Actor Alan Rickman has died of cancer, the second cultural icon to have been lost to that disease this week. His nearly forty-year career on the screen is filled with too many works to name all of them here and probably not necessary to do, anyway, given his popularity. In recent years, he was the embodiment of Professor Severus Snape and brought life to a philandering husband in Love Actually. But an early film of his, the one that brought him into American consciousness, is what likely came to mind among readers here: Die Hard.
Like Love Actually, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, in the latter case, one that keeps glad tidings and good cheer to a blessed minimum. The John McTiernan film is also a relief from the stereotype of the 80s action flick in that the hero, John McClane, isn’t an invulnerable, grunting Neanderthal, and his eventual victory doesn’t feel inevitable.
But the story is as much made by Rickman’s character, Hans Gruber. Gruber is a delicious villain, a character who has received all the benefits of a classical education without being burdened by moral concerns. He’s stylish, enjoying fine clothing. He combines a reptilian coldness that is tough to disrupt with a calculating mind that has planned out every detail—almost. And unlike so many bad guys in the decade’s action films, he is an exceptional thief.
And he has good taste in guns. The Heckler & Koch P7M13 is more compact than McClane’s Beretta 92F, thus easier to conceal while holding only two fewer rounds in the magazine and benefiting from a low bore axis. For an American audience, arming Gruber with this Teutonic staple gun, as it gets called in discussion boards, rounded out the character’s exotic sophistication.
This role required Rickman. The character needed a voice that could alternatively sneer and command with deep resonance. More than that, Rickman’s training in the Royal Shakespeare Company polished his skills that allowed him to fill out what could have been a played in a flippant or melodramatic manner.
I refer to Shakespeare here also as a segue into a comparison between Hans Gruber and Iago, the principal villain of Othello. As I said above, Gruber is free from any moral concerns. Life for him doesn’t consist of right and wrong, but rather of problems to be solved, regardless of the consequences to others, even to his associates. In this way, he is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s villain, a cold, calculating, and thoroughly amoral character who manipulates people both good and bad around him.
To return to the actor himself, unlike many of his fellow British and otherwise European colleagues, Rickman didn’t disparage America’s celebration of gun rights. Rickman also didn’t spend a good deal of his time on screen using guns while in real life calling for their banning or denial to ordinary citizens. His other memorable gun-using characters was Elliot Marston in Quigley Down Under—he otherwise wasn’t known for films featuring firearms. Regarding his Die Hard experience, though, he said, “It is shocking how thrilling it is to shoot a machine gun, that I discovered.” Stand that statement up against the remarks of Liam Neeson, for example.
The world has lost a talented actor who gave us an iconic villain, among his many other roles, and I’m grateful for his work.