Die Hard
The white man's mythic invincibility

by Maurice Yacowar

from Jump Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 2-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1989, 2006

Though the box-office success of John McTiernan's DIE HARD is primarily due to its breakneck action, it may also be striking a popular nerve in its reactionary politics. When the ruggedly individualist hero thwarts a terrorist takeover of an L.A. office tower, he lives out a macho pipedream on two political fronts, the international and the sexual.

In Los Angeles for Christmas, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) meets his separated wife, Holy Gennero McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), at her office party in the Century-City and Fox Towers. The building is taken over by a highly-institutionalized terrorist group, faintly suggestive of the Baeder-Meinhof group in Germany. McClane fights a guerrilla war against the terrorists. Despite the intervention of the police force, FBI and television reporters, McClane eventually overcomes the terrorists and is reunited with his wife.

In terms of international politics, McClane exercises the mythic invincibility of the U.S. individualist. Not only is he out of his element, a N.Y. cop in L.A., but he is a reject/misfit in his separated wife's world. He wears working class among the designer silk suits. But he exploits his nature as an outsider. His separateness - for a close shave - saves him from the terrorists' initial sweep, enabling him to wage his war. From the chief terrorist's sneer at the cowboy heroic, McClain adopts the nom de guerre Roy (as in Rogers but also - as we shall see vis-á-vis women - as in King).

At its simplest this is a reflexive escalation of the first Rambo film, First Blood, which replayed the Viet Nam war in a small U.S. town. The L.A. battle graphically evokes Nam. There's the spectacle of swooping and suddenly rising military helicopters. The terrorists deploy such sophisticated weaponry as an anti-tank rocket. The glossy building is reduced to rubble; specifically, McClane rushes through the indoor garden that has been turned into a reeking jungle. So too his strategy has him belly-crawling and swinging through the skeleton of the building, the air vents and elevator shafts, as if he were engaged in jungle warfare. This metaphor - Coppola out of Conrad - discovers the jungle at the heart of the L.A. slick. That's also the implication of his fighting barefoot, bleeding from the deliberately shattered glass (the unsympathetic environment) and shifting from white undershirt to combat green. At one point McClane must duck FBI bullets (the "friendly lire" of Nam). The FBI are also prepared to accept the massive loss of "civilian" hostages to effect their textbook "rescue." Indeed one attacking FBI officer (Robert Davi) even gloats "Just like fuckin' Saigon" - as indeed it will prove in his military failure. The abundance of "Johnsons" in the FBI delegation locates the assault in the context of Lyndon (as in Mel Brooks's version of the Johnson County wars in Blazing Saddles). Finally, as a New York City cop in Los Angeles, McClane assumes a moral authority outside his precinct (another Beverly Hills Cop), as if his movable authority were by necessity valid in alien terrain.

More profoundly, this plot attempts to deny the hard reality of the United States' failure in that war. The Rambo and Chuck Norris series have well established the commercial viability of such revisionism.

To conceal the film's denial of Viet Nam, the villains are drawn from broader traditions. The chief killers are two Aryan brothers, who evoke the Hollywood Nazi. Karl (Alexander Godunov) proves even more of a die-hard than the hero - or his dinosaur macho ethic. Their colleagues include an apparent Japanese, a wisecracking black (of whom more later), two Italians and more Germans. The leader is a sophisticated business-type (the post-war Nazi?) Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). He disguises the greed of his mission (objective: $640,000,000 in bonds) in clichés of third-world radical politics. With tongue-in-cheek the villain demands the initial release of a variety of "political" prisoners, his "comrades in arms" from Ireland, Quebec and Sri Lanka (the latter cited from Time). Thus the film reduces the concept of freedom fighter (or even terrorist) to a greedy hypocrite, in effect denying the validity of any non-U.S. crusader.

In the hero's isolation the film by implication draws upon common rationalizations for the United States's loss in Viet Nam. The myth assumes that the indomitable, just U.S. soldier could only lose a war through sabotage. Here the local police are ensnarled in red tape (the hero is scolded for calling on an emergency channel). Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson (Paul Gleason) is not just mean but always dead wrong. The FBI proves even more unwieldy and treacherous.

The second institutional scapegoat is the ever-reliable Media. An unscrupulous newsman (William Atherton) endangers the hero and his hostage wife by exposing their children on TV. In context this replays the myth that the U.S. lost in Viet Nam because of television's irresponsible exposures. There is a civilian fifth-column counterpart to the journalist: a self-serving executive, Ellis (Hart Bochner), reveals McClane's identity to the terrorist.

