man and superman

The Downward Spiral of Die Hard’s John McClane From Everyman to Superman

John McClane started off scared — and that fear was what made him human and what made us love him. Admittedly, the original Die Hard was far from “realistic,” but what set it apart from its eighties action brethren was its rejection of Schwarzenegger-ian Stallonialisms, replacing steroidal he-man heroics for an everyman-makes-good scenario in which hesitation, fear, and pain were ever-present. McClane was a wiseass tough guy willing to leap off a high-rise building, but he also felt real … until, alas, he did not.

During its subsequent four installments, the Die Hard franchise has charted for its protagonist a one-way course toward preposterousness, transforming him from an average Joe (or reluctant “cowboy”) to an invincible smart aleck who’d be perfectly at home in a Looney Tunes cartoon. That about-face has bastardized one of action cinema’s most enduring icons. And as again confirmed by its fifth entry, this week’s A Good Day to Die Hard, it’s also what’s turned the series into an increasingly loopy joke, proving that for our macho movie hero, dying isn’t just hard — it’s impossible. Here’s a breakdown of the Jersey badass’s mutation from man to superman.

1. Die Hard (1988) “Come out to the coast; we’ll get together, have a few laughs … “

Just Like You and Me. New York City cop John McClane doesn’t like to fly. He’s never been in a limo. He’s trying to fix his broken marriage to wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), who now lives across the country in L.A. with their kids and who — much to McClane’s disappointment — is now going by her maiden name. In other words, he’s just another guy, a flawed individual in a flannel shirt (and, later, a dirty wifebeater) trying to mend a busted-up life.

Fear Is the Great Motivator. When Alan Rickman’s debonair thief takes over the Nakatomi building and John jumps into action, it’s not with gung-ho confidence but, rather, with disbelief, frustration, and anxiety. During shoot-outs, he screams and retreats while firing his weapon. He pleads with the cops outside to handle the situation so he won’t have to. He’s a man unwillingly thrust into taking matters into his own hands.

Prescription: Pain. Glass shards in McClane’s bare feet hurt. So too does using a fire hose to swing off the roof of a skyscraper and into a window (a feat prefaced with the less-than-poised “Oh God, please don’t let me die”). And in terms of fighting, he’s tough but sloppy — when he hangs Teutonic foe Karl (Alexander Godunov) with a chain, it seems as much a by-product of fortuitousness than of skill.

Smirk, With a Side of Sensitivity. McClane’s cocky smirk may define him, but he’s also a softy comfortable delivering a tearful apology to wife Holly over walkie-talkie and, by proxy, to cop pal Al (Reginald VelJohnson). Public displays of affection don’t get much mushier.

2. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

Don’t Believe the Sweater. McClane arrives at O’Hare Dulles airport in a horrid collared sweater that oozes ordinariness. However, his sleuthing — regarding a rogue military lunatic’s (William Sadler) diabolical plot — is from the get-go so spot-on accurate that he comes off as a preternatural Sherlock Holmes.

Absurdly Assured. Far from flustered, McClane now performs expert roll-and-shoot maneuvers when fired upon by villains. He pops out of air vents to kill gunmen at just the right moment. He leaps over a semitruck on a snowmobile that then blows up midair. He escapes a grounded, exploding plane by using the pilot’s ejector seat and parachuting to safety. And he jumps out of a helicopter onto a moving plane’s wing, where he proceeds to fight two super-soldiers. All without hesitation or alarm.

One-liner Overload. McClane primarily speaks in quips throughout director Renny Harlin’s more-is-better sequel, most of them pure eye-rollers (the worst: “Just the fax, ma’am. Just the fax.”). Cheesier still, it’s here that “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” becomes a finale-punctuating signature catchphrase, delivered with the nonchalant cool of a stud who never doubted he’d eventually blow up the baddies’ airplane by spilling its fuel and then igniting the resultant flammable liquid trail.

3. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) “Yeah, I’m that fucking Energizer Bunny.”

