Happy Trails: Hans Gruber and the Greatest Villain in Action Movie History
The untimely loss of Alan Rickman to pancreatic cancer has cost us more performances from one of the acting world’s most dependable actors.
Rickman was cut from the same cloth as other classically trained British actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, performers who are almost impossible to miscast and an instant boost to a film’s chances of quality. You’ve probably heard the story of Tim Roth being the one originally offered the part of Snape in the Harry Potter film series, but Rickman, with his steely glare and a voice Helen Mirren suggests “could suggest honey or a hidden stiletto blade”, was a slam-dunk casting decision, a ‘who else?’ vindicated by the huge numbers of young people mourning his death. It’s a trend that goes back to the very beginning of Rickman’s screen career, as the actor was plucked somewhat reluctantly from his stage career at the age of 41 to play the antagonist in 1988’s Die Hard. Rickman’s contributions would help turn Hans Gruber into the greatest action movie antagonist of all time.
From his first appearance on camera, Gruber is immediately distinguished from the other Euro-trash non-terrorists that John McClane has to skulk around Nakatomi Plaza to take down. While Karl, Marco and company are dressed in casual and questionable 80s fashions, Hans is decked out in a tailored suit, one of a number of suggestions Rickman himself made to the film’s producer Joel Silver that made their way into the final product. Strolling into Nakatomi Plaza in the suit and overcoat, his hands in his pockets, is a visual signifier of the most important detail about Hans, and sets the tone for his demeanour for almost the entire film: his arrogance. Hans is a man who thinks he’s already won.
And why wouldn’t Hans think he’s already won, with a plan so meticulously crafted and opposition as far as he sees only coming in the form of dim-witted Americans? The police arriving, cutting the power, the FBI intervening and sending in helicopters, everything the authorities do to try and stop him is actually all part of the plan, distracting them with the smokescreen of a terrorist plot while his man look to crack Nakatomi’s vault, then using them to finish the plan and even help with the getaway. Even the monkey in the wrench John McClane is dismissed as “just another American who saw too many movies as a child”. He comes around to taking McClane as a threat but is fails to stop underestimating his intelligence, which is what proves to be his downfall. There’s something perfect about the villain in a stupid American action movie losing because the hero is stupid and American. Rickman is dripping with contempt, bored even, as he plays Gruber carrying out the plan, totally in control because as he sees it there can be no other way. Dodgy accent work aside, Gruber’s turn as “Bill Clay” the phony hostage shows his views on the people he’s up against; overwhelmed, ignorant and emasculated. Bill Clay was of course, another of Rickman’s own suggestions. It’s the one scene in the film where Rickman goes broad, to show that contempt, as the rest of the time his performance is the measure of restraint.
Actors are known to take joy in letting loose and playing the villain and in action movies especially, bad guys before and after Rickman have decided to start chewing the scenery either to make the most of their more limited screen time or simply to keep themselves entertained with material that they’re better than. Rickman however had a different approach to antagonists, once saying “I’m not playing the villain. I’m just playing somebody who wants certain things in life, has made certain choices, and goes after them.” This is a big factor in what makes Hans Gruber stand above all the other snarling cerebrals facing off against meatheads-Rickman focuses on the character’s motivations rather than playing to the cheap seats, and Hans Gruber’s motivations make him the perfect contrast to John McClane.
Those motivations are of course personal gratification, both the bearer bonds in Nakatomi’s vault and the glory of a crime carried out to perfection (note that one of the only times Hans loses his calm is when John’s wife Holly calls him a common thief-“I am an exceptional thief!”). He’s the polar opposite of McClane, the family man, the working man, the dope, the man who doesn’t wear a tailored suit but an increasingly grotty vest. If I may put my pretentious cap on for moment, action movies like Die Hard show an id colliding against a superego, appealing to the deep-seated corners of our lizard brains that want to see a simple character triumph over all, with violence. Bruce Willis and Rickman really bring out the elements of their characters that reflect that. In a film filled with great pairings, they may have the best chemistry and they’re not even usually on screen together. Of course the physical differences are obvious, but there’s more to it than that. The total confidence Rickman plays Gruber with only makes John McClane’s overwhelming self-doubt more empathetic and keeping in mind that he’s “not playing the villain”, Rickman is compelling and entertaining without ever being ‘likable’. From his small talk with Mr Takagi to the veiled anger in his radio conversations with McClane to the fact that he’s not even really a terrorist, Hans Gruber is always insincere, whereas John is incapable of hiding where his head is really at even if he wants to. They’re contrasts on a near-mathematical level, unable to co-exist, an equation out of balance until finally they’re on either side of Holly, dangling from the side of the building in the film’s climax. John, scrambling to save his wife, Hans left only with that contempt. Standing for something versus standing for nothing. One unclasp of a watch and its happy trails Hans, the equation balanced, fundamentally satisfying.
It’s a well-known anecdote that Hans face as he falls is a bit of method acting forced on Rickman: he was suspended over 40 feet in the air and told he would be let go to fall into a safety harness on the count of 3. They let him go on 2. Over the course of 2 hours, wonderful, professional, pitch perfect Alan Rickman creates the perfect action movie villain, a compelling, controlling and credible adversary that you want to see taken down. In one second, Rickman is forced to let him go as now, sadly, we all have to do. Alan Rickman set the bar for villains in action movies and will always have that legacy. That it’s just one part of his legacy is a measure of the man: not just a common actor, but an exceptional one.