Christmas, cranked up to 11: why Die Hard 2 is a better festive film than the original

Tom Fordy
·9-min read
Let it snow: John McClane (Bruce Willis) goes through a second round of Christmas torture - Alamy
Let it snow: John McClane (Bruce Willis) goes through a second round of Christmas torture - Alamy

It’s as much a Christmas tradition as tiresome clichés about sprouts and family arguments: “is Die Hard a Christmas film or not?”

But this annual debate overlooks the film’s lesser yet more successful sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Now 30 years old, Die Hard 2 is one of the most sequel-y sequels ever made. It perfectly fits the template: not quite as good as the original but compensating by being swearier, more violent and, of course, more ridiculous. 

Never mind jumping off a skyscraper with a fire hose as a bungee, as per the original’s big set-piece. In Die Hard 2, Bruce Willis’s John McClane has a punch-up on the wing of a plane as it rockets down a runway, while simultaneously unscrewing the petrol cap so he can also blow it up. “To some extent you have to give the audience what they expect,” said director Renny Harlin in 1990 about making the sequel. “But you also want to give them more.”

Die Hard 2 also cranks up the Christmas. Indeed, the sequel might not be as good as Die Hard – something that very few (if any) action films have achieved in 32 years – but Die Hard 2 is a better Christmas film.

The original Die Hard’s relation to The Most Wonderful Time of the Year is really incidental; Christmas is just the backdrop. McClane flies into the decidedly un-festive Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). After an argument – quite Christmassy, I suppose – Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber and his band of Euro-terrorists hijack the Christmas party. Cue McClane’s one-man war to save the Nakatomi Plaza.

Last week I saw a tweet arguing that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas film because it isn’t about Christmas. I would argue against that. All McClane wants is to spend a nice Christmas with the family, a sentiment at the heart of almost every Christmas classic. He just has to kill a small army of terrorists first.

And I’ve always seen McClane as sort of alternative action Santa Claus: instead of climbing down chimneys and leaving bundles of presents, he climbs down elevator shafts and leaves bundles of plastic explosives. But aside from the odd Christmas tune – “The weather outside is frightful,” sings sidekick cop Al to himself, “dum-de-dum delightful” – Die Hard’s Crimbo credentials aren’t solid enough for us all to agree on the issue. 

There’s little doubt about Die Hard 2, though. In the opening minutes there’s snow, fairy lights, and actual Santa and reindeer in the background as McClane gets a parking ticket. “C’mon, man, it’s Christmas,” reasons McClane with a traffic cop. Our hero even trades the iconic vest and no-shoes look for seasonal chunky knitwear.

The film was, like its predecessor, a summer blockbuster. Released in June 1990, Die Hard 2 raced into cinemas just two years after the original. In a recent interview, screenwriter Doug Richardson explained that he was hired to write an under-the-radar sequel just weeks after the release of Die Hard. Producer Lawrence Gordon wanted a script ready before 20th Century Fox officially green-lit the project – and before powerhouse producer Joel Silver could start throwing his weight around.

According to Steven E de Souza, the writer who replaced Richardson (Silver fired Richardson once he did start throwing his weight around), Fox producers knew within a week of Die Hard’s release that they’d want a sequel. It was a surprise to star Bruce Willis, then on the cusp of being one of the biggest stars in the world. “I frankly didn’t think Fox was going to spend the money to do another one,” Willis told The New York Times in 1990. “But the sequel business had become a big thing here in town.”

This time around, McClane battles a mercenary group led by Colonel Stuart (played – sometimes naked – by William Sadler) who takes over the air traffic control systems at Washington Dulles International Airport. Stuart’s plan is to rescue incarcerated drugs lord General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero) mid-extradition. He holds planes hostage, which circle the airport with their fuel supplies depleting. Aboard one of the planes is (who else?) Mrs Holly McClane.

A publicity shot featuring Col Stuart (William Sadler, c) and his henchmen
A publicity shot featuring Col Stuart (William Sadler, c) and his henchmen

Die Hard 2 was based on the novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager (the original film was based on the unrelated Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp), and drew political inspiration from the Iran-Contra affair and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. After the original’s success, it was an appropriately huge production. As Renny Harlin described on a making-of feature: “We have snowmobile chases in the movie. We have big pyrotechnic effects. We have planes, such as 747s, crashing and exploding. So it’s a combination of optical effects, miniatures, physical mechanical effects and so on.”

The final scene – a pull-back shot of the runway post-carnage – is a technical landmark. It was the first time that digitally composited live action and traditional matte painting were blended together via computer. The matte painting, by Yusei Uesugi, still hangs in the San Francisco offices of SFX pioneers Industrial Light & Magic.

