Die Hard With a Podcast: Episode 03 - John McClane: Analyzing a Barefoot Hero (2024)

Oct 16, 2018

The high-quality talent of the team that broughtDieHardto the screen is well-recognized.But to many,the secret ingredient to the movie's success was Bruce Willis andhis portrayal of John McClane, an everyman police officer from NewYork, trapped in Nakatomi Tower at exactly the wrong time – andwithout even shoes on his feet. McClane takes on the role ofreluctant hero to save his wife and the other innocent hostages,and defeat German terrorist-thief Hans Gruber. The McClanecharacter has stuck in audiences' memories ever since, and sparkeda change in how action heroes are characterized. So what makes JohnMcClane so special? How much of it is his character, how much of itis the influence of other legendary heroes before him, and how muchof it is Willis bringing the role to life?

Let us know what you think! Drop us a line at diehardwithapodcast@gmail.com, or visit our site atwww.diehardwithapodcast.com

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to the podcast, pal.

My name is Simone Chavoor, and thank you for joining me for DieHard With a Podcast! The show that examines the best Americanaction movie of all time: Die Hard.

This is episode three of the show, and I wanted to thank you allagain for the amazing response we got for the last episode. I’vebeen having a lot of fun talking with people about Die Hard for thepodcast. First of all, the fact that people get SO EXCITED to talkabout Die Hard and have SO MANY thoughts on it gets me so amped up.I’m telling you, if you’re socially awkward like me, just asksomebody what they think about Die Hard and you can have an amazingconversation for an hour and feel like you just made a new friend.Some of the folks I’ve talked to are friends I’ve had for years,and then sometimes they recommend their own friends, like, “yougotta talk to this guy, he f*cking loves Die Hard,” and some havebeen people I’ve cold-emailed or cold-Tweeted who say yes totalking to a perfect stranger because they get to talk about DieHard and have someone actually listen to them. And we just get tobe big nerds about something we love, and it’s amazing.

And also, now everyone knows how much I love Die Hard andeveryone’s sending me Die Hard things they see on the internet andI’m loving it. Like I’m a pretty easy person to figure out; if yousee something that’s Star Wars, or tiki, or horror movie, or NineInch Nails, or pizza, or kitty cat-related online, that’s gonnamake my day. But now people know that Die Hard is one of my ThingsI Like, so they’re passing along the best stuff. One thing a friendsent me was this sketch by the comedy troupe Baroness Von Sketch,where this lady is at a party, complaining to her friend that shecan’t meet guys, and her friend says she knows a trick. She standsback and says “OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU HAVEN’T SEEN DIEHARD,” and then alllll the dudes come flocking. I almost died.Except now I know why I’m single, because clearly I’m doing theEXACT OPPOSITE. But that’s okay, I’m having too good of a timelady-splaining Die Hard to you all.

Speaking of lady-splaining… I’ve had such a great response fromladies who are excited to see themselves represented in this genre.Die Hard gets thought of as a bro movie. And I am definitely not abro.

I got an email from a listener, Cindy, who says:
I also really wanted to express how exhilarated I am that you areof the womanly persuasion. I am also a woman who loves Die Hard,and I know there are plenty of us out there, but that's not thepopular perception. I've dearly wanted the perspective of otherwomen who actually enjoy the film--it seems like millennial womenare either turned off by the lone-hero-cop narrative, which Iunderstand, or see Die Hard as the ultimate annoying dudebro movie,which is frustrating. It warms my heart, like literally makes itfeel all fuzzy and nice, that this podcast exists, with a womanhelming the way.

Yes, girl. I absolutely feel you. And I wanted to give two quickshouts to two other women who are doing some exciting work.

Maggie Serota wrote a piece for Spin magazine titled, “How So IMarried an Axe Murderer Wrecked One Writer’s Vision, Lost SeveralStars, Bombed at the Box Office, and Became a Classic Anyway.” So IMarried an Axe Murderer is another favorite movie of mine – MikeMeyers is so, so funny, and I have immense nostalgia for the 90sand also love any movie set in the Bay Area. Maggie wrote the piecefor the movie’s 25th anniversary, but also because it’s one of herall-time favorite movies. There’ll be a link in the show notes; gocheck that out.

Also, Amy Nicholson, who you know from the podcasts The Canonand Unspooled, is doing an 8-part series called Halloween Unmaskedfor The Ringer podcast network, which is all about, obviously, themovie Halloween. I love horror movies, but Halloween was never oneof my favorites, so I’m letting Amy take me away in her deep diveon the film. The podcast premiered on October 1st, so catch up onthe first three episodes now.

So, if you want to send me funny links and memes about Die Hard,or if you have other suggestions for female film critics’ works,drop me a line!

And if you like this show, kick me a buck or two on Patreon.Patreon helps to offset the cost of doing this show, not just inpure dollars and cents, but for the sheer amount of time thispodcast takes to put together. This is my first solo project, andalthough I have the wonderful, amazing support of my guests andfans, it still takes a lot of time researching, writing, recording,and editing.