Murtaugh and Riggs Redux. John McTiernan creates hothouse summer-in-the-city verve by shooting Vengeance on location in Manhattan. Any such atmospheric authenticity, however, is undercut by the decision to regurgitate the Lethal Weapon template via McClane’s racially charged banter with Harlem shop owner Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), which comes off like the stuff of a stale Mad magazine parody.

My Kind of Hangover. McClane constantly needs aspirin for his alcohol-induced headache while battling Jeremy Irons’s terrorist Simon, whose game of Simon Says involves making McClane complete run-here, run-there tasks. But as in Die Harder, all physical infirmities are superficial and easily shrugged off, never more laughably than when McClane and Zeus — attempting to board a tanker by traversing a cable strung between the ship and a city bridge — crash onto the deck from an insane height and merely give out a momentary groan before resuming their ass-kicking ways.

Stunt Driving. McClane twice spins a speeding vehicle with offhand dexterity, the first so he can also fire upon pursuing villains, and the second — a dump truck, in a giant pipeline! — so he can escape a raging flood. Which he eventually does, by climbing onto the moving truck’s roof, then leaping to an open grate, and finally being ejected outside into a cozy mud puddle via a geyser of water, as if he were Elmer Fudd being shot out of Bugs Bunny’s rabbit hole.

4. Live Free or Die Hard (2007) “I was all out of bullets.”

Kid-Sidekick Campiness. Accompanied by an oh-so-contemporary twentysomething hacker (Justin Long) and pitted against a cyberterrorist (Timothy Olyphant), McClane is reduced to a cliché: the archaic stud who rejects newfangled techno-whatsits for the tried-and-true classics of punching, shooting, running, and sarcastically wise-cracking like a comic-book caricature of a caricature.

PG-13? Please. McClane may be an analog man in a digital world, but he’s as teen-friendly as they come in Len Wiseman’s slick, ludicrous film, which has him perform more rubber-limbed video-game stunts than ever before, all while refraining from smoking or cursing — to the point that even his “Yippee-ki-yay” catchphrase is neutered of its profane finish. (An “unrated” DVD cut restores the blood, guts, and vulgarity.)

I Ain’t Afraid of No Vehicle. Ducking to narrowly avoid a flying, spinning car? Check. Launching another car into the air to take out a military chopper? Check. Killing a female assassin with an SUV in an elevator shaft? Of course check. Fleeing a jet fighter in a semitruck, jumping onto that aircraft’s wing, and then leaping off of it again in order to slide down a collapsing highway ramp, thereby avoiding a raging fireball? Sure, why not?

5. A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) “The 007 of Plainfield, New Jersey.”

Spy-Stuff Silliness. Trouble may follow McClane wherever he goes, but his latest Moscow-set adventure — which finds him teaming up with estranged CIA agent son Jack (Jai Courtney) in a game of Chernobyl-related espionage — is such a knuckleheaded Mission: Impossible knockoff that it’s no surprise when McClane proves a far more adept killing machine than his covert-ops offspring or the legion of Russian commandos whom he guns down with supernatural calm, stopping only to repeatedly complain about how such carnage is ruining his “vacation.”

Interstate Insanity. Apparently, McClane’s skill at spinning cars has improved since Vengeance, as he begins this latest outing by interjecting himself into a chase between Jack and some Russian scoundrels in a heavily armored truck. That McClane twirls his vehicle out of the way of RPG fire is by this point to be expected. Yet the fact that he then walks away from his own crash (which comes after he is propelled up and over a highway divider), steals another SUV, drives over cars stuck in traffic, and then flips his adversaries’ vehicle — all while amiably chatting on the phone to his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) — actually augments his already formidable cartoon credentials.

Leaps and Bounds. Director John Moore’s failure to devise a single memorable set piece is one of A Good Day’s primary failings. Still, just as egregious is that he repeats the same trick twice: having McClane and son leap out of tall buildings to inconsequential injuries. Of the two, it’s the second one that truly reeks of ridiculousness, with McClane, while in midair to avoid a kamikaze pilot’s fatal nosedive, giving the middle finger to his enemy — and, by extension, to any scant remaining relationship this silly series had to quality.

Die Hard’s John McClane: Everyman to Superman