One of the production’s biggest complications was snow, that idyllic (if often unrealistic) foundation on which many classic Christmas films are built. “It was really very tough chasing the snow,” said Harlin in 1990. “It just kept melting away.”

To capture snow and keep things Christmassy, production had to move to eight locations across America. Interviewed at the time, Renny Harlin admitted that chasing snow had put production over schedule by five days and a “touch” over budget too. The film was reported at the time to have cost $40 million, but it was later estimated to have cost up to $70 million.

The fun of Die Hard 2 is that it knows exactly what it is. The most famous line – “How can the same s--- happen to the same guy twice?!” — underpins the ludicrousness of almost every sequel ever made. And it doesn’t take long for the action to kick off. No longer the reluctant hero, McClane rushes into the airport’s baggage sorting area for a shootout in under 13 minutes. Moments later, he’s gladly feeding the head of some nameless (and soon-to-be faceless) henchman into a mangle on a luggage conveyor belt.

Indeed, Die Hard 2 is gruesome in places: plenty of blood, slashed throats, and a body count of up to 271 – which blows the original away, with its paltry 23. The body count is driven up by the massacre of 200-plus passengers on a British flight that’s circling the airport. “We’re just like British Rail, love,” says a stewardess, reassuring a nervous passenger. “We may be late but we get you there.” Seconds later, Colonel Stuart’s meddling crashes the plane nose-first, turning it into a fireball. Take away McClane’s patented wisecracking, and it’s a viciously dark turn of events.

Nor is it a particularly festive moment. But if Christmas movies are all about traditions, Die Hard 2 is perfectly on target: by now, a deadly hostage situation is all part of the yuletide season for McClane. “A regular, normal Christmas,” McClane mutters as he clambers into yet another ventilation duct. Journalist Sam Coleman (Sheila McCarthy) even calls McClane “the ghost of Christmas past”.

Elsewhere, airport police captain Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) is every stressed-out, put-upon, ready-to-boil dad at Christmas rolled into one moustachioed ball, his stress levels exasperated by McClane killing bad guys at the airport on Christmas week (among the many thousands traipsing through the airport during its busiest week is “a f----g reindeer flying in here from the f----g petting zoo!”). McClane’s handiwork is quickly picked up by the media. “Murder on television,” says the air-traffic chief. “Hell of a start for Christmas week.”

And the airport, crammed with delayed travellers, has all the makings of a feel-good festive film. Somewhere, in an alternative cinematic universe, there’s a spinoff about two John Hughes-type characters stuck there, trying to make it home for the holidays – until the terrorist panic kicks off. Even some of the action has a distinctly Christmassy feel: a snowmobile chase around a snowy church scene, for instance, or McClane gouging out a baddie’s eye with a stalactite. Our hero is only one fight away from clubbing someone to death with a sack of toys.

Following the universal sequel mantra of “bigger but not necessarily better”, Die Hard 2 tries to recreate and super-size the original’s big moment: a shootout in the Nakatomi Plaza’s offices becomes a bloody gun battle with Terminator 2 actor Robert Patrick; McClane’s slo-mo jump away from an explosion becomes an ejector-seat escape from a blown-up plane; the final henchman battle, which leaves the original’s model-like Karl hanging by chains, becomes a plane-wing fight in which the baddie gets sucked into a propeller; and in place of the final “yippie-ki-yay” moment – McClane throwing Hans Gruber out of a top-floor window – he detonates a planeful of bad guys. (Even Die Hard’s prolific swearing is upscaled: 65 f-words to the original’s measly 56.)

You can follow a 30-year trend for sequels through the Die Hard franchise. Die Hard 2: the amped-up retread; Die Hard with a Vengeance: the cooler, more grounded reinvention; Die Hard 4.0: the sanitised, generic star vehicle; and A Good Day to Die Hard: the soulless (and dreadful) cash-in on a now-depleted franchise. For further proof that Die Hard is now just a brand name, see this year’s latest installment: a commercial for car batteries.

While subsequent sequels feel like very different action films with McClane shoehorned in – because that’s exactly what they are – Die Hard 2 does capture the spirit of its original. See the final moments, as McClane’s heroics save planes and hostages while Christmassy music trumpets triumphantly. Even Captain Lorenzo gets some festive cheer, tearing up McClane’s parking ticket — a goodwill gesture after two hours of antagonism. “Ah, what the hell,” Lorenzo says. “It’s Christmas!”

Is Die Hard 2 a better festive film than the original? Share your view in the comments section below