BEFORE IT WAS A SOMEWHAT odd Christmas movie staple, the original Die Hard set a lot of bars in the action movie world. It’s one of those movies that came up with so many things that became genre tropes later on that it’s almost hard to find the original movie in there.
At its core, Die Hard is a fish-out-of-water story, and it’s also a solid underdog story. And, you could classify it as an army-of-one story but John McClane (Bruce Willis) gets so busted up he doesn’t quite fit into the unstoppable superhero mold.
McClane is an everyman—an average NYC police detective. He’s not an ex-Navy SEAL, he doesn’t have a USMC past with a Medal of Honor in it, he’s not even on the anti-terrorism squad of the NYPD. He’s just a cop, probably one who has only drawn his firearm a couple of times in his career.
McClane’s Beretta 92F
He’s not a a super cop or one of the best FBI agents in the country…he’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time (or right depending on your point of view), and armed when nobody else is—plus he has the street smarts to hide from a group of terrorists when they take over a skyscraper in Los Angeles.
The movie begins with McClane flying from New York City to L.A. on Christmas Eve to surprise his estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), at her high-power corporate job at the Nakatomi Corporation, hoping to patch things up for the holidays. Of course, the company is located in Nakatomi Tower, a new and still under construction skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles.
He surprises her. They argue. She goes off to do work stuff while he cleans up in her executive bathroom.
When the terrorists strike, John isn’t exactly prepared. He runs out of Holly’s office with his Beretta 92F, his pants, an undershirt, and not much else—not even his shoes. His shoulder holster and extra ammo (presumably) are left in the office as he runs up the stairwells, hoping to find a way to evade the well armed bad guys.
The thing about McClane is he doesn’t go looking for trouble—he doesn’t see a gang of terrorists and thin, “I’m gonna get em all.” He hides out in upper floors that are under construction trying to figure out a way to alert authorities before he finally manages to set off a fire alarm (oh how easy it was to write a script before cell phones).
When the alarm is cancelled and a bad guy comes looking for him, he does what he has to do, and it’s far from some expert Krav Maga hand-to-hand takedown from a Jason Bourne movie—it’s a nasty fight that ends with a tumble down a some stairs and a broken neck for the bad guy.
That victory allows John to get his hands on some ammunition, a lighter, a pack of cigarettes, and an MP5A3 (which is actually a chopped and modified HK94 made for the civilian market) with spare mags, but still no shoes.
“Nine million terrorists in the world and I have to kill one with feet smaller than my sister.”
He takes his frustration out by using the dead body to rile up his fellow terrorists, one of whom, unbeknownst to John, is the dead man’s brother.
“Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.”
He adds the submachine gun, an MP5 to his 9mm Beretta 92F, which, since he is off duty and traveling, may be his personal firearm and not his duty pistol. The gun was fairly new at the time and hadn’t been adopted by many police departments, let along the NYPD, which I don’t think ever adopted the Beretta.
We do see him reload his pistol once in the film, so he must have grabbed the extra mag out of his shoulder rig when he grabbed the handgun, and put it in his pocket maybe? Though it is interesting none of the bad guys noticed an empty shoulder holster hanging in Holly’s office.
Fortunately, most of the terrorist henchmen are armed with 9mm MP5s and 30-round mags, so there’s plenty of ammo around for John’s Beretta, which explains how he can keep it loaded through all the shooting he does.
HK94 standing in for MP4A3
The group of terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), now number 11 with Tony dead. The submachine guns most of them are armed with are actually HK94s standing in for MP5A3 submachine guns.
The film’s armorer converted the civilian firearms to fire in full auto and look like their military counterparts. The easiest way to tell when a movie does this is by looking for a magazine release lever behind the magwell. An HK94 has a button magazine release on the side of the receiver.
If you notice, everything McClane does in the first half of the film has the goal of getting the attention of authorities, or he’s acting in self defense. The first time he actually attacks the terrorists is when he blows up the pair firing rockets at the police armored vehicle.
He’s not some lunatic cop willingly going face-to-face with a bunch of well-armed terrorists with only his handgun, unless he has no other choice.
Though we can assume McClane reloads his Beretta magazines from MP5 mags carried by the bad guys, we never actually see him do this, but he has to be getting his ammo from somewhere and there are only two mags in his shoulder holster that he hangs up in Holly’s office—and that’s if he grabbed both of them, which makes one wonder, if he had time to get his gun and both mags out of the shoulder holster, why didn’t he just take the shoulder rig?
I never did a round count for Die Hard, but I feel like he fires more than three magazines worth of rounds from his handgun—but I could be wrong.
Regardlesss, it was fortuitous for him that most of the bad guys liked 9mms and in the end, it all comes down to two 9mm cartridges left in his Beretta, which he affixes to his bloody back with a roll of “Happy Holidays” packing tape in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes—and one of the coolest action movie endings in history.
Heckler & Koch P7M13
After performing a ruse with the empty MP5, he puts one round in the last remaining henchman with his pistol, who has been pretending to be a security guard at the front desk through the movie, and the other round goes into Hans, sending him out a shattered window, but not before he grabs Holly’s arm.
John unclasps Holly’s Rolex (you don’t mention a Rolex in Act One…), sending Gruber plummeting to his death. Funny story: when they filmed this scene, they told Alan Rickman they would let him go on a 5 count, and then dropped him at the count of 2, hence his legendary surprised expression.
But here’s something to think about. Not all of the terrorists were killed. There are actually two survivors, who inexplicably are never used or mentioned in any of the sequels.
In the above scene, when John first enters the room, he takes down a terrorist by smashing him in the face with the stock of his empty MP5. He clearly knocks him out, sending a stack of bearer bonds across the floor, but he doesn’t kill him. We never see the guy again.