Shout out to our contributors… Cindy, who sent that lovely emailearlier, and Paul! And special thanks to Paul for his support, ashis encouragement means a lot to me on this particular project.Thank you so much!

You can also support Die Hard With a Podcast by leaving a reviewon iTunes. With more starred ratings and written reviews, the showbecomes more visible to other potential listeners, so please sharethe love and let me know what you think!

All right. On to our main topic.

When we last left off, we talked about Die Hard’s place in the80s action movie ecosystem. How it was molded by the conventions ofthe genre at the time, but also how it broke the mold – andimproved upon it. There was a lot that elevated Die Hard beyond aconventional, empty, popcorn-chomp of an action movie. There wasthe amazingly neat and efficient script, the gorgeous work ofcinematographer Jan De Bont, the genius of John McTiernan’sdirecting. But to many, the secret ingredient was Bruce Willis andhis character of John McClane.

So what makes John McClane so special? How much of it is hischaracter, and how much of it is Willis bringing the role tolife?

Let’s take a step back. Before we figure out why McClane is aniconic action movie hero, let’s talk about what makes a good heroin any story.

There’s been so much written about the Hero’s Journey, andarchetypes and, well, I’m no Joseph Campbell. I think, for ourpurposes, we can really really really simplify it down to this: ahero is someone who is undergoing some sort of ordeal, and who issomeone we root for. We root for them because we relate to them insome way, and view them with a mix of admiration and sympathy.

To contextualize things a bit, let’s look at The American FilmInstitute’s 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains list. Nowunfortunately, our John McClane didn’t make the list (although HansGruber came in 46th on the Villains list). But let’s look at thetop 5:

1. Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
2. Indiana Jones
3. James Bond
4. Rick Blaine, Casablanca
5. Will Kane, High Noon

All men from different backgrounds, but who fall within ourdefinition of hero. Further on in this episode, at least three ofthese heroes come up in comparison to John McClane. So, even thoughJohn himself doesn’t make the list, him being compared to IndianaJones, Rick Blaine, and Will Kane on the regular, means he’s doingpretty all right.

In order to root for our hero, the audience needs to seethemselves in his shoes – or lack thereof. Someone who’s perfect isunrealistic, unbelievable – and really, don’t the people whopretend to be perfect kinda bug you? But a hero with flaws, a herowho’s the underdog – we want to see them overcome theirobstacles.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

I’m Jeremiah Friedman, and I’m a screenwriter. Mostlyworking on the film side of things.

I don't know if you can set out to create an iconic moviehero. I mean I guess you can set out to create an iconic moviehero. Some of it feels like, you know, a little bit of likelightning in a bottle. I think, you want something that hasn't beenseen before, and that feels emotionally relatable to people. Theyfeel like they get that guy or that woman, and they just want toroot for them. And I think that the original Die Hard, if we'regoing old school and not 2-3-4-5, what makes McClane so compellingis he's such an underdog you can root for the entire movie, and youjust feel like he has the whole world against him.

Sasha Perl-Raver, writer, correspondent, and the host ofFX’s Movie Download.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

So I think that the best heroes have to be both heroic andflawed. I mean, I think about everybody from obviously JohnMcClane, but even to Alexander Hamilton in the Hamilton musical,you’ve got somebody who is exceptional but has this one thing thatis inevitably also their downfall. When you think of even Murtaughand Riggs in Lethal Weapon – Mel Gibson’s character, the fact thathe’s so broken, he’s on the verge of psychosis. He is a great copand an excellent fighter and has all this combat training, but alsocomes from this incredibly fractured place, is what makes himreally interesting. I think that heroes in general have to do thethings that we wish we would do, say the things we wish we wouldsay, and somehow manage the impossible. But they have to besomebody who you either want to emulate or relate to. I think thoseare all the key characteristics that make a great hero.

First impressions are incredibly important, especially whenmeeting our hero for the first time. John McClane went throughseveral iterations from his beginnings on the pages of a novel tothe script to the screen. Let’s take a look at how McClane isintroduced to us.

In the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, written byRoderick Thorp, John McClane is actually Joe Leland, a retired copturned private detective. Far from the handsome 30-somethingMcClane we get in the movie, Leland is an older man – if you’llrecall, Frank Sinatra was offered a chance to reprise his versionof Leland from his previous film The Detective – and Sinatra was 73years old at the time. He turned it down.

The book opens with him in the back of a cab on the way to theairport… aaand the cab has just crashed in a snowy fender-bender.There’s little physical description of Leland in the book, althoughwe’re told he’s a “mature man” – and it makes sense, given thathe’s trying to make his flight to Los Angeles to see his growndaughter and her children. But we quickly learn what kind of manLeland is. After his cab gets in an accident, Leland’s instantdislike for the driver of the station wagon his cab has hit mixeswith his anxiety about missing his flight. The other man is aracist bully who tries to push the cab off the road as they try toleave – and holy sh*t, Leland just goes ahead and pulls his gun onhim so he and his cab driver can make it to the terminal on time.But far from being a badass, Leland immediately regrets hisimpulsive action, and is left shaken as the adrenaline leaves him.He makes his his flight, and strikes up a flirtation with thestewardess, Kathi – spelled with an “i.” He kisses her (it’s okay,his ex-wife is long dead), and gets her number so they can meet uplater. It’s actually kind of sweet.

