I saw for the first time this year a movie I probably should have seen a long time ago in my movie adventures. It is the quintessential 80s action flick Die Hard. The movie stars Bruce Willis in his breakthrough role of John McClane and Alan Rickman as the suave, terrorist mastermind Hans Gruber. Die Hard sports an impressive 92% on RottenTomatoes, despite it being what many would label a “mindless action-flick.”
The background for this film is fairly complex. It began as an intended sequel to Roderick Thorp’s best selling novel and 20th Century Fox’s successful movie The Detective, entitled Nothing Lasts Forever. Thorp, needing to make a story quickly, modeled his new book after The Glass Tower—a book about people trapped by a raging fire in a high rise office building—simply replacing the fire with terrorists, which were then all the rage. Thorp finished the story and Fox was ready to make the movie, until the star of The Detective, Frank Sinatra, turned down the role. The film was scrapped, until years later when it was rediscovered in Fox’s archives. It went through some major rewrites and eventually Bruce Willis was chosen to play the role of John McClane.
Part of the movie’s excellence comes from its plot. It is a villain centric plot, which some would say is the key to a good action film. What the hero does is not particularly important; the entire movie relies on the plans of Hans Gruber, and everything is structured around that. It’s tight. Furthermore, the plot has an explicit relation to the theme of the movie, something that is both simple yet rarely seen in the average movie. It provides an external stimulus (namely the plan of Gruber) which pushes McClane to solve his internal problems (namely his problem with his wife). The film also artistically juxtaposes the characters of McClane and Gruber. John is a working class cowboy who can acknowledge his own weaknesses, but Hans is a self-confident, sophisticated, pseudo-intellectual snob who is greedy to the bitter end. Finally, in all of this, Die Hard establishes a theme of learning to let go.
Critics typically like this movie, affirming it as a “sophisticated thriller” and praising its post-modern setting. But the main consensus of viewers is concerned with Bruce Willis’s John McClane, who despite the bad acting, excels in the hearts of each viewer and is undeniably relatable. He is a hero unlike any other, human and faulted. Yet he is brave and intelligent and able to save the innocent. He is our kind of hero.
The following is not a Christian treatise but an examination of the claims and themes of a popular film. I have praised the movie as it is due, but I want to level some critiques against it that I think are also due. What I have to say at this point is, in a way, minor. It does not negate what the movie does well, but might direct our minds to something better.
John McClane is admired by many. As described above, he is relatable; people like a hero that they can see themselves being. No one can see themselves in blue tights and a red cape, but you just might be able to see yourself in a wife-beater without shoes. And for that reason, some might even label McClane as a superior hero. They may say that Die Hard’s protagonist is better than Superman or Batman or the Incredible Hulk because he is something that is obtainable. If we are seeking for bravery, look no further than Mr. McClane.
My beef with this is twofold. First of all, it puts us too close to the action. Before, with Superman, the whole ordeal was too distant—cosmic battles versus arch-villains. We built up an instinctive, subconscious barrier between us and them, just sitting back and enjoying it all. But now, we are too close. We sympathize with Bruce Willis’s everyman’s man, and absorb the good with the bad. We can see ourselves double-taking as a young girl walks by, we can see ourselves participating in the gun battles and violence, we can see ourselves—just as easily—doing everything wrong that McClane did wrong.
On the other side of things, while we get all the bad traits from McClane, we don’t really get any of his good ones. Because while we can sympathize with him and easily absorb his bad-habits and desensitization to violence, we cannot achieve the standard he sets in virtue and bravery. He is still too clever and courageous for mere humans—he operates on a superhuman level. John McClane looks more attainable, but we still can’t grasp him.
I like Die Hard. It is an excellently made movie with a remarkable hero. But I think the efforts to make the perfectly relatable protagonist has backfired, essentially detrimenting its viewers. Contrasting, I think there is something special about fantasy, something that it offers on this front: it implants the same noble ideals but establishes the necessary distance. We may never punch like Superman or fight villains like him, but we can be selfless like him.