Friday, January 15, 2016

Requiem for Hans Gruber

"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer"

Die Hard is one of those films that's difficult to put in historical perspective since it so quickly became a parody.  Studios immediately latched onto the format and used it to sell every action picture they had- "It's like Die Hard on a..." (boat, train, bus, et al.), but it was truly different than the hard-knuckled high body count generic action flicks of the time.  The Chuck Norris and Dirty Harry pictures always seemed to take aim at rotting ideologies, usually with some kind of arch-conservative, Islamophobic, or anti-Soviet bent.

Die Hard, and by extension its principal villain, played with brilliant poise and affect by the late Alan Rickman, was one of the first movies whose villain was less a demagogue or some kind of ethnic stereotype than a good old fashioned slash n' burn capitalist, an economic rather than ideological terrorist.  In fact, it's insuated that Gruber was once part of a West German terrorist group (probably akin to Baader Meinhof or those active in the 70s) but  was ultimately just involved to swindle them.

But that's not say that there's no insinuation that financial terrorists and political terrorists aren't of the same stripe in Die Hard.  At one point, Gruber compliments Mr. Takagi on his suit; "John Philips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat gets his there".  When Ellis comes in to negotiate, he tries to find common ground, stating "business is business. You use a gun, I use a fountain pen. What's the difference?"  Garbed in a suit to rival his white collar hostages at the Nakatomi headquarters in Los Angeles, Rickman's Hans Gruber could have faded into the scenery at the Christmas Party, and in fact does at one point, nearly tricking the hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) into buddying up with him.

Gruber is charismatic, slick, and professional, which makes his sudden spurts of violence all the more disturbing.  Gruber executes two hostages in the course of the film and in each scenario he is cool and collected, acting like an enlightened European gentlemen making quick but appropriate "human capital" decisions or negotiating a trade deal.  His extended pan-European cadre are equal parts thug and character actor, but they represent the "global scale of business" (including an American hacker).

There's obviously a sort of play on the 1980s hysteria of economic dominance- thinking that the meteoric rise of the U.S. economy was soon going to be subsumed by the equal ingenuity of Japan (typified by Nakatomi) and Europe (Hans, et. al.).  The American hero and there hostages are presented as pawns in all this, not perfectly innocent (a brief mention of Nakatomi CEO Takagi's time in an internment camp, the corporation's "legacy of greed'") but not directly implicated in this specific global conflict.  And though McClane largely saves the day through a strong display of force, the military forces (vis a vis the police and then the FBI) are shown bumbling their way through counterterrorism tactics that not only  threaten civilian lives but actually abet the terrorists; when the police shut off the power, it turns off the final lock to the $640 million of negotiable bank bonds that the group is seeking.

The fun of the film is in the interplay between Gruber and McClane, though it's arguably Rickman's show.  While McClane is mainly in survival mode, reacting to each scenario with creative violence and quick quips, it is Gruber's fight to lose and there's a surprising amount of pathos that Rickman brought to this role, particularly given that the spiritual kinship of the film to a Looney Tune short.  Gruber lays out a perfectly executed plan and even amidst CEOs and finance-types, he's easily the smartest guy in the room, but he quickly loses control when he engages in a cat and mouse game with McClane/Roy's anarchic/rascally "cowboy".  Gruber can't seem to believe that he is being outwitted and outgunned by a blue collar meathead and it slowly begins to unravel him.  Meanwhile, McClane is largely responsible for running around and fucking shit up.

Unfortunately, this breakthrough role also typecast Rickman for years.  Although he was pretty much the only watchable thing in drek like Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, his role as stock villain followed him for a good part of his career. Yet, he stole the scene in nearly ever film he found himself in.


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