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High Rise Heroes
Villain: "Who are you? Some macho American who saw too many movies when he was a young boy?…thinks he's Rambo, John Wayne, Billy the Kid?"
Hero: "I was always rather partial to Roy Rodgers myself ... "
Die Hard is a postmodern invocation of Amercian male mythology. In complete self-awareness the film eclectically and blatantly flaunts the genre codes of the Western, the War movies, the Police films, and the Super-hero in something which amounts to both parody and praise.
Balding and stocky Bruce Willis could never match the shaman-like presence and stature of John Wayne, nor compete with the muscle super-spectacle of Rambo. No, Bruce Willis (or John MacLean) is an ordinary American, a New York cop, a family man who can't even keep his marriage together. His wife moves to L.A. for an executive promotion, taking their two children and reverting to her maiden name.
But put Bruce in a crisis situation and he reveals that inside every ordinary American is a Rambo (or Roy Rodgers as he prefers) only too willing to get out. Terrorists have taken over the building and barefoot Bruce is given the chance to prove his manhood. The plot is ritualistic, involving no genuine suspense, we know that Bruce will win just as his hero predecessors before him. The ritual of the trial or test is used in mainstream cinema to display narcissistic masculinity. Where femininity is most often portrayed as mysterious, and thereby explored and investigated from the "normal" male perspective, masculinity is offered as fact in spectacle.1
Hans Gruber is the villain of Die Hard. He is an effete intellectual and therefore the ideal enemy for Bruce who is a man of action, not of learning or culture. The L.A. police, the F.B.I. and the Media are satirised throughout the film as incompetent, leaving Bruce and Hans to fight it out alone in a modern-day "show-down". The individualisation of power is the key mechanism for the hero ethic. It implicitly defines the institutional superstructure of Western society as inherently incompetent and therefore answerable to none.
Bruce's sole support throughout his ordeal is AI, an overweight, middle aged policeman. He too is an ordinary American male except that he has a problem. Since shooting an adolescent accidently years before, he has been unable to draw his gun. However, through his empathic participation in Bruce's trial, his masculinity is restored and he is able to kill again. AI recovers that "Rambo" inside him and plugs the nastiest of Hans' henchmen.
The ultimate victory though belongs to Bruce. Through his masculine display he has miraculously solved his marriage problems. He emerges, war-torn and semi-naked, to claim the object of his ordeal · his wife. And she, totally moved by his heroism, announces/renounces herself as Mrs. MacLean.
Die Hard makes no attempt to conceal its ideological and historical codes. It invokes the hero ethic unashamedly and gives it new vitality through self· aware humour and postmodern irony. It is symptomatic of American mainstream movies of the '80s · anti-woman, anti-intellectual, naively and tritely moralistic.
Note 1. Neale, Steve, "Masculinity as Spectacle", Screen, Vol. 24, No. 6, Nov.-Dec., 1983, pp.1-16