As a film lover, I found Alan Rickman’s death very sad. I realize now that I’m getting to the age where the actors featured in the “In Memoriam” bit at the Oscars are no longer MUCH older than I am, just “older.” (Just for the record, Rickman was over 30 years older than I am.) But I felt that I’d seen Rickman pretty much from the beginning of his film career. It’s hard to reduce his body of work to just one film (and if I did, my favorite is Sense and Sensibility, which would make the title of this post a bit of a non-sequitur) but it’s impossible to ignore his iconic turn in Die Hard.
80s action movie villains are largely forgettable. Unless you’re a huge fan of the genre, you probably can’t remember the bad guys in Rambo (the Vietnamese?), Missing in Action (uh . . . the Vietnamese again?), Death Wish (gang members?), or either of the two Dirty Harry movies released that decade (no idea – there were two?!). And the only reason we remember the villain in Commando at all is because his name is the first word in one of Schwarzenegger’s most eye-rolling one liners. But the trope of the forgettable villain all changed with Die Hard, Hans Gruber, and Alan Rickman.
This wasn’t by accident. Director John McTiernan, screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Stephen DeSouza, and Rickman himself all contributed to Gruber’s appeal.
Gruber is not presented as a stereotypical villain. This is contrasted with his crew, who ARE stereotypical. They look like terrorists, dressed in tactical gear. They act like terrorists, firing their guns into the air and roughing up their hostages. They even sound like terrorists, although the language they speak is more “not English” than it is anything else. Gruber, however, wears a suit, appears to be unarmed, talks to his hostages calmly rather than threatening them, and prefers English to German (or whatever language his crew speaks).
Gruber is also contrasted with his henchman Karl. Karl is reckless, cutting the alarm cords with a chainsaw seconds after they’re disabled, while Gruber is methodical. Karl is vengeful, routinely allowing McClane to get away due to his desire for vengeance, while Gruber is pragmatic and merely wants him “neutralized.” Karl is also clearly the muscle, while Gruber is the brains. Since McClane is not exactly presented as a genius, this makes Karl more his opposite number than Gruber.
In fact, Gruber has a lot of the same qualities normally found in a protagonist: he’s handsome, smart, cool, even a little bit funny. DeSouza even said as much himself. He’s also a bit of a mercenary, a criminal rather than a terrorist. Does removing the political element (always a mainstay in 80s action films) from his villainy make him easier to like? Do we not root for Michael Corleone or Tony Montana more than we do for Ivan Drago?
Even when Gruber is bad, he’s not THAT bad. He does attack the LAPD . . . but we’re introduced to them not as the good guys, but as the bureaucrats who get in the way of the good guys. And the cops he kills are faceless, certainly not someone like Al Powell. So our sympathies aren’t exactly with the LAPD. He does kill Ellis . . . but it’s hard to imagine a slimier, more unlikable character than Ellis. The fact that Holly and McClane both warn him to stop and he ignores them makes it hard for us to grieve when he gets killed: he was a coked up yuppie, and it was kind of his own fault. Gruber does plan to kill all the hostages . . . but it’s glossed over so fast – only two lines in the entire film address it – that it’s easy to forget.
Until the very end of the film, the only truly bad thing we see him do is kill Takagi. Even this cold blooded murder is portrayed less an evil act and more an unfortunate necessity. (This may have been helped by Rickman’s famous aversion to firing a gun on set. If you look closely below, you can see him flinch right before the cut)
Die Hard works hard to keep Gruber and McClane away from each other. In addition to creating tension, it also makes it easier to like Gruber since he isn’t constantly juxtaposed with the hero. They only share three scenes together in the entire film: when Gruber pretends to be a hostage, when he and Karl ambush McClane and shoot the glass office dividers, and when they have their final confrontation. While they do share quite a bit of time on the radio, it’s not nearly as powerful as when they are physically together.
But when they’re together, Gruber becomes a passive antagonist. It’s Karl who crashes the party in their first scene, and it’s Karl who shatters the glass which cuts McClane’s feet in the second. While Gruber is clearly an active participant when killing Ellis and Takagi, he isn’t as active when dealing with McClane. So it’s Karl that gets most of our boos and hisses rather than Gruber. It’s only in their last scene that Gruber actually does any of the dirty work himself. And by threatening the hero’s girl – one of the most stereotypically villainous activities one can engage in (besides mustache twirling) – he’s finally become a villain we root not for but against, thus enabling McClane to dispatch him without howls of protest from the audience.
Rickman’s portrayal, however, was anything but stereotypical. To praise the character or structure and not the performance would miss the point. So much of what makes Gruber great – his sense of humor, his urbanity, his wardrobe, his detachment from his terrorist cohorts, his refusal to hit a woman (!) – was Rickman’s idea.
Now this wasn’t the first film where we rooted for the bad guy. White Heat, Scarface (both the original and its remake), and The Godfather all had bad characters, but each was clearly the protagonist. (Plus, it’s easy to get the audience to root for a bad guy when you show his back story and motivation, and you don’t have any good guys in contrast.)
More recent films had toyed with the idea of a more likable antagonist. Like Gruber, Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Belloc shares some of his protagonist’s qualities and is presented as a misguided mercenary rather than an evil villain (although saying he’s not as bad as the Nazis is faint praise). Superman’s Lex Luthor is charismatic, but that’s more due to Gene Hackman than the character. But since both Belloc and Luthor are constantly juxtaposed with Indy and Superman, can we honestly say we’re rooting for them? The best we can do is not hate them as much as the other bad guys.
But separate from its genre cousins of crime, adventure, and comic book movies, action movies before Die Hard decidedly did NOT have a bad guy we didn’t hate. Hans Gruber was so easy to root for because so few action movies had ever had a villain like him. Many did afterwards, some even played by Rickman.