The Death of John McClane

By Larry Taylor

Most cinephiles have a defining film or franchise they point to as an important turning point in their cinematic life.  My generation may refer to Indiana Jones as that franchise.  Generations before me cite the original Star Wars movies as the moment they fell in love with film.  For me, Die Hard is the franchise I first fell in love with and have since spent great many an hour watching and re-watching John McClane save innocents from certain death.  I have a deep appreciation for the early Die Hard pictures, and the original is a modern action classic.  It redefined the action star, steering us away from the biceps of Schwarzenegger and Stallone in a Reagan-era 80s and into a new generation of everyman heroes.  John McClane uses much more than his fists to solve a problem, and that was key.

The original three films are a wonderfully compact trilogy, as Die Hard with a Vengeance looped around to tie in with the original.  Die Hard 2, for all its warts, is firmly in the tradition of the original.  When Live Free or Die Hard was released I was skeptical.  Fourth films in franchises haven’t always been successful ventures (Superman, Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon), and this addition seemed highly unnecessary.  On top of everything the rating was PG-13, a clear sign that the franchise was watering down the action and, in a sense, watering down the sharp sarcasm of John McClane.  The first time I saw Die Hard 4.0 I was mildly impressed, I felt okay about it in the end, but time has been unkind.

The humor in this fourth installment is bland, neutered for a PG-13 audience, and of course McClane’s signature line is muted by gunfire.  Weak.  And on top of this, the action catapults away from any sort of realism or gravity, and McClane becomes some sort of superhero battling technology and F-16 fighter jets in the streets of Washington D.C.  The intimacy of the story was gone, there was no Bonnie Bedilia, and Justin Long was a shabby replacement for Reginald VelJohnson or Sam Jackson.  This was no longer the John McClane I remembered from the original trilogy, a gritty wiseass with a drinking problem, broken and bruised by all the action.  This new John McClane was impervious to reality.  It was Bruce Willis, and the character’s name was the same, but that is where any semblance of the original character stopped.

Which leads me to A Good Day to Die Hard.  Which I will see, despite my absolute certainty that it will upset my childhood memories even further.  Judging by the trailers and this new, even more ridiculous title, all comparisons to the early films is lost.  John McClane is no longer witty, but self-mocking.  In one instance in the trailer, McClane identifies himself as the “007 of Plainfield, New Jersey,” one of the several cringe-worthy moments in a two-minute clip.  John McClane is not 007 of anywhere, at least not in my mind.  That is what made him who he is, what the character was in the beginning.  And that is all but gone.  The soul of John McClane is stuck in yet another extravagant action opera that will have him pulling off feats the younger McClane would not have done.  Sure, the action in the first three is unrealistic, but not entirely.  There is some sense of cause and effect in those earlier pictures that is stripped away for CGI once again.

Perhaps a better title for this fifth installment would have been ‘The Death of John McClane’.  Not necessarily because he will die in the film – he most certainly will not – but because this character has officially lost everything which made it so charmingly crass and believable in the early films.  This John McClane is an imposter.

Ever since I was a child I have had an obscene obsession with film. After seeing Superman II as a five-year old, I have made it my mission to absorb as many films in as many genres from as many moments in time as I can. And over the years, there are films which have continued to shape my cinematic consciousness. I love discussing film, and I hope you enjoy discussing it along with me. You can read my work on as well.