Monday, February 25, 2013

The Devolution of Character

I saw the new Die Hard movie this weekend. And it was fun. Lots of action, some one-liners. What you generally expect from a Die Hard movie.

But the entire time I watched it, all I kept thinking was: I miss John McClane.

Back when we first met him in 1988, he was a real, fleshed-out character. He had fears (air travel, his family’s safety, loss of his own life) and desires (reuniting with his estranged wife, seeing his kids, still being alive come Christmas morning). He said the wrong thing, a lot. And every time he did, he knew it. He wasn’t thoughtless, he was just stuck in a rut and finding it difficult not to run at the mouth.

He was certainly brave and tough and so forth, but he didn’t always just run into situations guns blazing. He didn’t stop Gruber & friends from killing Mr. Takagi and he couldn’t stop Ellis from talking himself into a corner he couldn’t get out of. In both these situations, McClane showed himself to be truly torn by his decisions and inability.

He talked a big game, loading the talk with expletives. But his rampant cursing wasn’t a way to prove his toughness or a glib approach to death, it was his way of dealing with the fact that he was freaking the frick-frack out. As was shown a number of times, he was scared. And it was the fact that he kept going in spite of this fear, more than any of the high octane stunts or number of bad guys vanquished, that made McClane a hero.

He got hurt, repeatedly, and acknowledged that. Sure, it was less acknowledgment than a real-life person might show, but as he pulled the glass out of his feet and limped for the rest of the movie, you knew he was feeling it.

Despite not being great at verbalizing it, he cared about his interpersonal relationships. Most especially in the case of his wife, but also a couple of others he met along the way. He and Argyle, the limo driver, quickly bonded. And though they don’t actually meet each other until the last five minutes of the movie, McClane and LAPD sergeant Al Powell manage to form a more touching friendship than is often portrayed in such films.

As the franchise has grown, so has the size of the groups that McClane has been asked to protect – from an office of hostages to, in essence, the world – taking his story from improbable to impossible. And though with all these misadventures I could understand an individual becoming desensitized over time, I just don’t think the John McClane ’88 would ever stop caring to the point that John McClane ’13 has.

Gone is his conflicted reaction to the loss of live by innocent bystanders. Now he drives over them in their cars. He wanted so badly to reconnect with his wife in the first movie that despite it not being a romance, it can be seen as a love story in some ways. The stated desire to patch things up with his son here, is just that, stated. It’s a plot point and an excuse to get him to Russia, but no real weight is given to that storyline, making what could have been touching moments just seem like an obligatory nod to there having to be something in his life past blowing things up.

Not that he’s at any risk from these actions.

There is no fear of his mortality here, for him or the audience. The stunts have gotten bigger, but the threat of death hasn’t. There’s no need for us to root for him anymore because there’s no chance of anything actually happening to him.

When I watched the first movie, I knew he wasn’t going to die. He couldn’t. And I was fine with that, because I also knew it wasn’t going to be easy for him. Now, forget about broken glass in the feet, McClane throws himself through windows, falls down buildings, hangs off of helicopters and shrugs it off. The blood he is covered in seems more unrealistic that that which was shown in the first movie, because McClane shows absolutely no reaction to it past occasionally wincing as though his muscles were a little sore from a particularly strenuous day at the gym.

Now, I’m going to be completely honest here and say, if they make a sixth one of these, despite my frustrations here, I will go see it. Not simply because it’s a habit, but because I continue to hold out hope that at some point the indestructible John McClane will go into retirement and let the human McClane come out and play.

He was a character I could get behind.

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