“I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane.”

Die Hard is one of those greater-than-the-sum-of its-parts movies where everything just came together. I’d say it’s the best American action movie of all time (although I am prepared to entertain arguments in favour of Robocop). One of the things everyone loves about it is its villain, Hans Gruber, famously played by Alan Rickman in his first movie role, and he’s everything you want in an action movie bad guy; stylish, formidable, quotable and fun to watch*. But he also has a team of henchmen, and the way they’re portrayed makes the movie even better.

Instead of backing Gruber up with a bunch of generic thugs (plus maybe one guy who gets to be The Psycho or something), Die Hard goes out of its way to humanize his team of fellow thieves a bit. Two of them – Karl and Tony – are brothers and seem to have some sort of sibling rivalry going on (eg. the scene where Tony is working to disable the alarm system and Karl simply cuts the wires with a chainsaw while Tony yells at him). Al Leong, who played Asian Guy Who Gets Killed so many times throughout the ’80s that it became a running joke between me and my high school friends, has the scene where he looks around like he’s afraid he’ll get caught before stealing a chocolate bar. They all call each other by name and on occasion express concern for each other (Karl, of course, goes berserk when his brother is killed). And even some of the really minor henchmen have scenes where they display cunning, intelligence and an ability to improvise on the fly. These are all little things, but they add up, and when the audience feels like the henchmen are actual characters with distinct personalities it makes John McClane (Bruce Willis)’s eventual (spoilers!) victory over them more exciting.

The most striking example of this comes about halfway through the movie; Gruber’s team has secured the building and taken hostages, and the cops attempt to storm the building with a SWAT team. When this assault fails they send in an armored vehicle to break through the front door, and for the next minute and a half the film is told almost entirely from the villains’ point of view (the only exception being one shot of McClane pacing about nervously on a different floor). As pulse-pounding music plays, we see them work efficiently as a team…

…bicker back and forth in German**…

…quickly and expertly assemble a rocket launcher…

…and then, just in the nick of time, fire a missile…

…and blow up the police tank!

They even get a Witty Action Movie One-Liner (“Oh my God, the quarterback is toast!”).

What makes this scene distinctive is that these actions (working competently as a team, victory at the last second, the catchphrase) are all things the heroes usually do in action movies. If you only watched this scene you might think they are the heroes. Further alienating the audience from the traditional protagonists is the fact that the police (aside from Reginald VelJohnson‘s Sgt. Powell) are incompetent, the FBI is incompetent and heartless (“Figure we take out the terrorists. Lose twenty, twenty-five percent of the hostages, tops.”), and even 911 tells McClane to get lost when he calls them for help. So not only are McClane and Powell on their own, but the guys they’re up against aren’t the typical herd of goons who get shot down by the dozens in Stallone and Schwarzenegger flicks.

So why don’t more action movies have better villains? I suspect a large part of the reason is that big stars don’t like to be upstaged, but that’s a mistake because memorable villains make for a more compelling hero and better movies. Julia and I went to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol a few weeks back and when I complained that the villain was boring a few days later she asked “Who was the villain, again?” Exactly.

* like Jack Palance in Tango & Cash!

** much of the dialogue between the henchmen is in German with no subtitles, which  is a) more realistic, and b) effective because you’re forced to pay closer attention to their faces and actions to try and figure out what’s going on

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