His hairline is receding but his sense of duty remains staunch as ever. He’s the modern day equivalent of Gary Cooper in High Noon, taking on the bad guys alone not because he wants to but because what other choice does he have.
To understand John McClane you have to understand 80s action films in general. A world ruled by Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action film of the 80s was a reflection of the American spirit at the time - unbeatable heroes taking on weaselly, shitty villains. So few of the villains in 80s action films are worth remembering, and too many of the films feature simply waves of faceless goons getting taken out by heroes who never run out of ammo or out of breath.
In that company John McClane stands (almost*) alone. He’s not an expert or a specialist or a highly trained military battle god - he’s just a pretty good cop with a Marine background. He’s not a man pushed too far or fighting back against an evil power that took something from him - he’s just a guy who ended up in a bad place at a bad time. And he’s definitely not super powered - hell, in Die Hard he doesn’t even have any shoes.
It isn’t that you can identify with John McClane - after all, he’s not exactly an average schlub - but it’s that he’s the kind of hero you can really get behind. He’s a guy who isn’t asking for trouble, but who isn’t afraid to deal with it when it arrives. He’s a guy doing the right thing for the right reasons; McClane never tries to get out of fighting the bad guys, but he’s not exactly dying to get into the fight. In the Die Hard trilogy McClane is thrust into tough situations, and in the first two he tries - very, very hard - to get the proper authorities involved. It isn’t that John McClane doesn’t trust the police to do the job, it’s that he’s usually the best man for that particular job.
Hans Gruber accuses McClane of being a cowboy, and the hero mockingly embraces it with the ‘Yippie kay yay mother fucker’ catchphrase, but the reality is that McClane is the modern end of a long lineage of cowboy heroes. While there’s Gary Cooper from High Noon in his DNA, there’s also John Wayne from Rio Bravo. Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ response to High Noon, a film that tried to rebut Fred Zinnemann’s paean to lone heroes. John McClane doesn’t really go it alone - he always has help, whether it be in the form of the venerable Al Powell or Zeus Carver.
But more than specific cinematic cowboys it’s the very concept of the cowboy as the ultimate American - swift to fair violence, strong in the defense of the weak, only finishing shit other people start - that informs John McClane. I think that in the 80s the unstoppable action hero was feeling unfair to the audience. America was the super power, the biggest kid on the block, and even during the height of the Cold War it seemed like we had the upper hand on Soviet Russia, where people waited in line for hours just to get toilet paper. They had as many nukes and tanks as we had, bu we had the good life they could only dream of; there was something endlessly asymmetrical in that conflict. On top of that the Cold War was waged by proxy, and so what happened was that massive amounts of American hardware would be used to put down jungle peasant uprisings. There was something about the loss of the Vietnam War that demanded our movie heroes be tougher and harder to beat and that they cut a swath through as many underclass people as possible.
But the best cowboy stories always had the hero outnumbered and outgunned. The American identity was forged in the Revolutionary War, which by all rights the British should have won. We saw ourselves as the scrappy underdog, even when we were flattening huge portions of other countries. So while the unstoppable hero evolved out of the psychic wound of Vietnam, John McClane grew out of dissatisfaction with that character. Americans aren’t ubermensch, and that’s what makes us great. It’s the human vulnerability of John McClane that makes him great. There’s a chance he won’t win in the end, even though there’s never any doubt that he’ll win in the end.
The other thing that sets McClane apart from many of the 80s action heroes is the fact that he uses his head as his greatest weapon. In most Die Hard films McClane is wielding much less firepower than the guys he’s up against (who doesn’t remember the triumph of McClane finally getting a machine gun in the original Die Hard?), but he’s always out thinking them. That sort of ingenuity is something Americans like to claim for their own as well, the ability to persevere through tough times and figure out a way to take what’s bad and make something good from it. McClane represents that on a very immediate, very physical level.
What I’ve always really liked about John McClane is the way that he delivers violence. The kills in a Die Hard movie are rarely brutal or cruel; they’re usually the result of McClane just trying to find the best way to dispatch someone who is looking to kill the shit out of him. They’re kills of opportunity. In other action franchises the kills were becoming more and more over the top; Commando, released a couple of years before Die Hard, is downright cartoonish in its kills. McClane never relishes the kills, but he also doesn’t regret them. It’s a very working man attitude - this is what has to be done, and so it’ll be done. McClane doesn’t just remind us of cowboys, there’s much of the WWII dogface soldier to him. The job is to kill those bad guys and win the day, and there’s no joy to be taken in the killing. It’s nothing personal, it’s just what has to be done to save his own hide as well as to win the day.
