As I sit here, a few weeks after Christmas 2003 and just a day after the sad end of what we've come to know as "The Holidays" (aka "The Two Weeks Of The Year When No One Really Works, And If They Do, Nothing Gets Done Anyway"), I find myself wondering if there's anything holiday-related that truly applies to "The Essential Geek."

What's out there that's truly geekly, truly great, and truly Christmas? There's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," but that's already been covered quite ably in these pages. There's "Scrooged," maybe, but that movie kinda sucks. There's the "Star Wars Holiday Special," but I wrote about that last time.

Then it hit me. My favorite geekly Christmas movie, one of the great holiday tales of warmth, happiness and love. A movie that gives me fuzzies every time I think of it.

That's right. My favorite holiday movie is none other than "Die Hard."

Right now, you may be flipping out not just because I've dared to call "Die Hard" a "holiday movie," but because I've dared to suggest "Die Hard" is worthy of Essential Geek status. The collective critical brain has slotted the original "Die Hard" into the cinematic dustbin occupied by such fun but mindless action fare as "Predator," the "Lethal Weapon" movies, and the entire filmographies of Steven Seagal, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Brian "The Boz" Bosworth.

(Remember "Stone Cold," an early nineties attempt by "The Boz" at cashing in on his minor celebrity and becoming an action hero? Never seen it myself, but I bet it's as bad as "Firestorm," Howie Long's equally laughable effort at joining the ranks of film actors. Haven't seen that one either, but come on. These movies suck. Do we need to actually SEE them to know this is true? I think not.)

But "Die Hard" isn't a dumb action movie; it's a smart, funny, sharply written and surprisingly emotional action movie. If you think otherwise, you obviously haven't seen it in a long while.

"Die Hard" spins the yarn of John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York City cop who arrives in L.A. to spend the holidays with his wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia). She's eager for him to move to the west coast; he's too attached to his job in NYC, and besides, why won't she just change her last name already? Shortly after landing on the left coast, he finds himself attending the holiday party for his wife's company, where lo how a rose ere blooming, a band of terrorists suddenly arrive to deck the halls. Led by the deliciously evil Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), they create more than enough trouble for our boy John to handle, as he struggles to take down a cadre of nasties all by his lonesome in a massive high-rise buildilng even though he's not wearing any shoes. ("Where are his shoes?" you ask. Why should I tell you?! Just see the movie, alright???)

Reading the synopsis, it sounds like trash. But the real trash is the garbage that took the "Die Hard" action formula and bastardized it to create all the awful adrenaline-soaked celluloid we've seen in the ensuing years. There was "Die Hard" on a bus ("Speed"), "Die Hard" on a boat ("Speed 2"), even "Die Hard" in a hockey arena ("Sudden Death," starring Senor Van Damme). "Die Hard" isn't "Die Hard" in an anything; it's just "Die Hard," and it rises above the rest by showing off such unexpected elements as character, wit and intelligence.

Consider the film's opening sequence, all the setup we get before the terrorists crash the Christmas party. It's as pure character introduction as you'll find in a Hollywood movie, devoid of explosions or gunfire of any kind; we simply meet John and Holly, along with a host of supporting characters who will pop up throughout the film and create the requisite suspense and tension for the viewer. There's Ginny, Holly's very pregnant secretary; Ellis, the office jerk; and Argyle, a plucky limo driver with attitude to spare. All three (and many others) will become entangled in the terrorist invasion to come, but at this point we just get a brief moment with each, enough to file each into essential character types, but not in an exploitative way. It's elegant, smooth writing, and it feels natural. It's the best kind of exposition, because you don't even realize it's exposition.

There's even time for sublety. As John exits the plane that brought him to L.A., he bumps into a pretty stewardess and engages in a bit of flirting. But it's not "Hey hot mama, let's swing later" flirting, it's that wistful flirting a married man does when he realizes he could make time with a beautiful woman, if only he weren't happily married. It's an amazing beat, because it tells us volumes about John McClane, a man who remains true to himself even when situations push him in a million directions.

Once the terrorists show up, it's time to set the character development aside for a time and focus on the aforementioned explosions and gunshots. But the character stuff doesn't end; in fact, it grows even deeper with the introduction of Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), an L.A. cop who develops a relationship with John McClane over the radio. When the L.A.P.D. tangles things up through their pigheadedness, and then the F.B.I. shows up and of course doesn't know what they're doing either, it's Al who becomes John's only support system, both for information and emotional aid.

The arrival of the terrorists also brings Hans Gruber into full view, and it's instantly clear that Rickman sinks his teeth into his role with a visible relish. There's a terrific scene where Rickman tries to lure the head of the corporation into leaking the passcodes for the safe in the office; here Gruber is all slime and bile as he schemes his way absolutely nowhere and enjoys every second of it. Later, in one of the film's more brilliant twists, Gruber actually joins McClane in navigating the building, putting on a fake American accent and pretending to be an escaped hostage. It's impossibly tense; McClane hands a pistol over to Gruber and Gruber's mask immediately falls. Suddenly, McClane has a gun at his back. Of course, McClane outsmarts the terrorist, and the gun isn't loaded. But for a fantastic moment, the film finds a way to bring the good guy and the bad guy together against all odds put up by the plot. Sharp stuff.

And it dovetails nicely into the film's most memorable scene, which also happens to demonstrate all of the strengths of "Die Hard" in one tidy package. Hans is rescued by some of his thugs, to which he unforgettably shouts, "Shoot...the glass!" They do, and thus McClane is forced to walk across a room covered in shattered glass in his bare feet if he wants to save his wife. Two small character beats (McClane chats with a fellow passenger on his flight about making tiny fists with your bare feet to cure jet lag, then McClane actually tries it in his wife's office) come together for what's easily one of the most cringe-inducing moments I've experienced in a theater. Broken glass, bare feet...as E.T. might say, "Ouuuuuuuuuch."

Of course, the action in "Die Hard" is spectacular. At this point, that kinda goes without saying. My favorite part is when McClane fights that weirdo German twin who has the huge machine gun, and there's those swinging things that they knock each other around with. Sweeeeeeeeet. But the best compliment I can pay "Die Hard" is that you don't need to focus on the action to discuss what a great movie it is. In fact, it's a great movie not because of its action, but because of all the heart and smarts that are packed into the cracks between the action. That stuff holds the action together, makes it worth watching, and ultimately gets you to give more than a crap about McClane, Holly, Hans, Al, and even the occasionally annoying Argyle.

Every holiday season, you flip on the TV, and you quickly consume more than your fill of all the schmaltzy holiday garbage being shoveled onto the airwaves. Next year, a Christmas screening of "Die Hard" is just what the cinematherapist ordered. Pick up the excellent two-disc DVD edition now, slip it in the box with your Christmas ornaments, and thank me in December.

Yippie kay ay, and ho ho ho, motherf***er.