‘Farewell, Hans Gruber – A tribute to Alan Rickman’ by Chris Townsend
Thursday brought with it the regrettable news that much-beloved actor Alan Rickman has died. He is, after David Bowie, the second 69-year old British institution to be taken by cancer within a week. The Guardian’s piece on his death notes that many will remember Rickman for his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, a character he made his own through his icy and drawn-out articulations.
Some will no doubt always remember him for his appearance as a cheating spouse in Christmassy drivel-fest Love, Actually. But to me, as well as to countless other people who grew up with 80’s action films, Rickman will always, always be remembered for his portrayal of Hans Gruber in the seminal movie Die Hard.
That his performance is so memorable is no mean feat. It was, after all, his first role in a feature-length film. As the celebrated Youtube parodists ScreenJunkies put it in their ‘Honest Trailer’ for Die Hard: “First movie, seriously?? Way to hit the ground running, Rickman!”. ‘Honest Trailers’ usually focus on plot-holes, notably bad acting, or just plain stupid ‘special effects’ in films, but their Die Hard video is exceptional in that it piles on the praise for the movie and its actors. And rightly so. Die Hard performs the near-unimaginable feat of transcending a genre that it itself was developing: all action films since Die Hard have wanted to emulate Die Hard, it is the archetype of its genre, but it is also so much more than an action film. The performances are nearly unanimously sublime, the tension perfectly orchestrated, the set-pieces breathtaking, the plot engaging and suspenseful. Nearly every line in the film is quotable. The jokes are actually funny, the ‘cool’ bits are actually cool, and the violence born of desperation, and not of some Schwarzeneggerean or Van Dammean cold contempt for human life.
At the centre of this genuinely brilliant piece of genre fiction are the complementary performances of Bruce Willis, as the filthy vest-wearing John McClane, and Alan Rickman as the spic and span, expensively besuited Hans Gruber. Essentially, they are two opposing but equal forces, each arriving at Nakatomi plaza with a well established plan that goes completely wrong. John turns up to rebuild his marriage with Holly McClane, née Gennero, but almost immediately screws it up by arguing with her. Hans arrives with a thoroughly worked out plan to steal $640 million in bearer bonds, under lock and key in the Nakatomi basement. The plan involves gaining password access from the boss, Mr. Takagi, breaking through various computerized locking mechanisms, and, finally, duping the F.B.I. into cutting the power to the building so that the final lock system fails. And he would have got away with it if it wasn’t for that meddling McClane.
McClane is the rogue element in Nakatomi, the one person in the building neither terrorist nor hostage, and he’s the vigilante element that Hans couldn’t have predicted or worked into his masterplan. John begins offing the terrorists one by one, steals much-needed detonators required for the explosive finale in Gruber’s plan, and leaks information about the terrorists to the cops outside, via his newly-established friendship with police officer Al Powell. But all the while, McClane and Gruber maintain almost unbearably close contact, via the shortwave radios that each clings to. They spit sneering wisecracks at one another, they try to set verbal traps for the other in the hopes that they will reveal vital information about their veiled identities. By the end of the film, it’s hardly a surprise to the audience that the two can share a “Yippe-Ki-Yay”-centred joke with one another, before facing off for the last time.
All the while, Rickman delivers a supreme performance. It’s near impossible to imagine anyone else in the role now, so essential is he to the film. He delivers, completely deadpan, some of the most brilliantly memorable lines that the genre has seen, often barely doing so much as parting his gritted teeth as he speaks. “Where are my detonators?”, he snarls. “I am an exceptional thief!”, he responds (to the accusation that he is a ‘common thief’). And who could forget his discovery of the first dead terrorist? John has placed a Santa hat on the body of the unlucky chap, and writes across his jumper “Now I have a machine gun, Ho-ho-ho”. Rickman’s Gruber barely displays emotion, but still manages to reveal a depth of frustration as he enunciates every syllable: “Ho. Ho. Ho.”
McClane and Gruber, throughout the film, are constantly trying to outsmart the other in ways that are oddly mirrored: the theft of detonators, intrinsic to Gruber’s scheme, is strangely like the kidnapping of Holly, the centrepiece in John’s plan. They turned up to L.A., each with a single goal in mind, but end up playing a mental game of chess against one another, constantly trying to think one step ahead, and always looking for the other’s weakness. When Gruber notices that McClane is barefoot, he orders his man Karl to “shoot the glass” — ensuring McClane shreds himself on exiting the room. And consider the scene where Gruber himself heads to the upper floors of the building to retrieve his detonators. He finds himself running into McClane, without a weapon. The audience holds its breath, but it is testament to the excellence of the script that we generally forget a crucial fact: John McClane doesn’t know what Gruber looks like. Gruber, though, does know this. He immediately acts as though he is an American businessman who has just been caught by terrorists. He plays the part of a cowardly man, “Bill Clay”, whose only experience of weaponry is a weekend spent at one of those ranches “with the guns that shoot red paint”. Gruber, self-satisfied, thinks his plan has worked when McClane hands him a gun. But McClane is one step ahead of even this ingenious bluff: “No bullets!”, he mocks. And then a a lift-load of henchmen burst in, and suddenly Gruber has the upper hand once more. It’s a great piece of cinema, a scene which exemplifies the brilliance of the film’s overall structure: power passes back and forth between the two men, and it’s never quite clear to the audience who is truly in control of the situation. This is unique to the genre, and is lost in the modern Die Hard films, in which a poker-faced and semi-indestrucible McClane unemotionally blows things up.
Throughout this tension-fraught scene, Rickman is at his best. Let’s not forget what’s happening: he’s a British actor playing the part of a German who is in turn trying to act like an American. But no, it goes deeper than that. Rickman plays a cunning and suave West German terrorist, in turn acting like a cowardly American businessman. His entire manner, his body language and his face completely change — watch the clip, and you’ll see. The rigidity of Gruber’s confidence crumbles into the flailing limbs and crumpled face of panicky Bill Clay, with a wavering and stammering drawl that is a world away from the syllable-by-syllable hammer-blow delivery of Gruber. But there’s still something in his eyes, as he takes a cigarette from McClane (a cigarette Gruber knows he has stolen from the body of a fallen comrade) which bespeaks the cold and calculating mind of Gruber. Gruber’s German accent, in general, is fondly remembered by fans as being pretty bad (and Rickman is only required to say three words in German in the film). But his performance throughout is still a masterclass of menace. The final shot of Gruber, as he falls from the thirtieth (or so) floor of Nakatomi tower remains one of the most iconic shots in the action/thriller canon, and perhaps of Hollywood in general. Let that legacy remain. From this, his very first film, Alan Rickman was a standout performer, subtle, sinister, superb. We’ll miss him.
‘Farewell, Hans Gruber – A tribute to Alan Rickman’ by Chris Townsend