The film also seems studied in its xenophobia. Gruber is triply negative because he is a German thief, British-educated and cultured. The occupied office is already suspect because it now belongs to a Japanese company. The country lost its Pearl Harbor attempt so it's now coming with tape decks, the president quips. The audience is set up to relish the demolition of the posh tower because it represents foreign ownership, the clutch of transnational megacapitalism, which makes the individualist's rescue all the more satisfying. The victim company is also contaminated with high culture, what with a string quartet performing at the Christmas party and a Degas stashed in the vault.

Even more condescendingly, the film plays all its blacks for laughs. One black cop comically pricks himself on a rosebush. The film's one super-intelligent black, gang member Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), has the most technological skill and cleverness but he personifies play. He raps about basketball to set up the first murder ("Two points!"). As he makes a game of everything, he represents ability spoiled by amorality. Here we have an upscale version of the "shuck'n'jivin" black character of yore.

McClane is aided by two blacks outside the tower, but both are introduced as comic figures and allowed only dubious redemptions at the end. The young chauffeur Argyle [Devoreaux White) is Theo's opposite number, a cocky streetwise black who misses the early chances to act because he's lost in his four-wheel stretch ghetto-blaster. In his style-pretentious name and in the glories of his lavish limo, Argyle represents the young black of larger style than merit. He's the over-dressed buffoon. When he finally acts it is in a simple, brutish reflex that smashes the luxury he has been (undeservedly?) enjoying. Ironically, the untalented Argyle thwarts the technological, experienced but corrupt Theo. That is, U.S. innocence bests worldliness. That happens every time out, except perhaps in reality.

McClane's chief support is the middle-aged, portly black cop who first responds to the alarm, then by his CB conversation sustains a spiritual lifeline to McClane. Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson) is introduced as a comic stereotype, loading up on Twinkies for his pregnant wife. But he grows to provide a human alternative to the textbook deputy Robinson. Powell is so sensitive that he has refused to fire a gun since he accidentally killed an innocent 13-year old. But the film does not allow this sensitivity to stand. As if liberated by McClane's example, Powell overcomes his (neurotic) sensitivity to kill again. (The audience dutifully applauds.) It is also given to Powell to correct McClane's estranged wife: "You've got yourself a good man. You take good care of him." Thus Powell is allowed to transcend his initial comedic register, but only to deliver retrograde macho.

Powell's advice to McClane's wife defines the sexual politic in the Die Hard pipedream. The couple is separated because the woman has presumed to move West to pursue her brilliant business career, while her husband chooses to fight New York crime. Although she manages home and career superbly, the film subtlely condemns her for abandoning her husband. The implication is that she is wrong to stand by an additional man, as she serves her boss. The Christmas setting amplifies Holly's violation of family sentiment, especially as it means celebrating the winter fest in balmy (both senses) L.A. (where the only snow off the soundtrack is up Ellis's nose).

Here is the pipedream: McClane's adventure provides him with the opportunity to correct his wife. He demonstrates that she cannot survive without him; she needs him to look after her. The TV exposure even proves that she cannot escape her married name. At first she used her maiden name at work out of respect for her boss's traditions; she reaffirms her married identity at the end. In her climactic rescue McClane sends Gruber to his death by undoing the expensive watch on Holly's wrist. In an early scene that Rolex was introduced as her company's reward to her for a spectacular business success. The symbolism is clear: McClane saves his wife by stripping her of the emblem of her success. In bringing her down from her tower he saves her from her vulnerability, her success, in a word, her independence. The film speaks potently to and for men who have lost their protective power over their women. Holly's last aggression is wholly within the traditional role of woman: she slugs the newscaster who violated her family's privacy.

Consistent with the film's demeaning of woman are the passing bits of gratuitous sexism. McClane catches the stewardess's eye. He glances at overstretched tights at the airport and an undressed woman in the next tower. He ritually pats a pin-up by the power panel. This sexist is a man's man. He laughs off a man's kiss at the party.

The casting of Bruce Willis confirms the film's sexist ethos. From his first scene, anxious in an airplane, Willis draws upon his bathetic, mock-heroic persona from the airwaves, David Addison of MOONLIGHTING. He plays roughly the same character here, wise-cracking even when he's alone. In the TV series the light characterization and self-reflexivity undermine his macho pretensions and authority. But the larger-screen epic allows them unquestioned sprawl. Willis's heroic role here contrasts sharply to his ironic roles in his two Blake Edwards films, BLIND DATE and SUNSET. DIE HARD could be David Addison's pipedream, wreaking a largescreen vengeance unallowed in his small-screen reality and reaffirming a male dominance over woman that his "real" (i.e., MOONLIGHTING) persona lacks.

The open appeal of DIE HARD lies in its snappy wit and crisp action. But it has a deeper appeal in its political assumptions, which speak to the sexist who craves to have his obsolete delusions reaffirmed.