“Who said we were terrorists?”
These sinister words, spoken with almost Shakespearean grandeur and playfulness by the late Alan Rickman, is perhaps one of the greatest lines spoken by any movie villain. It denotes that all is not as it seems while watching the original Die Hard.
Rickman delivered the line with a sly chuckle and smile under the guise of Hans Gruber, the leader behind a skilled and menacing group of supposed terrorists that have taken over a company Christmas party residing within the towering Nakatomi Plaza, unaware that a barefoot, sarcastic but skilled New York police detective is roaming the floors and elevator shafts, about to thwart their every move.
Hans Gruber would prove to be one of the most beloved movie villains of all time. His sleek hair, his overly groomed mustache and goatee, his five-thousand dollar suit, and his small notebook are just a few of the token images we remember from this mastermind, which is the category of villains that he falls under according to ScreenCraft’s 15 Types of Villains Screenwriters Need to Know.
While many may look to Dracula, Darth Vader, and in more recent years, The Joker, as the greatest movie villains in cinematic history, here we make an argument that these otherwise worthy villains are no match for the man in the suit.
1. Hans Gruber Is All-Knowing
Chuck Klosterman’s book on villainy, I Wear the Black Hat — while otherwise tangent-filled and unfocused — made one outstanding assertion that perfectly encapsulates this point. He stated that a great villain is someone who knows the most, but cares the least.
Nothing could point more to Hans Gruber than that statement alone.
Gruber is truly all-knowing as the story opens up, which makes him an undeniable threat. He knows everything about the Nakatomi Plaza. He knows everything about the company and its leadership. He knows each and every step the authorities will take in their response. He knows exactly what is in the vault and how they must get it. He even assures his hostages that he has left nothing to chance.
He is all-knowing and he doesn’t care what happens to anyone as long as he gets what he wants. This tightens his grip on the hostages — and the audience at hand — as the fact that he is all-knowing is proven time and time again.
The one X factor working against him is John McClane. He’s the single element that was missed. Yet even then, just as McClane seems to have gotten the upper hand, Gruber learns something that will surely, in his eyes at least, take him to the end. He learns the secret that had been kept until almost the third act of the film — Holly is John’s wife, and John is a New York detective who shares two children with her.
Hans Gruber is the ultimate threat. Not because he’s the deadliest (the Shark in Jaws). Not because he has the street smarts (Alonzo in Training Day). Not because he is all-powerful (Sauron in Lord of the Rings). Not because he is the craziest (The Joker in The Dark Knight). But because he is all-knowing in the situation. He seems to have an answer to everything that is thrown at him. In fact, everything that is thrown at him, with exception to John McClane, is exactly what he expected — and he had a plan for each and every turn of events.
2. Hans Gruber Is Sophisticated
Hans Gruber isn’t just some bank robber or terrorist hell bent on causing harm to others. He’s not just corrupt or misguided. And his villainy is not just a force of violent intimidation.
He’s sophisticated. He has style and poise. He would be able to work a room of politicians, businessmen, art collectors, etc. He speaks multiple languages with ease and understands the cultures of many. He can even manage an American Southern drawl when he needs to. He wears five-thousand dollar suits while on a heist, as opposed to tactical gear. He’s groomed and sleek. And he even manages to recite literature, history, and philosophy with ease, meaning that he’s well educated.
Through the perspective of the hostages, he comes off less intimidating, which at first makes them more at ease and compliant. Even the sleazeball Ellis thinks he can reason with Hans because they’re both businessmen. Mr. Takagi likely steps forward for the same reason. Yet they both suffered the same fate, drawn in by Hans’ charm.
And at the same time he comes off as even more intimidating because he is clearly not one that is going to make a mistake. He’s not going to lose his cool. He’s not going to trip up. This is ever-evident when Karl goes ballistic after he learns of his brother’s fate. Karl wants blood, but Hans is the one that handles the situation in a sophisticated manner, telling him that there will be a time and place for vengeance.
Through the perspective of the audience, the sophistication factor adds depth to the character. He’s clearly no cookie-cutter, crazy killer, and he’s clearly no mustache- pulling, one-dimensional mastermind.