In the script and on the screen, we meet John McClane already atthe end of his flight. On the page, he’s described as“mid-thirties, good-looking, athletic and tired from his trip. Hesits by the window. His relief on landing is subtle but wenotice.”

The businessman next to him takes this opportunity to offer hisadvice about taking off his shoes and making “fists with his toes,”as we all remember. The plane finishes taxiing, and they begin todisembark.

In the first draft:

Die Hard With a Podcast: Episode 03 - John McClane: Analyzing a Barefoot Hero (1)


McClane is calm and reassuring as he flashes his badge and headsoff the plane – after helping a lady with her bags.

In the shooting script, he’s a little more relaxed, a littleco*ckier.

Die Hard With a Podcast: Episode 03 - John McClane: Analyzing a Barefoot Hero (2)


McClane is definitely more of a rascal here, a funny guy, aladykiller. While the bit with the stewardess is pretty much cutout of the final film, let’s listen to how this scene playsout.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - McCLANE ON THE PLANE]

There’s a lot of work being done in these opening moments. It’spart of what’s so, so good about the Die Hard script. In under twominutes, we learn a lot about John McClane.

The very first thing we see is something that comes up over andover again when discussing McClane’s character: he’s vulnerable.He’s afraid of flying, and it’s noticeable enough that the guysitting next to him feels the need to reassure him, offer himadvice.

  • We also quickly learn:
  • He’s a married man with kids (from the wedding ring on hisfinger, the teddy bear he’s carrying, and his disinterest inpursuing things with the stewardess he locks eyes with as heexits)
  • He’s still good looking though, given the eyef*ck thestewardess gives him
  • He’s a policeman from New York with over a decade ofexperience
  • He’s armed (I guess being armed on a plane was cool in 1988; Idon’t know, I was born in ‘83 so this concept is still really weirdto me)
  • He’s a bit of a wiseguy, using humor to break the tension asthe businessman becomes visibly concerned over that gun

There are so many other ways that McClane could have beenintroduced. We could have seen him in the cab ride to the airport.We could have seen him deep in conversation with the stewardess. Wecould have even seen him already in Los Angeles, or even alllll theway back in New York before he even began his trip. But here, wecut right to the chase, and are shown the most important things weneed to know just as the main action starts.

John McClane’s vulnerability is probably the number onecharacter trait that comes up when discussing him. But a closesecond is his being “a guy.” He’s a guy, he’s a dude, he’s aneveryman. He’s someone you know; he’s someone like you. He’srelatable.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

He's not super jacked up, he seems more like an ordinary guymore or less. And he's got relatable issues. He's got a problemwith his marriage, he kind of f*cked up his marriage. He's got thisblue collar job that seem pretty routine, he's going to be crashingon a friend's couch. He's kind of a fish out of water, which is abig part of the movie too. He doesn't feel anything like LosAngeles as Los Angeles as portrayed in the movie. He's right at theChristmas party, he's uncomfortable in the limo. Everything thatgets thrown at him is outside of his comfort zone. And you are verymuch with him the whole movie. So you're kind of along for the rideand on his side to a certain extent.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all hated flying, we’ve all arguedwith our significant others, we’ve all been at parties we don’twant to be at. We’ve been John McClane. And so when John is facedwith extraordinary circ*mstances, it leads the audience to putthemselves into John’s place and wonder what they would do.According to Vulture.com, “Die Hard is rightly situated as avisceral experience because John McClane becomes such a directsurrogate for the audience; it becomes a ‘what would you do’scenario, and an exercise in improvisation. John McClane is astreet cop, flying through this thing by the seat of his pants,just like we would.”

Scott Wampler, news editor at Birth. Movies. Death., and host of the Trying Times podcast.

SCOTT WAMPLER

And, as you already pointed out the weakness that John showsduring that first movie in particular, and the fear and theindecisiveness, all of that is key to making him and every mancharacter, but also key to making him relatable to the audience.You can absolutely imagine yourself in John McClane shoes. Hedefinitely does some heroic sh*t. He does some sh*t that I wouldprobably be too cowardly to do. But, also like put in that positionwhere you're running on adrenaline, I could feasibly imagine myselfdoing a lot of the stuff that John McClane does. Not beating up anylike six-foot-five Russians, definitely, you know, but like theother stuff. You know, he’s wiley, he thinks on his feet, he’s asmart guy. He’s clever.

REED FISH

I’m Reed Fish, I’m a director and screenwriter.

I feel like John McClane, to me, was not an emotionallyrelatable character, but I feel like in the predicament that he wasin, it was relatable to me because I felt like, Oh, you know, ifpush came to shove I could probably do those things too. Where in atypical Schwarzenegger movie, like in Predator or something, Idon't think there was ever a moment where I was like, Oh yeah Ithink I could do that. So I feel like John McClane is a proxy forsomeone who, you're like me and you think you're witty, you thinkyou're clever, you think you're smart. Well, I certainly I couldoutsmart Hans Gruber. Well except I'm bigger so I don't think Icould have fit in that air shaft.

