The prolific action hero turns 60 this Saturday and we’re gonna celebrate like it’s Christmas Eve, 1988, but before any terrorists arrived.
Since Die Hard first graced the silver screen, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the cold war ended, the internet exploded, OJ Simpson went to jail, the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918, reality tv became a thing and Apple made a cellphone. Much has changed since McClane first ran shoeless through Nakatomi Plaza in a dirtied grey wife-beater. The films have persevered through the decades and will apparently culminate in an upcoming sequel and perhaps finale to bookend the storied franchise. Over that same timeframe, the Batman franchise went from enormously popular, to punchline, and back to prominence. There have been three James Bonds three Jack Ryans and four Batmen. But Die Hard endures. And there is only one John McClane.
So what keeps us coming back for more of Johnny Mac? What separates Bruce Willis’s McClane from many of the other oft caricatured action heroes of the 80s and 90s?
Based on the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the story went through multiple revisions throughout the script writing process, not the least of which included the character John McClane, formerly Joseph Leland. The character became younger and less experienced, and while he remained scarred emotionally with relationship troubles, other subtleties were later added to the character.
Shooting was supposed to take place over the course of six weeks (in reality it took eight), and the director, John McTiernan, did not even have an ending planned for the movie when filming began. Likewise, the McClane character wasn’t fully developed. McTiernan and Bruce Willis probably deserve much of the credit for the shaping of the character. On the director’s commentary track, McTiernan talked about changing “that nature of the character, you know that he’s a basic American guy instead of the strong-jawed latter day Dirty Harry.”
One of the more prominent examples of this evolution occurs during McClane’s argument with his wife Holly. Of this scene, McTiernan stated, “Right there is the first step. We discovered what the essence of his character was, after we were about halfway through the movie, and it wasn’t in the script at all. In the script he was, you know, just a heavy duty New York Cop. We figured out that the essence of his character was, he didn’t really like himself very much and he was doing the best he could. And you’ll see that it shows up all the way through the story later on. And there’s the confessional in the bathroom with the glass and stuff. But I think we went back and shot that little business where he banged his head and said, ‘Very good John, good move.’”
My personal reasoning for enjoying the character had always been due to the realism of the character. Admittedly, McClane should have died a number of times through the series if it were truly realistic. But, his wife-beater always got dirtier, his body grew evermore injured and he constantly grew more annoyed for finding himself in these situations. He crashed cars, was shot and beaten to a pulp multiple times and begrudgingly kept coming back for more. Coupled with his self-loathing and guilt, a truly vulnerable and likeable character was created; one which we grew to love.
So this Saturday, I will raise a glass and toast John McClane. The reluctant, every-man who outwitted Hans Gruber and his band of merry men at Nakatomi Plaza, saving nearly every hostage and delighting audiences with explosive action sequences and epic one-liners. May he always be hard to kill Die Hard.
Yippie Ki Yay Deleted Expletives!