Alan Rickman, ‘Die Hard,’ and the commitment of being a classic movie villain

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
01.14.16 52 Comments

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“Galaxy Quest” was far from the most famous Alan Rickman movie, but it may feature his most autobiographical role. As Alexander Dane, a classically trained Shakespearean actor (who's constantly boasting of the five curtain calls he received for playing Richard III) forever typecast as the alien warrior he played on a cult classic TV show, Rickman was riffing not only on Leonard Nimoy's difficult relationship with Mr. Spock from “Star Trek,” but also on the strange and wonderful nature of his own career.

Rickman, who died today at 69 from cancer, studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and gained acclaim for his role as the Vicomte de Valmont in the 1985 Broadway production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” And while he did spectacular and nuanced work in more highbrow films like “Sense and Sensibility” and “Truly Madly Deeply,” the bulk of his fame came from a pair of genre pieces: the first “Die Hard,” where he played the villainous Hans Gruber; and the Harry Potter, where he played the morally complicated Severus Snape.

“Die Hard” was Rickman's first film role, and among the many superlatives you can apply to the movie is that it features one of the great cinema debuts at all time. Movie villains at the time either tended to be muscular monsters capable of going toe-to-toe with the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, or swarthy foreign caricatures. Hans had elements of the latter, but only because it was a role-within-a-role: a crook posing as an international terrorist so law-enforcement won't realize what he's truly up to. Hans is performing in most of his scenes, and the level of pleasure he takes as he's jerking the cops around is palpable in every moment. At one point, he demands the release of the members of the Asian Dawn movement, and when one of his henchman looks baffled, Hans wryly explains, “I read about them in Time magazine.”

Bruce Willis' John McClane was conceived as a smarter and more wisecracking action hero than his '80s predecessors, and he needed a verbally dexterous foe to match. John and Hans only meet a couple of times – one of them while Hans is again play-acting, as one of the hostages, with an American accent that even McClane compliments after the fact – but interact frequently on the radio, and the dry disdain of Rickman's performance provides the perfect contrast for Willis' blue-collar gregariousness.

But as much as Hans enjoys playing everyone for a fool, Rickman's best moments come when he has to drop the mask and show who he really is and the professional pride he takes in his work. When John's wife Holly accuses him of being “nothing more than a common thief,” he snarls, “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane!” When his hacker sidekick Theo suggests they'll need a miracle to get past the last lock on the Nakatomi vault, he observes the arrival of even more law-enforcement and calmly boasts, “You asked for Miracles, Theo? I give you the FBI.” Every line was delivered with three or four layers to it; he somehow says McClane's “Yippee-ki-yay” catchphrase more memorably than Willis does. Even the cheesy effects as Hans fell to Earth in his final scene couldn't undo the sheer force and joy of Rickman's performance in that scene, and the rest of the film.

Hans cast a long shadow not only over Rickman's career – he'd spend much of the next few years being hired to play lesser-written versions of him in movies like “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Quigley Down Under” – but over movie villainy as a whole. Hans would become the new model for many an action movie bad guy, whether in other “Die Hard” films (Jeremy Irons played Hans' brother – who was just as duplicitous and clever as Hans – in “Die Hard with a Vengeance”), or unrelated films (Tommy Lee Jones stealing “Under Siege” out from under Steven Segal, various “Mission: Impossible” movie villains, Tom Hiddleston as Loki), though none could quite live up to this match of actor and role.

Severus Snape was never a pure villain, though the role required a performance menacing enough for audiences – as well as Harry, Ron, and Hermione – to believe he was, but complex enough for Snape's true motivations to be believable when the moment came. Rickman was too old to play a contemporary of Harry's parents, but it didn't matter; in a murderer's row of British actors playing Hogwarts teachers, Rickman was the only one whom you couldn't imagine being replaced by anyone else. He simply was Snape.

Which brings us back to “Galaxy Quest.” That movie starts out as a “Star Trek” parody before pivoting, “Princess Bride”-style, into being a sincere version of a story that could have featured the actual Kirk and Spock. Almost all of that shift relies on Rickman, who spends the movie's first half complaining about his role as Dr. Lazarus, and about the catchphrase he's spent his entire adult life running away from. But then Quellek – an alien fanboy who thinks Dr. Lazarus is real, and has modeled his entire life on the character – is shot, and as Alexander Dane watches him bleed out, he realizes the only words of comfort he can deliver in this terrible moment is that stupid damn catchphrase.

“Quellek,” he says, “by Grabthar's hammer… by the Suns of Worvan… you shall be… avenged.”

He delivers the line not with the boredom and irritation of a stuffy thespian who finds this stuff beneath him, but with the same gravity and quiet force with which he must have played “Richard III” on that night of the five curtain calls. And this was Alan Rickman: no matter how absurd the movie, or the role, he acted with absolute commitment – even when he was playing someone like Hans Gruber, who barely believed any of the words coming out of his own mouth.

Here's hoping he is, unlike Hans, sitting on a beach right now, earning 20 percent.

What does everybody think? What was your favorite Rickman performance?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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Alan Sepinwall has been writing about television since the mid-'90s. He's the author of "The Revolution Was Televised," about the rise of TV's new golden age, and co-author of "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time."

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