SIMONE: Well it's a lot easier to pictureyourself like I can probably move a panel on an elevator shaft, butI don't think I could wrestle a helicopter out of the sky.

REED: Yeah, yeah, basically. And I rememberin Commando, Schwarzenegger jumps off the airplane as it’s takingoff, and jumps into a swamp. And you’re like, okay – not that youthink he could do that, but you think yeah, I’m not going to dothat. So I would have just been on the plane to SouthAmerica.

As we mentioned previously, that relatability comes not justthrough John looking and acting realistically, but also becausehe’s not a perfect person. He’s f*cked up.

SCOTT WAMPLER

I think John McClane’s kind of an asshole, you know, buthe’s a loveable asshole, you know? When John McClane is an assholeto people, they kinda had it coming. You know what I mean? Likeparticularly in the case of the terrorists, but also him givingsass to Ellis, or whatever. He's definitely more of a dick to hiswife and he needs to be. But also just to speak as a devil'sadvocate here we don't – we could some of their backstory, but wedon't know everything that happened between John and Holly up untilthat point. I'm sure he has his own reasons to be mad, and I'm nothere to judge them. But he strikes me as a likable guy. Definitelya guy I would get a beer with. I would love to ask this guy abouthis history and his stories. He’s personable. He’s an asshole, buthe’s personable.

REED FISH

John McClane is kind of a dick. And I was quite struck bythat, just how much of a dick he was in the setup of the movie, interms of the relationship with his wife and his non-existentrelationship with his kids. He's not someone I really wanted tosucceed. I did not find him sympathetic. But, that said, once itgets going, and he's ingenious, and he's clever, and obviouslyBruce Willis at that moment had quite a lot of charisma, by theend, you are pulling for him. Even though for me, it was kind ofbittersweet because you're like, oh, he's such a dick.

And here’s the thing: John McClane knows he’s a dick. And hehates himself for it, and he can’t get out of his own way. As JohnMcTiernan and Bruce Willis worked on the character, they came tothe realization that at his core, John McClane is a man who doesnot like himself very much, but is doing the best he can in a badsituation.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

In 80s action movies, again, like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard,that self-loathing is something that propels these characters to dosomething beyond themselves, which is sort of interesting. Like, Iam not good enough to survive, so all of these other people shouldsurvive instead of me. Because any normal rational human beingwould not do the stuff that John McClane does, except that he feelshe is not worthy of anything else. Until he jumps off the roof andties the fire hose around his stomach and says please don't let medie. That's the one time where you're like, Oh, he doesn't have adeath-wish, he's not a complete maniac, he’s still trying to getthrough it. But yeah, the self-loathing is I think a greatcharacter trait.

But the key to John’s success within the plot is his flaws. Thevery characteristics that drive his wife, his captain, the LAPDdown on the ground completely crazy are the ones that undo HansGruber and his plan.

Adam Sternbergh, novelist, contributing editor to New YorkMagazine, and pop culture journalist.

ADAM STERNBERGH

If you were to renumberate his flaws, he’s very stubborn.But then in a sense all the things that are presented aspersonality flaws in the beginning like his sort of pig-headednessand unwillingness to capitulate to his wife’s career decisions andthings like that, they end up sort of being qualities that help himprevail because he’s just so ridiculously persistent against theseterrorists.

Yep. Just being annoying is enough to start unravelling thecalm, cool, collected terrorists.

So I mentioned last episode that I created a Die Hard D&Dcharacter alignment chart, because I am a huge nerd. It actuallyended up being pretty helpful as I looked more into McClane’scharacter.

Die Hard With a Podcast: Episode 03 - John McClane: Analyzing a Barefoot Hero (3)

So, in case you haven’t played Dungeons and Dragons before, acharacter alignment chart is chart that categorizes the “ethicaland moral perspectives of player characters, non-player characters,and creatures.” It helps you create a character, and gives youguidelines to how a character will behave and react to newsituations. If you look at it, it’s nine squares in athree-by-three grid. Each square has a character in it along withtheir alignment, which is determined by where it sits on the rowsand columns of the chart.

The first row is “lawful.” Using the third edition of Dungeonsand Dragons rules, lawful “implies honor, trustworthiness,obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside,lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence totradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability.”

The second row is “neutral.”

The third row is “chaotic.” This “implies freedom, adaptability,and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness,resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, andirresponsibility.”

Switching directions, the first column is “good.” Should bepretty self-explanatory, but, just in case, it “implies altruism,respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings.Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.”

The second column is “neutral.”

The third column is “evil.” This “implies harming, oppressing,and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassionfor others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient or ifit can be set up. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport orout of duty to some malevolent deity or master.”

Whether or not you ever actually play D&D, I reallyrecommend learning more about character alignments. It’s not aperfect system for creating deep, complex characters, but if you’rea writer or just a fan of storytelling, it can unlock someinteresting insights.

