Die Hard: the hypercompetence of mavericks
I’ve been wondering why Die Hard has lasted, as against so many other 80’s action films.
On one level, it’s an easy question to answer. Die Hard is a competent B-movie action picture elevated to something special by the interplay between the two character-actor leads: Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman.
Both are especially good at the grey area between comedy and righteous anger (Willis) or menace (Rickman) respectively. And tonally speaking, that’s the screwball sweet spot for 80’s action films – the violence has to be undercut enough by the banter so as to be palatable for a mass audience.
But there’s more to Willis than comic timing – he’s a powerful identification figure for the audience. Rugged but not ripped, Bruce can do ‘concerned, heavily armed citizen’ John McClane in way that anomalous Arnie or sonorous Stallone would struggle to match.
His buddy-buddy relationship wth desk cop turned first responder (Reginald VelJohnson – also a great piece of casting) is convincing because of that. And the actions he takes against the terrorists/robbers are all the more credible for it too.
Which brings us too, I suppose, to the legendary quality that fuels Die Hard. While its merits as a film with a great cast have helped it last, it also doesn’t hurt that it’s perhaps one of the most persuasive cinematic restatements of the armed civilian myth: the idea that what you really need in a crisis is not the state but a frontiersman with a gun.
And in Bruce’s case, a “Ho, Ho, Ho” too.
Yes, the film stacks the deck massively in favour of this reading – the deputy chief of police is an idiot, the two FBI agents even more so – but that is to argue its credibility rather than its mythic power.
This isn’t a post about gun control, and it would be ridiculous to directly extrapolate from Die Hard to arguments for or against anything in the real world. On the other hand, the stories we tell and retell about the world can be inadvertently revealing.
What does it mean that films like this valorise the hypercompetence of violent mavericks? What does it signify when they also strike such a chord in us too?