If Die Hard set the arcade-game-like template for every lesser action movie that followed (put hero in inescapable situation that requires the progressive elimination of a series of bad guys; escalate set pieces accordingly), then Rickman’s Hans Gruber is the template for every lesser bad guy to prowl bullet-riddled sets in a well-made suit.
Unfortunately for everyone else who’d play a villain in any action film ever, Rickman pretty much knocked it out of the park his first time at the plate. And it was literally his first time at the plate: Die Hard is the actor’s feature film debut. (He was cast after director John McTiernan and Joel Silver watched him perform on-stage in Dangerous Liaisons.)
Consider the layers that went into this character: Rickman is an Englishman playing a German who spends a not-insignificant part of his screen time speaking with an American accent. (The entire scene between Rickman and Bruce Willis in which Gruber pretends to be an American was only created after it was discovered that he could convincingly do an American accent.) Name one other actor who could do that so well.
And unlike a lot of classic screen villains whose performances begin at a 10 and stay there (Gary Oldman in The Professional, Jack Nicholson in The Departed), Rickman’s performance in Die Hard is a masterful bit of pacing. Gruber begins the film totally in control, a criminal mastermind with a flawless plan full of diversions and red herrings for anyone on his tail. He becomes progressively unhinged as the film continues and his plan is continually foiled by Willis’s John McClane. It’s like watching someone slowly turn up the dial on a thermostat.
Also: The chemistry between Willis and Rickman is truly magical. First of all, it was a stroke of genius to pit Gruber – such an imperious, arrogant (and well, European) character (“Benefits of a classical education,” he muses at one point) – against Willis’s blue-collar McClane. Gruber identifies tailor-made suits on sight; McClane spends the film shoeless and clad in an ever-filthier undershirt. I’m just spit-balling here, but that juxtaposition must have had some real-life allegory: After all, Willis was fresh off Moonlighting at the time and Rickman was discovered doing Dangerous Liaisons.
Anyway, the point is that their pairing works. They play off each other so well that I’d be tempted to suggest the real love story of Die Hard is between Gruber and McClane, if the film didn’t end with (SPOILER ALERT) McClane shooting Gruber out of a window.
Rickman would bring that silky, sensual menace to plenty of other films; the closest I can think he comes to the same level of threat and charm is as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. But the action genre, as a whole, has never given us anything quite like Die Hard, and silver screen villainy has never seen someone quite like Rickman’s Gruber. And now, sadly, it never will again. Yippee Ki Yay.