I categorized John McClane as “chaotic good.” But Simone, yousay, John McClane is a police officer! Shouldn’t he be lawful?Well, not really. He’s a police officer, yes, but we know hedoesn’t always play by the rules.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - TONY AND JOHN - YOU’RE APOLICEMAN]

We know that John improvises, taking in the situation as it liesand creating ad hoc solutions just to get through, moment tomoment. He doesn’t have a long-term plan other than to vaguelysomehow rescue Holly and the other hostages if possible. That Johnis also characterized as “good” is pretty obvious. He doesn’t wantto hurt anyone if he doesn’t have to, and he wants to protect hiswife and other innocent people. Even if those people aren’t exactlyon his side.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - JOHN TRIES TO CALL OFF THEFBI]

So how does this make John the perfect guy to defeat HansGruber. Well, Hans is “neutral evil.” The neutral comes from Hanshaving no loyalty to anyone other than himself. He’s nottechnically on the side of the law, but he’s also not an agent ofchaos. To lend some perspective, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne TRobinson is Lawful Evil (he follows the law but in so doing f*cksthings up and is a total dick about it), and Karl is Chaotic Evil(he’s a wildcard, willing to disobey even Hans if it’ll get him therevenge he’s after). Hans has planned this Nakatomi takeover downto the minute. He knows everything about the building, the vault,Takagi…

[CLIP - DIE HARD - HANS FINDS TAKAGI]

… and he knows step by step what needs to be done to pull offthis heist.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - HANS - I PRESENT THEFBI]

Hans has accounted for everything.

Except for one thing.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - JOHN - I WAS INVITED BYMISTAKE]

John McClane is something Hans could have never, ever predicted.I like to think that somewhere, Hans had a guest list of the entireparty and had checked everyone out to some degree. But John wasn’texpected to come. Hell, even Holly wasn’t sure that John was coming– his showing up was a surprise. So the one thing that Hanscouldn’t see coming, the thing that Hans doesn’t know how topredict, is the thing that completely blindsides him. John’schaotic behavior, a liability in his marriage and everyday life, isjust what’s needed to bring Hans down.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - JOHN - JUST A FLY IN THEOINTMENT]

Plus, it drives Hans – and Karl, too – completely crazy.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

There’s kind of the external stuff. Like at the beginning ofthe movie, he’s going with a very clear mission, he’s a man on amission, he’s a guy who wants to get his wife back. And he has nointerest in any of this Nakatomi terrorism crap. And then to gethis wife back, he has to deal with Hans and all these people. Buthe also has to overcome his own thing, which is kind of part of thegenius of the movie, which is what makes him such like a difficult,crappy husband is also what makes him so problematic for Hans. He’skind of relentless, and he stubborn, and he’s belligerent and allthese things that make him – you know, in that fight scene inHolly’s office in the middle of the Christmas party, and she leavesand he knocks his head on the bathroom wall, and starts ragging onhimself – and he knows he’s the problem, in a sense, but he can’thelp himself. And he becomes the problem for Hans in a way that weall love. And part of the fun of that movie is he’s not justkilling guys, he’s getting inside, he’s pissing them off. You knowthere’s the moment when they send Karl and some people after him,and then Karl comes back and destroys the bar cart, and Holly’slike, “He’s still alive.” And her secretary is like, how do youknow, and she’s like, “Only John can make somebody thatangry.”

But okay: John’s only skill isn’t making people mad. He’s aveteran police officer, and as he demonstrates, he’s a pretty goodone. We see him putting together the clues.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - JOHN - FAKE IDS AND EUROPEAN CLOTHINGLABELS]

Katie Walsh, film critic for the Tribune News Service and LATimes.

KATIE WALSH

And then you get John McClane, who’s just like – kind ofjust a guy. He’s a normal, everyday guy; he doesn’t have specialtraining other than being a cop. He uses common sense and he’s notlike a special forces guy he’s not a military dude. He’s just like,I’m just using my everyday knowledge of being a cop and applyingthat to this situation. So, in many ways he does fit the mold ofthis singular hero who’s resourceful and thinks on his feet andhas, you know a specific set of skills, but it’s not so outside therealm of everyday possibility.

SIMONE: He doesn’t have the Liam Neeson“set of special skills.”

KATIE: No, no. You’re not like, Oh my god,this guy was in the special forces, you kind of look at him and go,you know, this guy is just a really good cop who happens to be veryphysically gifted and resourceful.

Something I read that I really, really loved is how even thoughJohn is armed with a machine gun (ho ho ho), he uses it as so muchmore. From the blog “Another Angry Woman”:

“And yet, in John’s hands, the primary function of the gun isnot as a weapon. There are more instances within the film of Johnusing the gun as some sort of tool than as something to kill orhurt people with... John is far more creative in his use offirearms. In his hands, a gun becomes a multitude of useful objectsas he displays the kind of creative thinking that neurosexists liketo term ‘feminine’ as opposed to the logical, analytical maleapproach. The gun, wielded by John, is a device for allowingescapes as a rig and a thing to get back into the building, as wellas jamming a fan. It is also repeatedly used as a last-resortcommunication device, shooting to make noise and draw attention,shooting to direct a crowd away from explosive death.”

