The action movie hero is a strange beast. These brawny archetypes affect an everyman attitude in the first act, yet by the third have proven to be indestructible superhumans. As quick with a joke as they are to take off their shirt and reveal their He-Man-esque physiques, these heroes know just what to do when faced with a violent threat. In the 80’s, the action hero was probably best defined by the marble-mouthed duo of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Stallone started the decade with First Blood, a movie about a veteran suffering from PTSD. By 88 that same character was blowing up Soviet helicopters with a bow and arrow and Rocky Balboa was crushing the communist threat. Schwarzenegger characters rarely ever feign human frailty, whether they are literal killing machines (in The Terminator series) or beefcakes who combine insult comedy with their murder.
One of the greatest action movie heroes is, without a doubt, Die Hard’s John McClane (Bruce Willis). He has all the bonafides: looks good in a singlet and is as comfortable with one-liners as a machine gun. However unlike many other action heroes that year, he appears to be made of the same ingredients as ordinary humans. Case in point, when he’s evading gun fire and steps on broken glass, it cuts his feet up and hurts like hell. In a film filled with spectacular setpieces, the scene where McClane removes shards of glass from his feet might have the most impact.
The grotesque and very real damage inflicted on McClane establishes the movie’s stakes – this guy COULD be killed yet is putting everything on the line to save the day. Like his advocate on the outside (Reginald VelJohnson) says, “This man is hurting! He’s alone, tired and hasn’t seen diddly-squat from anybody down here”. John McClane is deadly, but he’s also mortal. The movie’s villain Hans Gruber (the late great Alan Rickman, in his first film role) accuses McClane of being being “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child. Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s … Rambo”. The implication is that McClane, for all his ingenuity, is not Rambo. He’s not a fictional one man army, he’s an exhausted cop with cut up feet. Gruber accuses him of playing cowboy, an accusation McClane seems to somewhat agree with. “I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers, personally. I really like those sequined shirts.”
It’s hard to imagine an Arnie character having the same level of meta-awareness. Or Fast and the Furious’ Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the man who lives half a mile at a time. Interestingly, the same gradual separation from reality that lessened the impact of subsequent Die Hard sequels might have been the thing that reinvigorated the Fast & the Furious franchise. While John McClane’s I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me-again earnestness has worn thin since he’s riddled thousands of would-be assailants with bullets, the TFATF world has evolved into a cartoon wonderland where anything is possible.
But as wonderful as they are, movies like TFATF or the ludicrous Crank are like playing a video game with cheat codes on. It can be a lot of fun running around Vice City with unlimited health and rocket launcher shells, but it lacks dramatic stakes. Die Hard is closer to paintball; the bullets might not be real, but they do leave a bruise.
Die Hard will be playing this Thursday in a double bill with Predator.