On the First Day of Die Hard, My True Love Gave To Me...
Die Hard for Kids
As we delve deeper and deeper into the "like Die HardThe 1980s were famous for the bombastic action films released during the decade. Featuring big burly men fighting other big burly men, often with more guns, bombs, and explosions than appear in Michael Bay's wildest dreams, the action films of the decade were heavy on spectacle, short on realism. And then came a little film called Die Hard that flipped the entire action genre on its head. but..." genre, we're going to find some really weird, out there titles. Ones that people wouldn't expect would be similar to Die Hard. At a certain point we have to establish the rules of what makes a good Die Hard film. If we go back to the original film, we have one guy, at a single location, fighting off a group of skilled criminals there to rob the joint, so he wages a creative, one-man war, improvising as he goes along while quipping to himself the whole time, all in hopes of reuniting with his family at the end. By that definition, which fits just about every film in this genre. And it fits the first Home Alone just as well.
Oh, and of course, it's set at Christmas. This isn't always a requirement, mind you, but the key Die Hard films also act as Christmas movies, so when you find another entry to suits it perfectly, it just makes the connection that much stronger. So if you swap out a seasoned beat cop for am eight-year-old defending his home, you have all the makings of a kid-friendly Die Hard. It's hard to ignore the obvious connections once you're there.
Thing is, what everyone remembers about Home Alone -- Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) fighting off the Wet Bandit duo of Harry Lyme (Joe Pesci) and Marv Murchins (Daniel Stern) -- is only about fifteen minutes, tops, in the actual film. The rest of the 103 minute runtime is taken up with the setup. Sure, we get scenes of Marv and Harry robbing other places, but there's not a lot of that. All the "good stuff" is back loaded. It's the climax to an otherwise largely silly Christmas film.
But that works. If we had multiple scenes of the kid fighting off criminals over and over again it would stretch credulity. John McClain can battle terrorists off and on through the length of a film because it works in context. Big building, lots of nooks and crannies for him to hide in, tracking the criminals before he takes them out in twos and threes. The setup there allows for that kind of action and violence. Kevin can't be at every home, defending all of them. He has to handle one location, one series of traps, one set of criminals.
That's the other thing that this film has to change from the formula: Kevin can't kill anyone because this is a heart-warming Christmas movie... with violence. It's a weird mix. But to keep it light and PG-rated, Marv and Harry have to survive all the traps even has half of them probably would have killed (or seriously maimed) the two of them. The loaded paint cans to the face probably should have killed both criminals, but there were plenty of other moments where you're sitting there going, "there's no way they come away from that trap in one piece. Just no way." But the film sells it as lightly cartoonish so... it works.
Really, what's impressive is that the film actually makes you care about Kevin and his plight. The first ten minutes sets up the whole story. Kevin is a little shit, who acts like a little shit to the rest of his shitty family. None of them are really nice, everyone hates Kevin, and so when Kevin acts out, they all blame him for everything. He gets sent to the attic to sleep, without dinner, on the eve of everyone in this massive family, with two sets of parents with the dad's bother and brother's wife included, plus 11 total kids between the two families, flying off to Paris to be with other family that lives overseas. But when a storm knocks out the power lines, the family oversleeps and has to rush to make it to the airport, while Kevin, up in the attic all alone where he was sleeping, wakes to find his whole family gone.
Thinking it was a Christmas wish and that his family has truly vanished (because he's eight), he then spends a couple of days partying by himself. Once he catches wind of the plan of the two criminals, though, he decides to defend his house at all costs. That, of course, eventually leads to the climactic last act where Kevin booby-traps the whole house while Marv and Harry get abused over and over again while trying to break in. And hilarity, of course, ensues, at least if you were a kid watching this film in the 1990s.
The first act of the film, let's be honest, is awful. I hate the family, I really don't much care for Kevin, and frankly I'd be perfectly okay with the two burglars robbing everyone on the street blind. These are massive mansions we're talking about, with the kind of luxury goods that most of us would love to have but not everyone can afford. They have a house big enough to sleep 15 people, and as Harry notes, they're really fucking loaded. If you cast this family in a more modern light, they'd be the upper one-percent, the villains of the story.
But once that first act is over and the film settles in to watching Kevin go about his new, family-free life, it does get pretty cute. Much of that credit is due, of course, to the young Macaulay Culkin. He was cast for the role in part due to his scene stealing performance in Uncle Buck, but the kid could light up the screen. He just had it, and even as he's spouting off terrible dialogue (which, man, the writing in this film really is trash) he still makes it work. This film wouldn't function without Culkin at the center (which I'm sure we'll repeat time and again as we go through the rest of these movies).
It's the big climax that people remember, though, and it really does work here. Although there are a few instances where you know the burglars should have been horribly maimed, or killed, this film at least downplays it enough that it feels silly and not mean spirited (we'll get into the actual viscous damage Kevin does to these guys in the sequel next time). It's a light, kids' movie so the film finds just the right balance between silly and violent. You are fine with the robbers getting the beating they do because you expect them to get up and walk away... in handcuffs, ideally.
That does mean this is the Die Hard-like film with the lowest body count, since Kevin doesn't manage to kill anyone. No one dies in the later films in this series, but we'll get to a point where they probably should have and, honestly, isn't that the same thing? This film is light, and balanced, and plays it just right. So, credit to director Chris Columbus and writer John Hughes as they managed the impossible (a feat they weren't even able to perform again in their own sequel). It's impressive how well the film works despite a terrible first act and all the other cards stacked against it.
Look, I am not a fan of this movie. I only watched it so I could review it as part of my yearly study on Die Hard films. But I didn't hate it while I watched it this time around. I feel no desire to watch it again, mind you, but if people still love this movie and continue having it part of their Holiday stable, I get why. No judgment there. It works, all on its own merit, and does prove that, at least once, you could marry the Die Hard formula to a family-friendly premise.