John McClane, even though he’s presented as a tough, macho NewYork City cop, actually ends up subverting macho stereotypesthroughout the film. In our last episode, we talked about thehulking meat-trees that starred in other 80s action movies. JohnMcClane is already different in that, while masculine, he’s notmasculinity on steroids. In fact, it’s the macho posturing of theforces around him: the LAPD and the FBI versus the terrorists, thatcreates a stalemate that forces McClane to act.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

One of the moments I always like to think about and talkabout when I'm talking about the movie, is what he jumps off theroof when the roof blows up. When he gets up there – first of all,he’s forced to jump off the roof ‘cause they're shooting at him andhe's going to die. And before he does it, he's terrified and hesays a prayer to God to please don't let him die.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - JOHN - ON ROOF]

And it makes him so human, and you've never really seen thatand that kind of character before. He's not just doing it becausehe's a badass, he can do this. He’s doing it because he has to doit. And that's kind of the beauty of the movie. He keeps gettingforced Into doing things he does not want to do. And he keepstrying to get out of it, in a way. But he's kind of, the movieplays with all the Western stuff, the Roy Rogers, he's the cowboyhe's got to get the job done. But he's scared, and he's vulnerable,and he's angry, and he has very human reactions to the crazy thingsthat are happening around him. So the aspirational quality I thinkis that you would be able to be a smart and brave and as tougheventually as McClane is. And you would die as hard as he does. Iwould go out in the... I wouldn't be Ellis, but I would go outpretty quickly.

John – and the movie Die Hard itself – gets compared to cowboysin Westerns a lot. As Deep Focus Review puts it, “McClane isestablished as a newly envisioned but classical Western hero — anEasterner ‘goin’ out West’ to tame the frontier. Gruber, McClane’snemesis throughout the film, even points this out later byreferring to McClane as a cowboy.” And John is a cowboy, in a lotof ways. An honorable sheriff type, trying to save the townspeoplewith nothing but his wits and his grit. According to the siteScript Secrets, “He is a cowboy: an individualistic man whosecharacter is earthy and grounded in reality.”

[CLIP - DIE HARD - HANS - GARY COOPER]

And there it is. Even while he’s a co*cky, swaggering cowboy, oneof the cowboys John McClane resembles most is Gary Cooper’s WillKane in High Noon, who was already an in-genre subversion of thecowboy trope. In High Noon, Will Kane learns of a dangerous enemycoming back into town in a mere couple of hours. It’s a man who heonce sent to prison, who is now free and will certainly try to seekrevenge. At first, Kane attempts to flee with his wife (played byGrace Kelly), but he feels compelled to end this threat to hislife, and the safety of the townspeople. So he comes back to facehim… but discovers that the townsfolk won’t help him. Kane is leftalone to face Frank Miller. And he’s afraid. He’s visibly desperateand afraid. But with no other choice, he shows down with Miller andhis gang, and – with a little assist from his wife – he takes themall out.

McClane’s fear and vulnerability was the biggest twist in theaction movie genre at the time. From Deep Focus Review again:“McClane is not an impervious robotic warrior carved from thetemplate of the action movie gods. Embodied by Willis withpitch-perfect humanism, McClane bleeds, cries out in pain andemotional desperation, and has imperfections that become histrademark. One of the film’s most memorable characteristics is howmuch physical punishment McClane endures and how such wear amasseson him through the course of the film.” Or how wear doesn’t amassthrough the film – by the end of the movie, John’s lost his shirtalongside his shoes, and heads into his final confrontation withHans almost stripped bare.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

Girl, what isn’t broken inside of John McClane? His marriageis broken, the smoking is broken, the bare feet - the bare feet issuch a great example of a character whose vulnerability you justcan't avoid. He obviously has a lot of interpersonal stuff going onwith his wife, with his family, with wanting to save all thesepeople. Also with just wanting to be good at his job. But you don'tlike the physical embodiment of it, as you see him get more like,cut up and bloodied, as he's running through the glass to get toexit, all of that stuff is such a great way to make the charactersomebody who you're like, “Oh, I see that.” I wonder if the moviegot made now, if they would have allowed him to get his bloodied upas he does. Because he looks messed up by the end of the film, aswell he should.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

And that’s part of the fun of the movie. You watch him –they really put him through the ringer. He gets the crap beaten outof him in that movie, in a way that doesn’t really happen in thesequels as much. That’s kind of fun – you feel like he’s runningthis gauntlet, and at the end, when he wins, he earns it. He earnsthe right to kill Hans and save his marriage, because he’s reallybeen put through hell by this entire experience. And again thatgoes back to the making him human: he’s bleeding, and he’s tired,and he’s angry and frustrated, and he’s reacting like a heightenedhuman being would react as opposed to just a cartoon moviehero.

The obvious physical manifestation of John’s vulnerability ishis cut up feet. John was caught by surprise by the terroristtakeover, in the middle of a quiet moment when he is practicallydefenseless. But it’s his emotional vulnerability that makes usfeel for him. And how the filmmakers show John’s emotionalvulnerability is nothing short of genius.

