After my last post on the dual power of Character wants and effective introductions in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, somebody made the astute observation that the only protagonists I’ve selected for analysis thus far have been white males.
Well anyway, today we’ll be conducting a breakdown of Detective John McClane in Die Hard.
For those readers who have been following my ongoing series on Effective Protagonists, it should be Everclear by now that there are a number of different elements that contribute to making a character effective. Nowhere am I claiming to be the author of these elements – really, you can find much shorter lists of them anywhere on the Internet that even use classic films as examples. I’ve even referenced a few of those lists while conducting research for these pieces, because as my old writing mentor used to tell me “Creativity borrows – genius steals.”
My goal with this series has been to explore each Character element on an individual basis within the framework of a different film and demonstrate how effectively (or ineffectively) that specific element is embodied in that film’s protagonist. My hope is that this will aid endeavoring writers in developing effective protagonists of their own, teach aspiring film scholars what to look for while honing their critical senses, and force Harry Potter fans to finally admit that their titular hero is as bland as low-fat Greek yogurt.
In analyzing Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, we established that a protagonist must be relatable to the viewer, and in charting Will Turner and Captain Jack Sparrow’s journeys through Curse of the Black Pearl, we determined that characters must also have an active want or driving need that motivates them through the plot. With Detective John McClane we will be exploring not one, not three, but two additional Character elements that serve vitally important but slightly different functions in bolstering a character’s effectiveness – personal stakes and vulnerability.
As an aside, the New York City Street Hoodlum’s Pocket Dictionary defines ‘stake’ as “A big-ass wooden shiv for killing vampires,” and ‘vulnerability’ as “The soft spot on a vampire optimal for sticking a big-ass wooden shiv.”
DETECTING JOHN MCCLANE – FISH OUT OF WATER
When we first meet our New York City cop, he’s just touching down at LAX to attend his estranged wife Holly’s Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza. He is white-knuckling the armrests of his seat, which tells us that our hero either doesn’t fly often or has flown just often enough to understand that it’s not something God ever intended man to do. Like Indiana Jones having a conniption over snakes at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this establishing shot humanizes McClane a little by showing that he suffers from a fairly common fear. Unlike Indy’s ophidiophobia, though, this discomfort over flying (or heights) is not explored beyond his introduction, doesn’t flesh out his character whatsoever, and doesn’t payoff in any satisfying way later in the film. Still, I suppose it’s a more interesting introduction than if he were just reading an in-flight magazine or musing with Seinfeldian verve what the deal is with airline peanut packages.
Beyond that, we see McClane nonchalantly light up a cigarette in the airport, casually eye a young couple embrace, and exchange a flirtatious glance with a pretty holiday traveler – which tells us that he smokes like a Ford Pinto, looks down on the naivety of young love, and possesses enough sex appeal to appear in an Axe body spray ad. We then observe through his interactions with Argyle that he is cool, sly, and quick-witted despite being completely out of his element in LA. Like Harry Potter throughout all seven years (and eight films) at Hogwarts, he is consistently either amazed or dumbfounded by the lifestyle and technology of the City of Angels and walks around in a state of semi-bewilderment. He’s a Fish-out-of-Water Protagonist, our John McClane, but one that’s still suave enough to navigate the foreign locale without looking like a schmuck.
As interesting as these Act I details are, they ultimately fail to give us any sense of who John McClane really is. We certainly like him for his sardonic wit and smooth disposition, but apart from that we learn little about him save for the fact that he’s pragmatic, acerbic, and only in LA to salvage what’s left of his marriage to Holly, who has already reverted to using her maiden name. One might think that their relationship would serve as the emotional anchor of the film, but even this is hardly unexplored beyond their mutual frustration with one another. We see them argue briefly over her career-motivated transition to LA – which John either did not approve of or felt threatened by – and then witness McClane sarcastically congratulate his own reflection for choosing his words so poorly.
This is all very basic, elementary-level characterization, people – stuff that should have served as the foundation for character development, not the entirety of it. The fish-out-of-water archetype, while certainly universal, only establishes relatability on a surface level, and though McClane does actively want to reconcile with Holly he only gets involved in the Gruber plot because he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On paper, John McClane might have been a dud of a protagonist if not for the two elements on today’s discussion block, the first of which to be delved into is –
VULNERABILITY – THE CHINK IN THE ARMOR
This is a fairly broad concept that begs a bit explanation. I’ll even admit I’m using the term ‘vulnerability’ very loosely and mostly for lack of a better one – some other writers use ‘limitation’ or ‘character flaw’ to describe the exact same thing, because this element can take on various forms that all accomplish the exact same thing. This element can be a literal physical or emotional vulnerability (like a wheelchair or an anxiety disorder), a character flaw (say, dishonesty), a contradiction (a mobster with a soft spot for cats), or some kind of limitation that keeps the hero grounded. The point is, it’s a form of weakness that humanizes the protagonist. For John McClane, it’s represented by both his lack of resources at the onset of the plot and with the emotional weight of a key relationship.
