Advertisement

John McClane and the allure of cool

Community Times Reporter Jacob deNobel uses his encyclopedic knowledge of trashy cinema to break down trends in popular culture.

If the trailers and reviews are to be believed, "A Good Day to Die Hard" is running into many of the same problems as its immediate predecessor "Live Free or Die Hard." Instead of detailing the problems of the film, as I haven't - and probably won't - see the newest installment, let's instead take a look back at what helped the original Die Hard connect with audiences so strongly.

Advertisement

It may seem like a contradiction but it's true: "Die Hard" is cool because John McClane isn't.

When we first meet John McClane, before we learn he's a cop, before we learn he's a family man, we learn that he's scared of flying.

There are a lot of things that make the original "Die Hard" a classic - the intricate plotting, the charismatic villain, the memorable side-characters - but there is one thing that puts it head and shoulders above other genre films: John McClane's vulnerability.

He doesn't come off as a super cop. He's doesn't have Arnold Schwarzenegger's impossible Austrian physique or Sly Stallone's impenetrable expressions. He's a family man caught out of his element, left alone in a dangerous situation.

It's him versus twelve other men; difficult odds, to be sure, but in action-movie world that's nothing. To compare, Arnold kills over 80 people in "Commando," released just three years prior.

The core of "Die Hard" is that it's an average man in an extraordinary circumstance. McClane bleeds, he cries, he's shoeless for crying out loud. He's impulsive, yet regretful. He loves his wife but forgets to tell her. He doesn't want to stop the bad guys because they're evil doers. He wants to stop the bad guys because they've got the woman he loves.

If John McClane were cool, he'd be detached, emotionless. He'd never panic, never worry, and jumping off of the roof of a building with nothing but a fire hose wouldn't faze him.

We love McClane's vulnerability because it puts us in his circumstance. It reaches out to the audience and makes them participants. He voices our thoughts, our fears. There's a reason the original "Die Hard" works on an emotional level across many different audiences in a way that none of the sequels do. We don't love the spectacle. We love the man. An explosion means nothing if McClane, and therefore the audience, doesn't fear for his safety.

'Coolness' is a dispassionate response to what's going on. That's bad drama. Good drama, good action, has to do more than look cool. It has to invest the audience in the outcome. The point of action is to excite, and if the characters don't care, then neither does the audience. You can pile explosion upon explosion and have one near miss after the other, but if there are no stakes, it's just a kaleidoscope of visual stimuli. An action movie without stakes is like a firework show. You sit and admire the visual spectacle, but you remain aloof, never truly becoming involved.

We first see McClane lose his cool when talking to Holly before the party. What starts off as a romantic rekindling turns quickly into a shouting match, because he can't keep a cool head. What separates McClane from every other "loose cannon" cop, is that he acknowledges it as a problem. As soon as Holly leaves, he chastises himself and starts banging his head against the wall, carefully retaining audience sympathy after a jerk move. If he was an unrepentant pig, we wouldn't want him and Holly to end up together. If he was a saint, there would be no character growth. Instead, we have a man who, when things look bleakest, says "She's heard me say 'I love you' a thousand times, but she's never heard me say I'm sorry.'"

McClane cares. He cares about stopping Gruber; he cares about Holly; he cares about surviving. There's three levels of investment in every action scene. At any moment, Gruber could get away, Holly could be hurt, or McClane himself could die.

Dramatic storytelling puts characters in circumstances they can't possibly overcome. Cool storytelling makes the central character untouchable. Somewhere over the years, filmmakers have confused the excitement of seeing McClane survive despite incredible odds with the coolness of seeing McClane survive incredible odds because he himself is incredible.

Advertisement
Advertisement