Deep Focus Review: “Some of McClane’s best moments are byhimself as he talks himself through the situation. Whereasstone-faced lone heroes had machine-gunned their way throughcountless bad guys in action movies before, McClane just an averagecop, after all, not even a super-cop... In this unpolishedtreatment of McClane, and the character’s ability to makeobservations about his own situation, he becomes instantly ‘real’when compared to his unstoppable counterparts.”

[CLIP - DIE HARD - JOHN - WHY DIDN’T YOU STOPTHEM]

KATIE WALSH

You know, I love when he’s talking to himself when he’salone in the building, and I think the script as kind of brilliantin the sense that he gets the radios, and so he can talk toeverybody. They're all in different spots in the building, But hecan talk to Al, he can talk to Hans, he can talk to all thesedifferent people. And that really keeps the story moving, and italso lets us understand him as a person and the way he presentshimself. So I think that the way that they function the radios inthat whole thing is so brilliant in terms of storytelling. But Ialso love when he’s just talking to himself, and he’s like “No,John, why didn’t you stop them, John.” And you can tell, he’s kindof got like anxiety or something, he’s, you know. Like, that's whatI would say to myself if I was in that situation. “Aw, darn it, whydid you do that?” So you relate to him in that way ‘cause you aregetting some insight into his psyche. It’s not like you can’tunderstand him. You totally understand him.

One scene in particular is the perfect example of John’sphysical and emotional vulnerabilities intersecting.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - JOHN AND AL - BATHROOM]

To quote Empire Magazine, “McClane has narrowly escaped agunfight and holes up in a bathroom to remove shards of jaggedglass from his shredded feet. As he does so, McClane has aheartfelt back-and-forth with Reginald VelJohnson’s Al Powell, anLA flatfoot with whom he has forged a brotherly connection over awalkie-talkie. As their dialogue exchange continues, McClane —alone, badly injured and afraid — breaks down and starts sobbing.[In] Willis, audiences were suddenly confronted with a recognisablyvulnerable hero who didn’t have all the answers, who didn’t laugh —or stoically squint — in the face of danger or death. Sure, hecracked wise, but his humour felt organic, a defence mechanism tokeep him sane. Here was a hero who made Arnie and his muscle-boundilk seem antiquated.”

John’s relationships with other people are what keeps him going.His trying to ensure Holly’s safety is his sole motive throughoutthe movie. The thought of her helps him to push through his fearand pain. But it’s also his walkie-talkie relationship with fellowcop Al Powell that gives him the extra, in-the-moment support tostave off despair.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

What is the most important vulnerabilities that he has, ishis yearning to be back with his wife. The relationship he has withBonnie Bedelia, wanting to keep her safe, wanting to make sure thatthe mother of his child is okay, that’s huge. But also I love therelationship he has with Al, I think that's really, really special,and the way that he's able to latch on to this voice through theradio and they have such a strong bond and connection, is reallybeautiful. It’s bromance the way we wanna see it. Dudes supportingother dudes in this great way.

From his feet to his emotions, from his relationship with hiswife to his battle with the terrorists, John McClane’s story is aperfect example of external and internal conflict aligning. AsScript Secrets puts it, “But what makes Die Hard into a superiorscript is the nexus between the Villain's Plan and theProtagonist's character arc... What makes John McClane the perfectprotagonist for Die Hard is that the external conflict forces himto confront and solve an internal conflict, leading to a singlesolution which solves both problems and brings peace to theprotagonist. It is only after he faces and conquers this internalconflict that he becomes strong enough to take on Hans (hisexternal conflict) and rescue Holly and the other hostages. Withoutthe external conflict from Hans' Plan, McClane would not have beenforced to resolve this problem, and their marriage would haveended. The resolution for the external conflict and internalconflict intersect, creating a strong, organic plot.”

Shannon Hubbell, editor-in-chief of LewtonBus.net.

SHANNON HUBBELL

And also, beyond the fact that he just happens to be therein the building, and he wants to get the bad guys and he wants tosave all the hostages, he's there for an emotional reason. He showsup having screwed up his relationship with his wife. And he wantsto save her. He has an emotional connection to what he's trying todo. Going back to Under Siege, Segal's character in that is just acook who used to be a Navy Seal. And he just happens to be in theship, and there's no real motivation for him being a total actionmovie bad ass other than him just naturally being an action moviebad ass. So yeah, McClane is extremely relatable. He wants to savehis wife, he wants to preserve the relationship with his wife. Andalso by extension his kids and whatnot. He's a person who happensto be pretty damn good at killing people.

SIMONE: Well you know the best arcs are theones that we are on the outside what's happening on the inside. Sohe's literally fighting to save his wife.

SHANNON: Yeah, absolutely.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

And I would say the closest he comes to really arcing is thebathroom scene, when he’s pulling the glass out of his feet, andhe’s on the radio with Karl – er, Al, not Carl Winslow… He’s on theradio with Al, and he kind of gives up and starts thinking thathe’s not going to make it out. And he takes responsibility for thefailure of his marriage. I think that’s pretty much an arc. I mean,he’s able to get someplace emotionally he wasn’t able to getearlier in the movie and from that, he kind of earns the epiphanyof “what was Hans doing on the roof?” And then he goes up to theroof and there’s the C4 and all that stuff.