See, one of the fundamental “rules” of screenwriting (that many writers hold as a mere guideline) is that a protagonist must be seemingly unequal to the task before them, which is why we see the Ring get couriered to Mordor by Frodo Baggins and not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s left pec. To uphold this rule, many films employ the Everyman protagonist – a Luke Skywalker or a William Turner – who is able to function as a reflection of the viewer. Despite the extraordinary circumstances the Everyman finds himself embroiled in, he still has wants, dreams, hopes, fears, and problems that resonate with us on an everyday level. More importantly, the Everyman doesn’t possess the skills, abilities, or experience necessary at the beginning of the story to undertake the adventure on his own, because if he did then he would have nowhere to go as a character and his journey would be tensionless and flat.
John McClane is not an Everyman. Some people have made the argument that he is, but those people are wrong. I respect their right to have an opinion that’s different from mine, but I will now proceed to vomit all over that opinion with extreme, Jameson-fueled prejudice. Ready? Let’s go.
You see, McClane is equal to the task before him. He has police training, aptitude with firearms and explosives, a knack for violence, and a natural ingenuity when it comes to problem-solving and wrestling machine guns away from German terrorists, ho ho ho. This isn’t to say that a protagonist with police training or military experience or Napoleonic bo staff skills can’t be an Everyman – many are – but McClane is a cut above the rest even without these talents. He has a capable aura that reflects even in his dialogue and operates free of self-doubt or inner debate. Hell, even the normal “Debate” phase that marks the normal Break into Act II is absent from Die Hard because as a cop, McClane doesn’t even hesitate to rise to the occasion when Hans Gruber takes over the tower. He’s definitely likeable, but he’s not immediately knowable and must be brought down to Earth through other means.
This brings us to vulnerability – a thing I’ve often read about in psych textbooks and Nicholas Sparks novels but have never experienced firsthand. Vulnerability, it has been said by someone with a PhD, is a window into the human heart. Relationships are strengthened through it and emotional intimacy depends on it for survival. Anyone who can reveal their deepest fears, confess their most crippling weaknesses, or even just admit their limitations is infinitely more relatable and interesting than someone who can shoulder everything on their own without flinching. Really, the counterintuitive capacity to expose our innermost selves to another human being is the key to making true human connections that stand the test of time.
For larger-than-life heroes, vulnerability usually manifests itself in a physical limitation, because a hero who is completely infallible and doesn’t stand any risk of failing is like white rice – though there’s nothing it can’t do, it’s seldom interesting enough on its own to leave an impression. While the Everyman’s vulnerabilities don’t necessarily need to be highlighted (their inequality to the task being already evident), the same is not true for a Superman, the antithesis of the humble Everyman. For reasons already stated, John McClane is a good example of a Superman – though admittedly not as good as Superman himself. Yes, even Superman has vulnerabilities – and I’m not just talking about Kryptonite, nerds. Vulnerabilities can be physical, yes, but when they manifest themselves emotionally they are far more impactful, resonant, and beautiful to behold.
In Die Hard, John McClane has both physical and emotional Kryptonites – er, vulnerabilities that come into play during Act II. His physical liabilities are addressed first – when Hans Gruber takes over Nakatomi Plaza, McClane is alone, unprepared, cut off from all communications, outgunned, and, most importantly, out-shoed. The deck is stacked against him and he is forced to build his inventory almost from scratch, which amplifies the dramatic tension. See, when Superman is de-powered, he is forced to dig deep inside himself and draw from his internal resources, which in turn allows the viewer to see what’s really inside him and come to know him more intimately. In John McClane’s case, what he has inside him is more curse words than a Voodoo priestess could utter in a lifetime – which actually serves a narrative purpose beyond just an easy way to capitalize on the R rating.
McClane’s bottomless tab with Grandma’s swear jar shows that he is not in control of the Nakatomi situation and knows it. Though he may be always one step ahead of the Gruber Crew (hereafter known as the Gruber Crüe), it’s a frantic step and one that necessitates him shimmying down elevator shafts and sliding through ventilation ducts. He’s tenacious and quick to improvise, but he’s not invincible – despite racking up an impressive body count of Euro-thugs and even besting Gruber personally at several turns, he still takes a beating, as evidenced in the infamous scene where he shreds his feet on glass shards. This literally toe-curling sequence represents a narrative marker that many call the Dark Night of the Soul – the portion of the story where the hero is at his lowest and his circumstances threaten to overwhelm him. He must be injected with a fresh dose of life before Act III, which oftentimes comes from a secondary character with a personal connection to the hero. In Die Hard’s case, it’s Carl Winslow from Family Matters.
