’s 1996 classic, The Rock. As this had been done multiple times over, however, it made sense instead to focus on a singular aspect of perfection; namely the villain of the piece, Hans Gruber, as portrayed by Rickman.
To help explain why Gruber is such a standout bad guy, one has to look to the mid-late 80s action scene for a bit of context. In the era of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and, to a lesser extent, Van Damme, Hollywood action villains were usually little more than a negative reflection of our musclebound, beef-headed heroes, enabling them to eventually meet, mano e mano, in a variety of fights to the death. At the very least, if he himself wasn’t a fighter, the main chap in charge of the evil-doers would have a shit load of cash and/or political influence that kept him on top, while a slightly lower ranking, but equally hench antagonist would be present to do battle with the good guy when the time came.
Hans Gruber, on the other hand, was a character removed from the villainous clichéd production line. Sharp-suited, debonair, flamboyant – but also highly charged and ultimately ruthless, Gruber somehow manages to come across miles away from the melting fondue pot of 80s cheese. Hell, he’s actually cool as fuck – the complete opposite to some of his hilarious (awesome, but hilarious) predecessors during a decade known for excess. A lazy comparison would be to that of a Bond villain, and I suppose if a 007 plot line was ever vaguely feasible (lulz), it would be easier to see Gruber in the role rather than, say, a squealing, wide-eyed Bennett (of Commando fame). The truth, though, is that Gruber is just too much of a practical realist to even consider entertaining the notion of doing anything to, or with his nemesis other than locking him in somewhere or murdering him as thoroughly and quickly as humanly possible.
This is where the high standard of Die Hard’s writing deserves thirty floors worth of credit. Karl, a psychotic blonde bombshell who gives McClane a run for his money, is apparently Gruber’s main henchman. You know, similar to the Aryan chap in Lethal Weapon 2 who does all the necessary dirty work. But Karl isn’t a traditional action bad guy No. 2, just as Gruber isn’t your go to No. 1. He merely comes across as simply more insane version of the rest of Gruber’s group, a trait no doubt involuntarily aided by the fact that the unknown quantity he’s hunting killed his brother only minutes ago. He’s not just some mute muscle man; he’s an emotional wreck who got more than he bargained for. This, in turn, affects his decision making, contributing to the group’s destruction, and thus creating a logical character. This isn’t a coincidence, it’s just good writing. The strength of the script indirectly benefits Gruber’s character in other ways too, such as the decision to set the film over the course of a couple of hours, meaning we have complete access to the gradually evolving nature of his reactions and the intriguing manner in which he deals with pressure, all of which runs parallel to McClane’s ever-increasing interference with his diabolical scheme.
And then, of course, there is Rickman’s performance. Matching the darkly mirthful impact of Willis’ one liners beat for beat, Rickman oozes everything from charm to calm desperation, all via the medium of the standard issue foreign accent, familiar to many a Hollywood villain. There’s moments where he slips from the second language of a classy, well-spoken bilingual German to that of his magnificent, more traditional Shakespearean vocals – no doubt about it – but such is the gravity of his turn as the antagonist everybody wishes to see more of whenever he’s off screen, that it’s difficult to give a damn. Whether he’s calmly executing Mr. Takagi, winding up the LAPD with his list of “revolutionary brothers and sisters”, affecting a double-faux accent after accidentally encountering McClane, or facing the very real gravity of his character’s hopeless situation as Gruber plummets to his death (Rickman performed the 70ft drop himself – that wide-eyed terror is in no way false), Rickman produces a deliciously rounded display of lightly comedic terror. Even more unbelievable is the fact that Die Hard was his silver screen debut, following a successful stage career.
To eulogise Alan Rickman following his death would be quite the mammoth task, and one I doubt I could justice. Instead, I imagine the ending to the obituary I would produce for Hans Gruber, a truly great man who just wanted to retire early, all the while picturing a simple life involving little more sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent…
As the hectic glow of sirens and searchlights below raced up to meet him, it became clear that, this time, Hans Gruber really did walk off into the sunset.
Happy trails, Hans. Say hi to Grace Kelly.