Friday, October 11, 2013

Die Hard and the Celebration of Average Masculinity

Bruce Willis' portrayal of John McClane in John McTiernan's 1988 film, Die Hard ushered in a new era for the action hero. McClane seems like a regular guy. He's sort of muscular, but not ripped and he even has the slightest hint of a gut. He seems like a man more likely to crack open a few beers rather than pump iron. Where many of the action heroes of the decade played bachelors, Willis' McClane is not. He's married (though his relationship is troubled) and he has kids. While the formula of the 80s action film is present in that the film concerns one man against seemingly insurmountable odds (also with a little interracial buddy cop action too, in the form of Reginald Veljohnson's character of Sgt. Al Powell whom McClane communicates with via police radio), the difference is that McClane is not superhuman. Which isn't to say that he isn't somewhat remarkable. He is the "fly in the ointment" for the mixed band of terrorists that take over the Nakatomi building. Yet his ability to defeat these men stems more from a dogged determination rather than unusual feats of strength. More importantly, he reveals vulnerability, something few 80s action heroes ever showed. During a moment in the film when it seems that he is giving up, he asks Al to find his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and then proceeds to become emotional when detailing to Al his love for her and his failings in the relationship.

In Die Hard McClane remains, despite or perhaps because of his shortcomings, a typical American hero. That he is pitted against a group of primarily European criminals is interesting. Alan Rickman does a stellar job as Hans Gruber, the German terrorist with the British accent. His acting performance is over-the-top and totally suited for the role, clearly he realized the inherent silliness of the character, which is really more caricature than anything. This film also seems to pointedly pit stereotypical American values against stereotypical European values. Consider the fight sequence between McClane and Carl (Alexander Godunov). Godunov was a dancer and it is evident in the balletic kicks and twirls he employs in this scene. Yet  McClane responds to Carl's graceful beating by bashing Carl's head against things and punching and kicking at him wildly. There is almost the sense of a kind of natural European elegance against American thick-headed clumsiness in this moment. Of course, none of that matters because McClane is victorious in the fight because Americans always have to win. Gruber makes a point of mentioning that during the films' climax, even referencing the habit of Americans to be eternally desirous of happy endings in movies. His statement, "You Americans all alike. Well, this time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly" is interrupted by McClane's reply, "Sky Cooper, asshole," which both corrects Gruber's mistake with the actress' name and also his mistaken belief that this particular scenario will end unhappily for the American John McClane.

Die Hard represents a return to a more average type action hero. That it references John Wayne (the most regular of regular guys) is telling. The fact that McClane's name rhymes with John Wayne's suggests that the two are being linked. More to the point, McClane is a realistic character. He isn't invincible, he can be harmed- he sustains both a gun shot wound in the arm and a serious injury to his bare feet when Gruber, after discovering McClane is only partially clothed, directs his henchmen to "shoot the glass." This weakness makes McClane rather like a 70s action star. Interestingly, this film seemed to set the tone for 90s action movies. The end of the 80s marked the beginning of the end of the domination of the genre by the huge action star.  By the mid 90s, action heroes had become less muscular and more realistic in appearance. The runaway success of Die Hard likely had something to do with that.

No comments:

Post a Comment