Then, the bad guy’s tech guy, Theo, is merely knocked out by Argyle when he attempts to flee in the gang’s hidden ambulance. Likewise, he’s is never seen or heard from again.
The terrorists are extremely well armed, including Karl’s (Alexander Godunov) Steyr AUG bullpup assault rifle, likely chosen because of it’s high-tech, modern looks that would contrast against the LAPD’s M16s and revolvers. This was one of the first times the gun appeared in a film.
The Steyr AUG (which stands for Armee-Universal-Gewehr, or “universal army rifle”) was designed in Austria and chambered for 5.56 NATO—believe it or not, back in the 1960s. The bullpup design made it stand out in the gun world when it was introduced in the mid 1970s. It was adopted by the Austrian Army as the StG 77 in 1978.
Gruber, in keeping with the European-made hardware theme and with the terrorists’ intended heritage, carried a hard chromed German-made Heckler & Koch P7M13 as his sidearm, which he uses only once with a matching suppressor and once without, though the barrel is neither extended nor threaded when the suppressor is not in use.
The stubby 9mm is unique in that it includes a large grip safety integrated into the pistol’s front strap.
Gruber uses it to shoot execute Takagi and then later to shoot into the air to scare the hostages after killing Ellis.
An interesting note: if you’ve ever thought the gun shots in Die Hard sounded different than in other movies, they did. Director John McTiernan purposely requested louder blanks to give the gunfights more intensity. In fact, Bruce Willis suffered hearing damage from the scene in which he fires his Beretta while under a table at one of the terrorists, Marco, standing on top. Mythbusters proved this was possible with 9mm ammo, in case you were wondering.
The show also proved that John perforating the skyscraper window with his Beretta so he could swing through it on the fire hose from the roof was also, technically, possible. See below:
Smith & Wesson Model 10
There’s actually one wheel gun in the movie, and it’s drawn by Officer Al Powell when Karl emerges from the building pretending to be a victim and levels his AUG at John’s head. Powell uses his .38 to take Karl out, and we know how hard this is for him because of the story he told John earlier on the radio about having accidentally shot a kid who had a ray gun years ago—which is why he hasn’t been promoted at his age.
Bonus: About the Watches
This is something cool about the movie that has nothing to do with guns, but rather with the wristwatches worn by Gruber and the other terrorists.
Apparently, according to slashfilm.com, there was a quick scene that ended up on the cutting room floor of all the bad guys inside the panel truck they arrive in, huddled in a circle, and synchronizing their watches, at which point we see they are all wearing the exact same Tag Heuer watch.
When McClane kills Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), he takes his possessions. In the final cut, we see him grab a lighter, a pack of cigarettes, and Tony’s fake ID. There was also a shot that was cut where John takes note of the watch Tony is wearing.
Later, when he’s describing the terrorists to Al on the radio, he tells him they are all wearing the same watch.
When John runs into Hans on the upper floors of the building, it’s the watch he’s wearing that gives him away as a terrorist, not the fake American accent.
“Originally, they get off the truck, the camera craned up, you saw them in a circle and Alan Rickman says ‘synchronize your watches’”, explained screenwriter Steven E de Souza during a recent Q&A session. “They all put their arms out in a circle with the camera moving down and they all had the same Tag Heuer watch. If you notice, the first guy Bruce kills almost by accident going down the steps, he searches the body, looks at the IDs”.
“When Bruce offers the cigarette to Alan Rickman, Bruce sees the watch. You see his eyes look at the watch. That’s how he knows that he is one of the terrorists,” he added.
The problem came with a late decision to add the ambulance inside of the panel truck as the terrorists’ planned escape route. To pull off the idea, the truck had to be changed to a much larger tractor trailer that could fit an entire ambulance in the back. There is a shot in the beginning of all the bad guys coming out of the panel truck that clearly isn not holding an ambulance that they really couldn’t cut after realizing the mistake, but the watch scene would have been too egregious.
Just in case you had any doubt about Die Hard‘s status as a Christmas story, here’s the cover of ‘A Die Hard Christmas’ a new book that tells the tale of John McClane to the rhyme of ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ fully illustrated. This was an awesome early gift from my wife—definitely worth a look. —DM photo from amazon.com
According to the documentary series, “The Movies That Made Us” on Netflix, the filmmakers didn’t even realize the empty truck shot mistake until they were watching the early cut after filming had wrapped. There was no fixing it, so director John McTiernan decided to hope audiences wouldn’t notice—and most didn’t until they started watching it over and over on home video.
So, with the watch scene cut, it became necessary to remove all the other references to the terrorists’ watches.
Unfortunately, this sacrificed a neat little thematic callback when, at the film’s conclusion, its the undoing of the clasp on Holly’s Rolex that sends Gruber to his death.
Consequently, McClane also wears a Tag Hauer watch (though a different model), reversed on his right wrist. For more about the deleted scenes, go here.
And in case you were wondering, all the physical punishment John endures through the movie, according to a doctor, would have killed him at least four times:
Personally, I think the scene where he dangles in an elevator shaft by the sling of an MP5 (I don’t do well with heights and this scene still gets my palms sweaty) before dropping about 10 feet and somehow catching his full body weight with his hands on the sheer edge of an aluminum air shaft opening was where McClane would have certainly died in real life—and the video agrees with me.
And I recently learned, again from the series The Movies That Made Us, that scene resulted from a stunt gone wrong. They’d built a 40-foot elevator shaft with a bag at the bottom. The stuntman was originally supposed to grab the edge of the shaft that McClane originally goes for, but the stuntman missed and ended up on the safety bag. So, they filmed a shot from the inside of the shaft of McClane’s hands finally grabbing hold and edited it together to make it look like the mistake was on purpose. Movie magic.