This week, Bruce Willis rides the current wave of Boomer Action Cinema to return as John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard. Willis’ working-class hero has now been gracing theater screens for 25 years and has seen his fair share of changes – more road trips, added sidekicks, children popping up, developing super powers that let him duck flying cars and surf jets. Live Free or Die Hard in particular began to pull the character away from his roots. But no matter where Willis’ hero goes, no matter who he fights, there are always dependable things we can expect to see in each film — and we’re not just talking about his potty-mouthed catchphrase. A recent reviewing of the entire series made us realize that there are a variety of smaller tropes that keep popping up in every Die Hard film. So, in the hopes of temporarily putting aside any fears that we may be increasingly losing the spirit of the franchise to filmmakers who don’t get John McClane, here are a few of the surprising things that help make a Die Hard movie, a Die Hard movie.
Common as they may be, there are still those who think elevators are dormant death traps. They probably shouldn’t watch Die Hard movies. For many, being stuck in between floors for hours like Lucy McClane in Live Free or Die Hard would be enough to realize their worst fears. And that’s tame compared to her father’s tendency to crawl around elevator roofs and shafts — to say nothing of his ability to make turning an elevator into a deathtrap a kind of art, what with sending bodies down in them or turning them into bloody massacre sites. If nothing else, his masterpiece – driving an SUV into an elevator shaft – would be enough to make anyone think twice about what’s waiting the next time those doors open.
John Gets Hurt Really Quickly
What’s always distinguished John McClane from his action brethren (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, etc) is that he’s a relatable everyman who gets hurt. He is vulnerable. He bleeds when he steps on glass, gets lacerations from explosions, gets dirty and grimy from his bad days. Ever since the first Die Hard established his vulnerability, the series likes to remind us of it by banging him up as quickly as possible. We see first blood at the 37-minute mark in the first film – quick for the action movies of the ’80s. The subsequent flicks all draw first McClane blood within a mere 15 minutes. You’d think at this point he would start keeping some Band-Aids in his pocket in case he has one of those days.
Emergency Services Happy Ending
McClane may suffer minor injuries early on his adventures, but by the end they’ve compounded and he is bloody, battered, and limping through the burning embers and rubble of his handiwork. Which is why it’s no surprise that every Die Hard movie ends with him and his loved ones/allies wrapped in blankets or jackets, surrounded by an army of Emergency Services and police vehicles. Then the camera tracks away to leave him alone to heal – or show us the scope of the chaos he’s helped create.
John Flies Through the Air
Considering that the first thing we learn about John McClane in Die Hard is that he’s a nervous flyer, he sure spends a lot of time vaulted and suspended in the air. There’s the jump off Nakatomi Tower in Die Hard and the ejector seat in Die Hard 2. There’s the geyser escape from the dam tunnels or his freefall onto the freight ship in Die Hard with a Vengeance, as well as his multi-level fall courtesy of Maggie Q and his jet escapades in Live Free or Die Hard. It’s maybe no surprise that, despite revealing in the fourth film that he took helicopter lessons, McClane still is a nervous flyer.
Two-Way Radios and Trash Talking
No matter how increasingly advanced the technology gets in the Die Hard series (to the chagrin of our Luddite protagonist), every film has the bad guys using two-way radios to communicate with each other. Every Die Hard also inevitably finds McClane getting access to a two-way radio, which he proceeds to use to taunt his adversaries and threaten to do the kinds of colorful things to them that make a colonoscopy suddenly sound appealing.
The Bad Guys Like to Impersonate
McClane’s opponents love the deceptive power of impersonation. Every one of them – Hans Gruber, Colonel Stuart/Major Grant, Simon Gruber, and Thomas Gabriel – all at some point pretend to be someone they’re not. The Grubers fake being American (badly) to get closer to something they want (McClane for Hans, Bank entry for Simon). Colonel Stuart and Gabriel falsify their identities to re-direct planes for their own destructive purpose. And impersonation isn’t just limited to management. In every film, the 1-800-HENCHMEN impersonate security guards, law enforcement, and construction workers. It’s getting to the point where we wouldn’t blame McClane for just immediately shooting anyone who matches that description.
If you ever find yourself in a Die Hard movie, don’t get into anything that flies. In McClane’s world, airborne vehicles have a bad tendency to get shot down or outright vaporized. Especially helicopters. The Agents Johnson see their chopper bombed out of the sky, and McClane and Zeus’ helicopter gets shot down before John blows up Simon’s. Which is still small-time compared to John taking out a helicopter with a car in Live Free or Die Hard. The only movie where helicopters don’t meet terrible ends is Die Hard 2, which is probably to balance out the movie’s destruction of two giant planes.
The Ineptitude of Government Organizations
In all the excitement of watching John McClane gets things done, it’s easy to miss who doesn’t accomplish anything: the organizations that are actually supposed to save the day from hostage and terrorist situations. In every film, some government authority – ranging from local police force to the FBI and military – shows up to tackle the situation and prove to be arrogantly over-confident, antagonistically unhelpful, grossly ineffective, or just good old useless. As McClane says in Live Free or Die Hard, “If there was somebody else doing it, I’d let them do it.” He’s the only one – with good, old-fashioned American gumption – who can save the day. To their credit, the government authorities are really good at riding his coat tails and cleaning up once McClane is done. Catching terrorists would probably be better, but hey, clean-up is an important job, too, we guess.
What’s always made John McClane such a successful character is that he’s an everyday working guy — a true American working-class fantasy come to life. Which is why McClane is always fighting his battles in the spaces that are part of the blue-collar life and industrial complexes. Die Hard movies have more ducts, pipes, and exposed tubes and wiring than an Alien movie. He never finds himself in glitzy upper-class spaces – he’s in construction sites, warehouses, freight ships, industrial basements. In that way, McClane isn’t just a fighting working-class guy, he’s fighting for the working class where they earn their daily wages.
Western and Sports References
John McClane is a modern cowboy. Die Hard establishes that firmly. No matter what Hans might say, McClane is John Wayne (well, Gary Cooper) walking off into the sunset over and over again. No other Die Hard movie makes as much of a point of it, but they do honor the connection by throwing in Western references here and there. They’re usually minor – McClane gets called “John Wayne” in the second and third films, he references calling the cavalry in – but they’re a pleasant little nod to the terminology so heavily used in the original Die Hard to help make it a contemporary western.
The series also likes to make repeated references to football – “the quarterback is toast,” “We don’t need any Monday morning quarterbacks,” McClane noting that his ambulance chasing is like following a blocker – which is perhaps a nice nod to the fact that while McClane may be a modern cowboy, he’s also a modern-day American who likes a beer and a football game to unwind with after killing a bunch of terrorists.