Die Hard and its Questionable Mainstream Status

If there’s anything women don’t have patience for, it’s men condescending along gender lines. This winter, there’s been a lot of specific feedback about men claiming that Die Hard is their favorite Christmas movie–Dana Schwartz has an excellent article here where she mocks a character performing this role.

Exhibit A: What people remember about Die Hard.

While I appreciate the immortal frustration of having to deal with condescending men, these articles also make me feel hot and itchy with rage. Not just because Die Hard is my favorite movie, but because this issue cuts at the heart of one of my least favorite things–Die Hard‘s misinterpretation as a Reaganesque police power fantasy.
People see Die Hard as another film in the “one man killing machine” film genre, popularized by Rambo and repeated throughout the 80s in the various films that brought Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and other rippling action heroes into the public consciousness. In the mind’s eye, Bruce Willis stands in that long lineup of squared jaws and machine guns, an American flag and explosions in the background. He is co-branded into the male power fantasy, and when men smugly tell women that Die Hard is their favorite Christmas movie, they are evoking that fantasy, evoking strength and masculinity. Men who lean against a wall, sipping an eggnog, telling us women that Die Hard is their favorite film, are telling us that they want to supplant the traditional Christmas narrative with the male power fantasy, to add blood and stubble to the Christmas ideal. They are, in short, assholes who don’t know how to let other people enjoy themselves.

The film is none of the things these grinning idiots think it is.

Exhibit B: this film wants you to know this is a Generic American Person.

Die Hard opens on a scene that immediately lets a modern audience know it comes from another time; it involves John McClane (Bruce Willis) assuring the man sitting next to him on the airplane that it’s okay that he has a gun on a plane, because he’s a cop. John McClane then grabs a very large teddy bear and walks away. The film immediately establishes him as a down-to-earth, rough-and-tumble guy; he sees a beautiful blonde literally jump into the arms of her boyfriend and mutters “fuckin’ California.” He’s wearing an oversized plaid shirt over his famous wifebeater, and his hair is already hinting at receding. He has the barest hint of stubble that becomes more pronounced as the night goes on. He sits in the front passenger seat of a limo, because he’s never ridden in a limo before, and expresses frustration with touchscreens. The film’s first twenty minutes are agressively generic; these stabs at making John McClane an American everyman don’t swerve much from any other script of the era. Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia), John’s estranged wife, is living the 80s businesswoman high life, encouraging her pregnant secretary to sip on a cocktail at the Christmas party while she wrangles her cokehead coworker and Japanese boss. These motions are just that, motions, set pieces that feel rote and mechanical. Even the first point of conflict is pretty mundane, with John and Holly disagreeing over the reasons for their estrangement. John curses when Holly walks away, in his wifebeater in a bathroom with gold-leaf wallpaper, and it’s the first glimpse we get of what feels like genuine emotion.

Exhibit C: a very scared man deep in the shit.

The gunshots ring out into this generic silence. As the German terrorists arrive at the party, as screams fill the air, John McClane’s first instinct is not to go to his wife. He looks up, immediately alert at the sound of the first gunshot. He grabs his own pistol, forgetting his shoes. He peeks out the door, checks that the coast is clear–and runs for the fire exit.

John McClane tries the phones, which are dead. He encounters his first terrorist, plays bravado, and ultimately, kills him by accident, falling on top of him when they both fall down a flight of stairs. He tries to cram his feet into the man’s shoes, steals his radio, and contacts the police on their emergency frequency. John McClane’s second kill comes when more terrorists find him on the run; he draws a gun on them and orders them to freeze. Instead, they shoot at him, forcing John McClane to run for cover under a conference table. He shoots to survive, and then dumps a terrorist’s body out the window and onto a police car to show that, yes, he’s fucking serious about how much trouble he’s in, could they please send fucking backup.

