We will always be grateful for Hans Gruber.
When Die Hard hit theaters in 1988, it felt like something we had never seen before: a different kind of action movie that would reset the genre for a generation or more. The action was riveting. The humor was sharp. It gave us a new kind of hero. And the whole thing felt glossy and polished.
And then there was Alan Rickman.
Of all the things about Die Hard that we had never seen before, Alan Rickman rises to the top of the list. Making his film debut as villain Hans Gruber, Rickman immediately and indelibly emerged as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. To borrow a phrase from another hit movie that came out the very same year, Rickman announced his presence with authority.
As the poisonous Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman was a revelation, taking a two-dimensional archetype and breathing into it three-dimensional, glorious life. Part low-rent Bond villain, part frustrated junior college professor, Rickman’s Gruber slithered across Die Hard boldly and confidently, leaving a trail of irresistible slime in his wake. We laughed at his snarling invectives. We gasped as his acts of cold blooded murder. We reveled with him in his moment of triumph. And we marveled in utter fascination at his every move across the screen. It was impossible to look away from him.
In a movie built to showcase Bruce Willis as Action Hero 2.0 (long before anyone would have known what “2.0” meant), unknown Alan Rickman went toe-to-toe with the emerging movie star and in large part stole the show. With wit and rage and subtlety and smarm, Rickman gravitated toward the center of the film and never relinquished the spotlight.
It is no coincidence that the Die Hard sequels paled in comparison to the original. None featured Rickman’s devilish presence, and none could match the fun of the first.
Of course, Alan Rickman would himself go on to have a Hall of Fame career.
His Sheriff of Nottingham was extraordinary and by far the best thing about the otherwise-unbearable Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He delivered brilliant comic turns in the incisive Bob Roberts and the broader Galaxy Quest. His imprudent flirtation with a secretary in the wonderful Love Actually gives dramatic weight to an otherwise light and airy romantic comedy. For one generation, he will always be known for his tender performances in films like Truly, Madly, Deeply and Sense and Sensibility; and for another, they may never see him as anyone other than Harry Potter‘s Severus Snape.
And for those of us who first saw him snarling at us from the big screen in his motion picture debut, he will always be Hans Gruber.
Alan Rickman’s death this week left cinephiles across the globe in mourning. He was a towering figure in the film world who will be sorely missed, and there will simply never be another like him.
Some will bid him Godspeed.
Others will wish him Rest in Peace.
And for the rest of us, only one final farewell seems appropriate.