He’s also funny. Quips were de rigeur for action heroes in the 80s, but only Bruce Willis delivered them with anything approaching real humor. At the time when Die Hard was released Bruce Willis wasn’t exactly an action star; he had made his name on the comedic detective show Moonlighting, and his film debut was starring in Blake Edwards’ comedy Blind Date. Those comedic instincts informed the wisecracks of McClane, as does Willis’ real life blue collar background. Willis’ father was a soldier before becoming a welder; Willis himself worked as a security guard before his well-known stint as a bartender. By the time the 80s rolled around real life was a distant memory for the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers in Hollywood, but it was very real to Willis.
The weirdest thing about John McClane is that he used to be Frank Sinatra. Die Hard isn’t an original story; it’s based on a novel called Nothing Lasts Forever, which was a sequel to a novel called The Detective. The film version of The Detective had starred Sinatra, and it did well enough in 1968; author Roderick Thorp, inspired by The Towering Inferno, returned to the character in 1979, trapping him in the Klaxxon Oil Building, trying to rescue his daughter from politically motivated terrorists.
Sinatra opted not to do the film, and the script banged around for a while. For a moment it seemed like Nothing Lasts Forever was going to be turned into a sequel to Commando, but wiser heads prevailed and it became Die Hard. The movie is very similar to the novel, except that the older protagonist was aged down and the film was made lighter than the very dark book, starting with making the bad guys thieves as opposed to political terrorists.
John McClane’s future adventures all came from weird sources. Die Hard 2: Die Harder was based on a novel called 58 Minutes, while Die Hard With A Vengeance was repurposed from a non-Die Hard script called Simon Says, where Zeus was a woman. On some levels this explains the fluctuations in McClane’s character - especially between Die Harder and With A Vengeance - but really what it speaks to is the iconic strength of McClane. Despite taking the central role from other characters (and in the case of the first two films remaining fairly faithful to the source material), John McClane still emerges as a recognizable John McClane. In fact it isn’t until the fourth film, the wrong-headed Live Free Or Die Hard, that McClane falls to pieces.
You’ll notice that I’ve been very deliberately staying away from that film; the honest reason is that, besides the title and the character names there’s very little ‘Die Hard’ in the movie. Hostage is probably a better late-period John McClane film than Live Free or Die Hard, and it’s because the fourth film in the franchise finally turns McClane into the kind of indestructible superhero he had been the antithesis of in 1988. In the original Die Hard Bruce Willis did many of his own stunts; besides allowing us to feel like McClane was actually doing the action, Willis’ stunt work meant that McClane very rarely did anything too crazy. Simply put, Bruce Willis isn’t a real stunt man and so the action scenes remained down to Earth. Both Die Harder and With A Vengeance break that element at some point in the narrative, but Live Free Or Die Hard more or less starts that way, with McClane launching cars at helicopters and dodging flying vehicles in a tunnel. The inclusion of major CGI turned McClane into the cartoon character his contemporaries had long been. That defangs the character on every level, and that’s without even broaching the fact that the PG-13 rating meant that McClane’s salty working class language had to be toned down for the kids.
The one service that Live Free Or Die Hard does is to put the other films into stark perspective. Whatever problems some may have had with Die Harder or With A Vengeance, both are patently John McClane films, especially when viewed against the backdrop of Live Free.
There may be more Die Hard films in the future, but I’m willing to bet there will be no more real John McClane movies. That guy was very much of his time; now as America slips out of super power status it seems like the time is right for the return of the cartoon heroes, as evidenced by The Expendables last year. It’s American Exceptionalism on steroids and armed with machine guns, while John McClane was American Idealism with a lapsed gym membership and a can of hairspray and a lighter. We don’t want to be plucky anymore, we want to be triumphant. We want to see aging heroes return to beat the shit out of bad guys and barely get a black eye in the process. The real John McClane doesn’t belong in that cinematic atmosphere.
But here’s to the John McClane who was the greatest modern action character. Here’s to the guy who hopes the shit doesn’t hit the fan on his shift, but who is more than willing to clean it up when it does. Here’s to the guy who isn’t looking to be a hero, who regrets having done Nightline after the Nakatomi Plaza incident, who just wants to get home at the end of the day and make sure the bad guys don’t get to do the same.
Welcome John McClane to the Badass Hall of Fame.
* Indiana Jones is very much the John McClane of adventure films. Or John McClane is very much the Indiana Jones of action films.