This is Die Hard. It is not a triumphant film about an American hero, although it has a spirit of play and entertainment that made it such a hit summer blockbuster. The film itself makes light of the way the media and the police might respond to a terrorism incident, but John McClane’s situation is deadly serious. John McClane is frightened, calls the proper authorities, lays low for a good portion of the film, and only starts fighting back when the police force at large reveals itself to be incompetent. He is a lone man with no backup and no defenses, who tries to do the right thing, but ultimately must save his wife and save the innocent civilians being used by the German terrorists because there is no one else remotely capable. We see him break down, pulling glass out of his feet, lamenting to the police officer on the other side of the radio that he was never good enough for his wife. The police officer reveals that he once accidentally shot a child, and couldn’t bring himself to go back in the line of duty; John McClane, dripping blood, can only agree. John McClane limps into the third act, holding on purely out of love for the wife whose high-powered 80s lifestyle has left him behind.

Exhibit D: I don’t make this face when I’m enjoying myself.

Bruce Willis’ performance is generally overlooked in favor of Alan Rickman’s performance in this film, and it’s a crying shame. Bruce Willis in his early career has an electricity to his performances, a presence that I haven’t seen in any other actor. If you look beyond the generic action hero title that is so easy to apply, you can see the man Bruce Willis plays, a man desperate, inexperienced, and without options. You see a man who jumps off a building, not because he’s got action hero immortality, but because the roof is about to blow up and he’s got no other options. His eyes are wild, his white shirt turns black with dirt and sweat and blood and finally disappears altogether. He gets funny lines, quips that have become synonymous with the action hero, but Bruce Willis’ performance makes it clear that this is a coping mechanism. If John McClane can’t tease the men out to kill him, then all he has left is his dwindling supply of bullets and his own fear. John McClane fakes the male power fantasy, playing at being funny and badass and cool when he’s on the radio with Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), and running around and cursing and pouring his heart out when he’s talking to his fellow officer. He is a man, alone, abandoned by the system, and time is running out.

Die Hard can be a great film if you go into it expecting any other 80s action film. It sells itself as light, fun entertainment, and it is. The hero defies macho-man labeling, but you can check your phone while Bruce Willis is doing all the important acting and still get something enjoyable. You can get something out of the idea of subverting Christmas with violence, in the immortal imagery of a corpse wearing a Santa hat. This film can be exactly the film those smug men tell you it is, and still be a good film, because it is a multitude of things.

John McClane is like a cat, leaving little dead terrorists at his wife’s doorstep.

But it is not only those things, only that same, tired story. It is a story that says everything that story does not, explores the reality of a man without super-special commando powers stuck in a situation where he must rely only on his gun. It is a survival story, where a man loves his wife, desperately, and just wants them to get out of this alive, who is failed by the system meant to support him and has no choice but to assume the cocky action mantle. And the end, when he is covered in black grime and she’s wrapped in a blanket, shell-shocked, their kiss and the long pull-out to a ritzy Christmas number? Feels absolutely earned. Not because he has earned The Girl for being a hero, but because it’s Christmas, and they’re still alive, and the differences that separated them just don’t matter after all they’ve been through.

There’s a really good scene in Die Hard 4.0: Live Free or Die Hard, which cements it as a great sequel to me. John McClane and Matt Farrell (Justin Long) get on the subject of being a hero.

John McClane: You know what you get for being a hero? Nothin’. You get shot at. You get a little pat on the back, blah, blah, blah, attaboy. You get divorced. Your wife can’t remember your last name. Your kids don’t want to talk to you. You get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me, kid, nobody wants to be that guy.


Matt Farrell: Then why you doing this?


John McClane: Because there’s nobody else to do it right now, that’s why. Believe me, if there were somebody else to do it, I’d let them do it, but there’s not. So we’re doing it.


Matt Farrell: Ah. That’s what makes you that guy.

And that really is the heart of the character. When there is no one else, there is him, and he hates being That Guy. But he always rises to the occasion. Because he’s That Guy, and he’ll be That Guy until one of these sequels kills him off for the Next Guy, who will no doubt be the generic meathead people really want to see. But that’s not who he is, or what Die Hard is.
Anyway, I really think you should watch it.
Interact with the author on Twitter @yipp33kiyay, which is a Die Hard reference.

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