February 18

Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 9. Die Hard

DIE HARD may be the greatest American action movie ever made – no, scratch that; Die Hard is the greatest American action movie ever made – but less celebrated are its entertainingly astute observations on the savage nature of US corporate culture in the Reaganomics-obsessed 1980s. First released in 1988, a time when the Japanese post-war economic miracle was reaching its zenith and coke-snorting braggarts negotiated “million-dollar deals for breakfast”, Bruce Willis’s first outing as old-school New York cop John McClane reflects an era rife with corporate raiding, hostile takeovers and Sun Tzu-inspired business warfare – all wrapped up in the guise of a bullet-strewn, Christmas-set, quip-and-kill action fest.

It’s all there in the film’s mid-point analysis of über villain Hans Gruber’s master plan to take down Nakatomi Plaza, the yet-to-be finished Los Angeles headquarters of the Tokyo-based Nakatomi Corporation, where McClane’s estranged wife Holly is six months into a new job. “Let’s put it in my terms,” says Holly’s hilariously obsequious colleague Ellis as he makes a doomed effort to negotiate with Hans (Alan Rickman, elevating withering disdain to Olympian levels). “You’re here for a hostile take-over, you grab us for some greenmail, but you didn’t expect some poison pill was going to be running around the building.” Painting Gruber as a sort of terrorist Victor Posner, and McClane as the human equivalent of a share-diluting defence strategy (the kind deployed to make under-threat companies less attractive to corporate raiders), Ellis’s analogy is blighted only by his inability to read Gruber’s motivation properly. Hans may be happy to exploit everyone else’s fear of terrorism, but he’s not much interested in promoting lofty ideals or using hostages to free comrades-in-arms around the world. What he is interested in, however, is plundering the “$640m in negotiable bearer bonds” from Nakatomi Plaza’s vaults, making him about as naked an expression of capitalist intent as it’s possible to get. As the foolhardy Ellis puts it (once again espousing the Art of War-influenced corporate bilge prevalent at the time): “You use a gun, I use a fountain pen. What’s the difference?” Of course, Gruber quickly answers that enquiry with a bullet to Ellis’s brain, but fundamentally speaking, there is no difference: Hans Gruber is a reflection of Nakatomi’s implicit ruthlessness – just stripped of any benign corporate brand-speak.

Watch Die Hard again and it’s remarkable how nuanced the film is in making this connection. The benefits of a classical education mean Hans can’t quite resist dropping in references to Alexander the Great when discussing industrialisation and men’s fashion with Nakatomi’s vice chairman Joseph Takagi, but the film uses him to counter the spin that blinds Nakatomi’s employees – attending a Christmas Eve party to celebrate “one of the greatest years in the history of the Nakatomi Corporation” – to what Hans calls its “legacy of greed around the world.” This is the irony Takagi is too blinkered to see. With his glib jokes about Japanese dominance of the US economy (“Pearl Harbour didn’t work out, so we got you with tape decks”) and his defensiveness about Nakatomi’s incursions into developing nations like Indonesia (“Contrary to what you people may think, we’re going to develop the region, not exploit it!”), he’s unable to recognise in Hans someone whose criminal mind is as dedicated to the take-all-you-can-get laws of a deregulated free-market economy as his own hungry-for-profit employer. Not convinced? Then ask yourself this: what kind of company has $640m lying around in the type of untraceable bonds that have historically been used for money laundering and tax evasion? Not one that’s entirely legit, that’s for sure. All through Die Hard there’s a distinct sense of chickens coming home to roost.

In the midst of all this is John McClane, a man out of time, a cowboy, someone more partial to Roy Rogers than Rambo, not too bright, but definitely street smart, and always ready with a wisecrack or a badass sign-off (“Yippee ki-yay motherf*****r!”). He’s got one objective: save his wife, and his disregard for the trappings of the corporate world that have put her life in danger (thanks to him, entire floors of Nakatomi Plaza are destroyed) is as blatant as his instinctive, kill-crazy hatred of gun-toting Euro-villains. And in a world of nefarious business dealings and slick-suited schemers, it’s this uncomplicated display of Wild West bravado that makes it easy to root for McClane. He’s not a guy who could tell you where to invest, but damned if he doesn’t look good in a vest.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 18 February 2014