But even with the impeccably plotted script and carefully builtcharacter of John McClane, the role could have easily fallen flatwithout that third element: the actor. (Or Fifth Element,heyo.)

Remember, they wanted to cast pretty much anyone BUT BruceWillis as the lead for this movie. They looked at everyone fromSchwarzennegger and Stallone to Don Johnson and Richard Gere toBurt Reynolds and Robert De Niro. In the end, they took a huge,five million dollar gamble on Bruce Willis. But it worked.

ADAM STERNBERGH

But I think if you were to watch Die Hard and Raiders of theLost Ark side by side, there’s something about the Indiana Jonescharacter that seems a little bit more well-rounded than the JohnMcClane character. But at the same time, you know, you might evensay that about watching Casablanca or something like that. I mean,there’s many actors and many great characters in Hollywood historywhere the lead performance is essentially the actor’s extraordinarycharisma carrying it, and it’s not something that any other actorcould have brought to the role. And so sometimes I think you know,lightning just strikes and you end up with the right person in theright role and so in many ways I just feel like John McClane was,like, Bruce Willis; he was the embodiment of whatever it was thatpeople loved about Bruce Willis, this kind of irascible,indefatigable charm that he had.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

I think that Bruce Willis certainly is a better actor. Andis therefore better able to get the pathos across, and able toreally deliver the lines without feeling like you learned themphonetically. Which is something you get a lot of inSchwarzenegger's early performances and even laterperformances.

SCOTT WAMPLER

Well I also think Bruce Willis is an asshole but not alovable one. I think the Bruce Willis at that point in his career,though, is not the Bruce Willis that we know today. You know, hewas still humble, he started out as a bartender. I think BruceWillis, when he made Die Hard, even though he had been onMoonlighting and was still kind of hot sh*t at that time, was – hehadn’t developed the full Bruce Willis ego that has sort of come todefine him in his later years. People knew who he was because ofMoonlighting, and a series of very entertaining Bartles & Jaymescommercials that I would encourage all of your listeners to go findon YouTube. That will make your f*cking skin crawl withembarrassment.

[CLIP - BRUCE WILLIS SEAGRAM'S COMMERCIAL]

But, you know, he was not a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger. Hewasn’t even a Van Damme. He was a guy. He was just a dude. Andstill doing Bogart a little bit. He’s still got that earthiness tohim.

SHANNON HUBBELL

But also before die-hard established him as an action hero,much like Kurt Russell in Escape From New York, That was the firstaction role for Kurt Russell. He was in Disney movies before that.He was in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. And then John Carpenterput an eye patch on him and some tattoos and told him to growl. Andnow he's an action star. And it was kind of the same thing withBruce Willis. He was more of a comedic actor as I recall, beforethat. Again tying in with the idea of McClane being more relatable,everyman-ish action hero, having someone who's completely notassociated with the action genre before that, really makes thatcharacter work. He's just a dude. He's just a baldingdude.

KATIE WALSH

But yeah, he’s charming, he’s funny, he’s a better actor.He’s got the gift of gab. It’s a different star persona and it’s adifferent acting ability, completely.

John McTiernan has said something similar. “Bruce is mostendearing when he’s being a smart-ass. That’s the essence of hisstardom is somebody’s pointing a gun right between his eyes and hegoes, ‘Oops.’ That irreverence is what we seem to love about him.”Willis even improvised the “Hi, honey” at the end of the movie.

[CLIP - DIE HARD - JOHN - HI HONEY]

As Empire Magazine put it, “It’s testament to Willis that he notonly thwarts Gruber’s heist, but also Rickman’s own audaciousattempt to walk away with a multi-million dollar movie. Willis’performance in Die Hard is hungry and committed, redolent of a manvisiting the Last Chance Saloon, and it worked handsomely, turninghim into a bona fide megastar. What’s more, his McClane — alikeable mix of working-stiff neuroses, desperate heroics and wiseguy sardonics — changed the face of action heroes forever.”

In the end, Bruce Willis’s John McClane gave us someone to rootfor. All of the character’s influences, from reacting to otheraction heroes to Gary Cooper to Bruce Willis himself, createsomeone who is… a human. And no matter what extraordinary things wesee onscreen, telling human stories is where film is most powerful.It’s why Die Hard rises above its peers – all thanks to JohnMcClane.

In our next episode, we’ll take a look at John’s wife Holly.Whether she goes by Gennaro or McClane, Holly’s role as a workingwoman, a wife, and a mother brings forward the changing role ofwomen in 1980s film.

Thank you to our guests Jeremiah Friedman, Sasha Perl-Raver,Scott Wampler, Reed Fish, Adam Sternbergh, Katie Walsh, and ShannonHubbell. Be sure to check the show notes on the website to learnmore about them.

Thanks again for joining me, and yippee-kai-yay,motherf*ckers!

Die Hard With a Podcast: Episode 03 - John McClane: Analyzing a Barefoot Hero (2024)
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