DIE HARD: Hans Gruber & the Fine Art of Villain Leadership

by John S.

When it comes to Cinematic Baddies, there are three distinct categories: Icons (the cream of the crop known by everyone), Honorable Mentions (good ones who stop just short of Icon status because not everyone knows them), and All The Rest (the vast population of villains, ranging from the okay down to the meh). Put simply, Die Hard’s Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is most definitley an Icon. In the years following this flick you couldn’t toss a popcorn bucket without hitting at least three Die Hard clones with smooth, frosty antagonists trotting out second-rate Hans Gruber impersonations. That’s the sure mark of an Icon: the legions of imitators trying to one-up the original, but always falling short.

Hans Gruber is a groundbreaking villain because at a time when action/thriller adversaries were about as subtle as a falling bag of  sledgehammers, he came along with his sharp suit and cool gaze and purring voice and basically almost stole the show from the hero of the flick. And when said hero is played by the ridiculously charismatic Bruce Willis, that’s saying something. That’s another mark of an Iconic Villain: making everyone go “who is that?!” Needless to say, noted stage actor Alan Rickman became a household name after his star-making cinematic debut in Die Hard – and he made it all look oh-so-easy.

In fact, if it weren’t for Hans being, you know, a sociopathic criminal mastermind/terrorist intent on robbing blind the Nakatomi Corporation on Christmas Eve and all, he might very well be one of its managing executives partying the night away before the baddies show up. In executing his Grand Plan, he is basically operating from the playbook of an effective leader:

1. Always have a sense of humor, even if it is as dry as vermouth:

There’s no way Hans would’ve gotten as far as he did in Die Hard if he didn’t find some droll amusement everytime something didn’t quite go to plan because of that pesky John McClane (Willis). Each time John drops a monkey wrench into his well-planned program, Hans’ expression reads like a cross between “what now?” and “I will make this bastard die screaming” and “oh, well.” Anyone else would’ve given up by the halfway point and surrendered – or jumped off the roof.

2. Look sharp and carry yourself well – and your troops will follow suit (no pun intended):

We first see Hans and company as they glide out of the back of a truck in the Nakatomi Building’s garage. With Hans leading the poised, well-dressed pack in a sleek trench and suit, they look like a bunch of GQ models who wandered off the runway and got lost somewhere in Century City. Hell, even that one German blond dude in sweatpants and a T-shirt looks amazing.

3. Choose people with unique skills and use them effectively:

Hans is one smart dude, but he’s also smart enough to know he doesn’t know everything. Hence his judicious use of Theo the Safecracker (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), Karl the Gun-Wielding Goon (Alexander Godunov), and the rest of their diverse crew of thieving, murderous mischief-makers. Besides, a leader – criminal or not – can’t afford to get his hands dirty, thank you very much.

4. Be a problem-solver, not a pot-stirrer:

Time and again, Hans just coolly assesses the situation, evaluates, and proposes a solution. Time and again, pot-stirrer Karl disregards Han’s instructions and makes the situation infinitely worse by declaring a bloody vendetta against John McClane for killing Heinrich (Andreas Wisniewski), Karl’s baby bro and fellow thief/terrorist (must be a family business). Goons are so hard to control.

5. Be five steps ahead of your adversaries:

Hans clearly does his homework. He rattles off the life history of Joe Takagi (Joe Shigeta), the Nakatomi CEO, as if he actually lived Joe’s life. He tricks the FBI into cutting the power to the Nakatomi Tower so that Theo can finally break the last lock on the company safe. He sees through all the crap cokehead-douchebag Ellis (Hart Bochner) is trying to feed him about being John McClane’s best bud –  and promptly vaporizes the living crap out of him. I really, really like Hans.

6. Be a quick study and quicker thinker:

Hans quickly figures out from Holly McClane’s (Bonnie Bedelia) expression upon seeing a news report and the way she glances at an overturned picture that she is actually John McClane’s wife. He fools John McClane (for awhile, anyway) into thinking he is a Nakatomi employee named Bill Clay, using an American accent that is 100% Useless Corporate Drone. He nimbly adjusts his master plan to accomodate unplanned nuisances (hello, Johnny M and Sgt Powell) that keep cropping up. It’s as if Hannibal Lecter started working out, grew a beard, and crawled into an Armani suit.

7. Be ruthless and keep your eye on the prize:

Hans know why he and his troops are in the Nakatomi Tower holding pampered executives hostage: they want the millions of dollars in bonds stashed in the company vault. Nothing will distract Hans from this end goal. Not Heinrich’s death. Not Karl’s despondency over Heinrich’s death. And especially not that colossal pain-in-the-ass from the Big Apple named John McClane. Hans Gruber knows what he came to the party for and will not stop until he gets it. That’s my boy.

8. However, be ready to praise anyone who deserves it:

When Holly displays some mucho cojones by squaring off against Hans and requesting accomodations for her pregnant secretary and the rest of the hostages, Hans graciously commends her on her gutsy candor. In fact, this scene is so charged with smoldering chemistry that I can almost see an alternate ending for this flick wherein Holly realizes Hans is a better partner than John – and rides off into the sunset with our villain and his $600 million bucks. To end up on a beach, just sitting around, earning 20 percent.

9. Always – always – have an ace up your sleeve:

Hans is pretty open about his master plan with his troops – but he keeps his trump card close to his chest. Essentially, he’s devised a way for he and his surviving subordinates to clear out of L.A. with their loot without the FBI and LAPD being any wiser. It’s just too damn bad that Johnny-come-lately McClane spoils the whole thing, as per usual. Go back to New York, ya jerk!

The final rule is probably the most important:

10. Always – always – have an awesome actor play you if your life story becomes a movie:

Even if a baddie leader follows all the preceding steps, it can all be for naught if they end up having a mediocre performer portraying them. In Hans Gruber’s case, he was fortunate enough to have the brilliant Alan Rickman in his corner. That’s pretty much like hitting the Thespian Jackpot, if you ask me.

In closing, we’d like to dedicate this review to Alan Rickman (2/21/49 – 1/14/16), who would’ve celeberated his 70th birthday last month, had he not been called away to the Great Stage in the Sky too soon.  Thanks for Hans Gruber and all the other great memories, sir…

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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