McClane’s relationship with Sgt. Al Powell is a vital component in the story, and not just because Die Hard would have been pretty freaking boring if McClane had only had his pack of smokes to chat with like Tom Hanks in Castaway. His CB radio conversations with Sgt. Powell keep McClane grounded when things look dire and give the viewer a glimpse into his emotional vulnerabilities. In many ways, Powell reaches McClane on a level that no one else ever has – he keeps McClane focused after his feet are bloodied and encourages him to stay strong amidst the chaos and idiocy unfolding around the tower. Their rapport becomes strong enough that McClane even confesses to Powell that he regrets not being more supportive of Holly and implores his new brother-in-arms to tell her so if he doesn’t make it. His relationship with Powell lends dimension to his character, and it is likely that without it he might not have survived the events of the films (especially the final scene). Their relationship is the emotional anchor of the film and possibly one of the greatest bromances in cinema – second only to the smoldering tenderness shared by Frodo and Sam.
Some may accuse me of over analyzing John McClane – and while they would be completely right, that doesn’t make what I’m saying wrong. McClane is a character that must be humanized through external means for us to take him seriously, and all I have to do to prove my point is cite his awful characterization later in the series. The John McClane who picks glass shards out of his broken feet is human, while the John McClane who shrugs off a point-blank shot through the shoulder is not. So you see, the vulnerability element is kind of a tricky, backdoor method for revealing Character because it humanizes a hero without really revealing much about him. On its own it’s probably not sufficient to deem a protagonist effective, but in Die Hard it works well due in no small part to its pairing with –
PERSONAL STAKES – EVERYTHING HE STANDS TO LOSE
This is a crucial element for a protagonist and one that is embodied perfectly in John McClane. It’s more straightforward a concept than vulnerability and takes far less time to detail, which is why I chose to analyze not one, not twelve, but two Character elements in this Die Hard article (or, Die Hardicle – your portmanteau for the day).
In my Curse of the Black Pearl piece we established that a protagonist must have a driving need or want that motivates them to take that adventurous plunge into the plot. The reason they cross this threshold into the unknown, ultimately, is because they have something to gain by doing so. However, in order for that promise of reward to be worth the risk of leaving the comforts of familiarity, a protagonist must also have something to lose if they fail. This is where personal stakes come into play, because if a worst-case scenario doesn’t impact the protagonist personally in any way then there’s little reason for us to get invested in his journey.
In order to really hit home for the viewer, this risk of loss works best when laced with an emotional connection. In the case of Superman, failure to stop the villain-of-the-week generally means wanton collateral damage, millions of deaths, and the obliteration of entire cities – which everyone except maybe Roland Emmerich can agree are all very, very bad things. However, the deaths of millions of strangers are as impersonal to Superman as they are to the viewer, which is why Lois Lane generally gets taken hostage or placed in harm’s way. Superman can succeed in saving the planet, but if he loses the woman he loves then the victory is a hollow one. Another example can be found in Lord of the Rings – Frodo Baggins accepts the mantel of the Ring not for a desire save all of Middle Earth, but to protect his own precious little corner of it, the Shire. The risk of global destruction is absolutely bad, but the risk of losing one’s home – something that’s so near and dear to the heart – is infinitely more impactful.
In John McClane’s case, there’s far more at stake than the lives of everyone in Nakatomi Plaza if he fails to stop Hans Gruber – there’s the loss of his marriage. The thing I always found interesting about Die Hard is the fact that McClane and Holly’s marriage is like a good martini – on the rocks. McClane is only in LA in a last-ditch effort to reconcile with Holly, which was going very poorly before Gruber intervened—er, interrupted. If McClane fails to save the Plaza, Holly doesn’t just die – she dies before John can properly repair their relationship. This layers urgency and tension to an already fast-paced, tense situation and gives McClane something to lose that is of infinite value to him, even if he couldn’t see it at the beginning of the film. At its heart, Die Hard is the story about a man fighting to save his marriage – the fact that he also happens to be fighting a band of terrorists led by one of the greatest villains in cinematic history is just damn good storytelling. Admittedly, the weight of these stakes is radically undercut with the cynical deterioration of their marriage in the awful sequels, but as with Pirates of the Caribbean, it works perfectly the first time around.
Die Hard is many things – an excellent action film, the greatest Christmas movie ever made, a possible spinoff of Moonlighting, and a definite prequel to Family Matters – but it’s only an effective story because of a precise combination of specific elements that, blended together, have resonated with viewers for decades. Bruce Willis’ charm makes John McClane likeable, but it is the film’s implementation of vulnerability and personal stakes that make his character effective, even for just the first outing.
Maybe I’m not being fair to the sequels. After all, Die Hard 2 had personal stakes, Die Hard with a Vengeance had Samuel L. Jackson, Live Free or Die Hard had irreparable brain damage from banging my head against the coffee table because computers don’t work like that… you know what, never mind.