How far will he go? Is he truly just a businessman? Will he just let the hostages go once he gets what he wants? These questions and more keep the audience invested and engaged and only in the end of certain moments do we know how truly ruthless he can and will be.
3. Hans Gruber Surrounds Himself with the Right People
While an intelligent mastermind like Lex Luthor could truly wreak havoc on the city of Metropolis with ease, he sure doesn’t know how to surround himself with winners. In nearly every live action incarnation of that character, we see him surrounded by seemingly inept goons and unintelligent tag-alongs.
Hans, however, built perhaps the greatest team of henchmen that the cinema has ever seen.
They each have a purpose and a skill. Karl is the alpha dog of the bunch and clearly the most deadly and cunning. Theo is the hacker that can circumvent the security system — and he keeps the mission light with some charisma and humor. Eddie is the all-American that can pass himself off as the plaza security guard in case any Twinkie-eating police officers come by for a visit. Others serve as technicians and muscle. Mercenaries all. And because Hans is all-knowing, he’s brilliant enough to choose people that only need to know as much as he wants them to.
They serve their purpose. They listen to orders — with exception to Karl’s vengeance. And they never slack off or waver from their mission.
Well done, Hans. Even if it didn’t work out for you in the end, well done.
5. Hans Gruber Is Calculating
He doesn’t act on impulse. He doesn’t panic. And yes, when push comes to shove, he can talk his way out of almost any situation.
Case in point, when he goes to look for the detonators he stumbles upon the very man that has been thwarting his plan from the get-go, John McClane. With his gun just out of reach, accompanied by the knowledge that McClane has likely never seen his face, he offers a brilliant performance to cover his tracks, if only for a moment.
When he’s stuck in a gunfight, he remembers that McClane has no shoes on. “Better than being caught with your pants down,” he remembers McClane quipping. So what does Hans do? He tells Karl to “shoot the glass.”
These are just a couple of examples of how calculating this brilliant villain really is, and it makes the story even more interesting because we wonder how the hero will ever match up to such a calculating foe.
5. Hans Gruber Is Likable
It’s one thing to have a villain that is utterly dangerous. It’s a whole different game changer when the villain is also utterly likable.
Because of his sophistication, he comes off as such a gentleman. He has manners. When Mr. Takagi presents himself after an intimidating moment as Hans works his way through the crowd, what does Hans do? Does he smack him in the head with his gun? No. Does he order his men to grab him and take him out back? No. He smiles and shakes his hand.
He also has a keen sense of humor. He breaks the following awkward moment in the elevator by complementing Takagi on his choice of suit.
And lastly, we respect him as a mastermind villain because he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Not only does he interrogate and execute with swagger and void of hesitation…
… he also takes the initiative to go looking for the detonators alone and jumps into a firefight when necessary (see above). The audience respects that.
The best type of villain is one that the dark side of you secretly roots for. In a world where we know that the hero almost always wins in the end, we need a game changer to challenge that notion, through to the very last moments of the story.
Hans Gruber gave us that, like no other villain has in the history of cinema.
We believed that he was worthy of escaping alive to steal again, exceptionally, another day. We believed if any villain could, it would have been him.
The greatest villains ever written don’t just match the hero’s charisma and skill set — they rise above them. They’re always just one step ahead in order to create the necessary conflict for the hero to go through their journey. Hans Gruber and John McClane matched each other so well. The audience reveled in their exchanges.
Hans never broke character. He was always all-knowing. He was always sophisticated. He always knew how to utilize the people he surrounded himself with. He was always calculating his next move calmly. And yes, he always remained likable to the point where the audience was rooting for him just as much as they were for John McClane. It’s a testament to the writers, one of whom — Steven E. de Souza — ScreenCraft was lucky enough to have as a judge of our Action & Thriller Screenplay Contest.
And even if John McClane got the better of him in the end, Hans Gruber will forever remain as, yes, the greatest movie villain of all time.
In memory of Alan Rickman, the late talented actor who made his feature film debut as Hans Gruber in the original Die Hard, we turn to him to reflect on the impact of the character he portrayed so brilliantly.