We are men, men who enjoy movies. Within the diverse canon of films that comprise our favorites, male characters exist whom we count among our heroes. These are men who often represent the archetypes of manhood, for better or worse. These are the Reel Men and we will be studying these characters in order to determine what lesson of mandom can be gleaned from them.
The Film: Die Hard (1988)
Who’s The Man: Officer John McClane
NYPD officer John McClane flies out to L.A. to see his wife and children. His wife Holly has landed a top executive position with the Nakatomi Corporation and John is making an appearance at the Christmas party. Unfortunately for everyone, a group of international thieves masquerading as political terrorists crash the party. Now John, who manages to evade capture by the thieves when they first arrive, must do whatever he can to stop them and take them down from the inside.
What Makes Him a Reel Man?
John McClane did not travel to Los Angeles on official police business. He made the trek out to the West coast, to a city for which he holds no high esteem, to see his estranged wife and children at Christmas. But as we all know, the best laid plains of mice and reel men often go awry…particularly around the holidays. Sometimes you burn the turkey, or the lights on your tree don’t light up, or international terrorists take over a skyscraper and you are charged with ensuring their defeat. But where most people faced with this situation would dissolve into a rather large puddle of shame and urine, John McClane demonstrates that a real man knows how to adapt to any given situation.
One of the basic principles of evolution, the scientific process by which men were able to distinguish themselves from apes in the first place, is that of adaptation. When a change in the environment presents a challenge to an organism’s survival, that organism must adapt to that change or face extinction. This necessity for adaptation explodes from the textbook into real world, or at least cinematic world, application in the case of John McClane. John faces extinction himself if he fails to adequately adapt to his violently changing surroundings.
It begins subtly with the mere removal of his shoes. He is not used to long flights and decides to heed the advice of a fellow passenger who suggests he make fists with his toes on the carpet to prevent jetlag. This is not only the first instance of his attempt to adapt to his new environment but it leads to the hero’s iconic setback. From there, John must deal with the fact that, despite his police training, he is in no way prepared to single-handedly thwart an entire bevy of terrorists with automatic weapons and “enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger.” So how does he manage to defeat them?
The ironic solution is that McClane uses his unfamiliar surroundings to his advantage and employs a sort of guerilla warfare tactic to subvert the terrorists’ numerical strength. He sneaks around the floors still under renovation and uses a pinup as an unusual, but effective point of reference as he tries to get his bearings. He also crawls through the air ducts and forces small factions of bad guys into the open, picking them off one by one. When that fails, he opens up an elevator shaft and drops a load of their own C4 directly onto their heads; his desk chair/computer monitor delivery system requiring a MacGyver level of inventiveness.
But there are moments showcasing McClane’s adaptability that don’t find him firing a single shot. McClane must ignore his police training on more than one occasion during this ordeal in order to survive and achieve his objective. This is most evident in the moment wherein he witnesses the interrogation and eventual murder of Nakatomi chairman Joseph Takagi. McClane knows that he should bust into the room and do all he can to prevent Takagi’s death, but he knows that his intervention would inevitably cause his own death and therefore prevent him from being able to save the rest of the hostages. There is a scene directly after the shooting wherein he has to talk himself down from the guilt he feels over not saving Takagi, which illustrates this creative altering of his usual methods.
McClane utilizes an incredible degree of ingenuity and improvisation throughout the entire film. Even though he believes Hans Gruber is the escaped hostage he purports to be, he still knows better than to trust someone he’s never met with a loaded weapon. He also pulls razor sharp shards of glass from his bloodied feet and fashions makeshift bandages so that he may carry on; not only providing evidence of his ability to adapt but also his unparalleled toughness. It ends up being his resourceful use of gift tape that allows him to send Hans plummeting to his death. His exploits basically read like the Step-by-Step Guide to Overthrowing Terrorists.
The Man Behind the Man
Bruce Willis is a name now synonymous with action heroism, but that was not always the case. In fact, in 1988 when Die Hard was released, Bruce was best known for his work on the television comedy Moonlighting. Indeed, six other actors were offered the part before it came to Bruce. The casting director had to be as flexible and quick thinking as McClane himself as the face of the film’s hero kept changing on a whim. What Willis brought to the role was a regular Joe quality that made him more grounded and accessible to audiences than the typical larger-than-life action star. He also proved more vulnerable than most action heroes as he suffered arguably as much damage as the villains he dispatched; the bloody feet serving as a reminder that he is in fact human. It is impossible to imagine this role played by any of the innumerable other actors to whom it was offered.
One Final Toast
Die Hard is perhaps the ultimate guy movie and therefore one could make a strong case for John McClane being the ultimate Reel Man. If nothing else, McClane went on to teach us how important it is to maintain one’s adaptability at all times because one never knows when the exact same unimaginable scenario will present itself three more times; with a vengeance, no less. It isn’t a mystery why Hans likens McClane to a cowboy; the pioneers of the old west were beholden to the same adeptness at adaptation for their survival. As such, we raise our glasses of the haphazard cocktail we were able to mix using whatever happened to be in our liquor cabinets and offer him a hearty yippee-ki-yay, motherf*#&%r!