What is it about Die Hard? Why do people watch these movies? Is it a vest fetish? Some movie riff on the old Sylvia Plath trope (“Every woman adores a Fascist/ The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you”)? Did the audience of the 1980’s never quite get over its David Addison crush? I’m a fan. I’ll admit it. But watching the movies again at the weekend I couldn’t help but feel these films are slightly guilty pleasures.
In plot terms they’re hardly mould-shattering: a blue-collar cop who breaks all the rules takes on various snide, supercilious bad-guys in an orgy of bullets and colourful language. In Die Hard 1 it’s Alan Rickman doing the sneering; in Die Hard 2 it’s Death from Bill & Ted; in Die Hard 3 they bring in Jeremy Irons in a leotard. Lord knows which jobbing thesp/angry nobody they’ll rope in for the next instalment. But regardless of the villain, audiences know this much: that Bruce will lose his shirt, that he will swear vociferously… his marriage tenuous, his city under threat, a big finale (that makes little sense) resolving everything in a fireball.
The John McClane-persona and the Bruce Willis we know from talk-shows have become so synonymous by this point that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. It’s mind-bending to think that originally he was fifth choice for the part, subordinate to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, and Richard Gere. Though what he does with the role in hardly Oscar-worthy, Bruce does succeed in making McClane into a blueprint for modern action heroes: Bond by way of the New Jersey Turnpike – grubby, funny, average joe-tough. If it had been Arnie trapped in Nakatomi Plaza, McClane would have been invincible; Sly would have had the same problem; Burt would’ve been funny but you’d never have believed him as a cop; Richard Gere…no, because McClane might be psychotic (strike “might” – he is), but he isn’t smug the way Gere is smug. No. He’s smug like Bruce Willis.
I know as I write this that – yes – there are a lot of people out there who hate Bruce Willis: the smirk, the spray-on hair, the fact he was in Hudson Hawk and Striking Distance. Ok, so he’s an asshole. But isn’t the secret of his success that he’s the asshole in us? Isn’t that what Die Hard is about in its naked contempt for anyone even remotely resembling an authority figure? You only know who’s in charge in these movies because McClane is swearing at them. Is it wrong to see Bruce as some kind of iconoclastic avatar for all our pent-up modern-day frustrations? Look at the evidence: he hates bureaucracy, air-travel and international terrorism – exchange his gun for a dirty look and he’s simply the man we all want to be when our flight gets delayed at the airport.
Die Hard doesn’t have anything new to say to viewers (it didn’t in 1988, and it still doesn’t in 2007) but it does know something about explosions and how small boys’ imagine being a cop. It exists in a world where there are no consequences to insulting one’s superiors, where John McClane can blow-up what and who he wants and where smoking is allowed in Los Angeles…a world equal-parts nostalgia and million-dollar game of dress-up. Narrative is propelled in these movies more by what-would-be-cool than what-would-be-credible. Bruce Willis exists to vent our spleen at all those pencil-pushers and apparachiks who have ever thrown verbal obstacles in the path of our righteous cause, our need to McClane. It’s all there in the title; Die Hard, as noun, as throw-back. These movies offer catharsis both for cops who break all the rules and audiences who (as a guilty pleasure) like to watch.