When you hear that James Cole is played by Bruce Willis, you think that his character is going to be easy to analyze. C'mon, it's Bruce Willis. He'll play an everyday schmo with extraordinary fighting skillz. He'll also have a quippy one-liner waiting on the wings for any given situation.
James Cole is nothing like your typical Bruce Willis role. He's a time-traveler from the year 2035, so he's hardly an everyday schmo. He can take a hit like it's nobody's business, and dish it back with interest, but he's hardly a superhero. The wounds he sustains are serious matters that require medical attention.
As for those one-liners, they're nonexistent. Cole's got things on his mind that are more important than figuring out how to outwit bad guys.
So if James Cole isn't a carbon copy of John McClane, who is he? Let's find out.
What Would James Do?
For starters, Cole is a messianic-type character—he's a time-traveling, street-fighting, jazz-loving Jesus. (We know; this film is bonkers.)
Let's start with the basics: James Cole's initials are J.C., same as Jesus Christ. Before you think we're stretching here, note that Cole isn't the only movie character to follow this naming convention. John Connor from the Terminator franchise has the same monogram towels, and he happens to be the savior of humanity, too. Same with John Carpenter in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Oh, and John Coffey from The Green Mile had healing powers. And John Constantine from Constantine battled the minions of hell. And—well, you get the point.
Here are a couple more parallels between Jesus and Cole:
- Jesus was sent to our world to save humanity; Cole was sent to gather information to save the future of humanity.
- Jesus wasn't believed by the Pharisees when he pronounced he was the son of God; Cole wasn't believed by the psychiatrists when he said he was from the future.
- Jesus had otherworldly knowledge; Cole knows about the future.
- Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity's sins; Cole sacrificed himself to save humanity.
- Jesus was resurrected after his death; Cole lived on after his death because his younger self remains alive.
Further cementing the connection, when Cole is killed, he has long flowing locks of hair and his arms are spread wide as he falls to the ground. The scene is meant to mirror Jesus' own death on the cross. His killers are also law enforcement officers, and Jesus' killers were the Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross, a.k.a. the law enforcement of the day.
Yep, Cole's story sure does feature a bunch of parallels with the story of Jesus.
These parallels set up Cole as a messianic protagonist. These characters tend to be healers, the saviors of humanity, or both. They also tend to have a wisdom or knowledge that isn't available to many. If they're battling an evil force, their knowledge is considered suspect, usually by those in power, because their battles are otherworldly.
Minus the healing part, that's basically Cole in a nutshell. He's trying to save humanity, and his otherworldly knowledge makes him suspect to those in power. Although he lacks the ability to heal, it's not for lack of trying. He does his best to heal all of humanity by stopping the spread of the virus. We'll give him full points for effort.
A Method to His Madness?
There's another wrinkle to the Cole character: is he mentally divergent? Early in the film, Cole tells Dr. Railly that he was sent from the future, and she naturally diagnoses him as mentally ill. He is sent to the mental hospital, where he meets L.J. Washington.
Washington introduces him—and the audience—to the idea of mental divergence:
WASHINGTON: It's a condition of mental divergence. I find myself on the planet Ogo. Part of an intellectual elite preparing to subjugate the barbarian hordes on Pluto. But even though this is a totally convincing reality for me in every way, nevertheless, Ogo is actually a construct of my psyche. I am mentally divergent in that I am escaping certain unnamed realities that plague my life here. When I stop going there, I will be well. Are you also divergent, friend?
That final question lingers throughout the film. Is Cole mentally divergent? If so, what "unnamed realities" are plaguing his life?
Cole himself flip-flops on his own understanding of his mental state. In 1990, he tells the psychiatrists that he's not crazy. But in 1996, he says to Railly:
COLE: Wouldn't it be great if I was crazy? Then the world would be okay.
On his third trip back in time, he tells her:
COLE: No, no. It's okay. I'm not crazy anymore. I mean, I am. I'm mentally divergent. I know that now. I want you to help me. I want to get better.
But events transpire that make him change his mind…yet again.
What are we to make of Cole's sanity—or lack thereof? The film provides evidence for both readings. If you think Cole is insane, you can cite that nobody else interacts with people from the future, the scenes taking place in the future are simply from his mental perspective, and any foreknowledge he seems to possess could be good guess work or coincidences.
If you think Cole is telling the truth, you can cite the great escape from the mental hospital, his foreknowledge of Ricky Neuman's prank, and the World War I bullet Dr. Railly pulled from his leg.
Ultimately, it'll be up to you to decide if Cole is "mentally divergent," and it can be fun to switch your perspective with subsequent viewings. By the way, the film is totally open to this. When watching Vertigo, Cole notes:
COLE: It's just like what's happening with us. Like the past. The movie never changes. It can't change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you're different. You see different things.
It's like the film and Cole are giving you permission to change your mind and experiment with any answers.
No Fate But What We Make
"No fate but what we make" is one of the most popular lines from another time-traveling science fiction romp, Terminator 2. Through the character of Cole, 12 Monkeys respectfully disagrees with this sentiment.
Cole's journey is a deterministic one; in other words, what's going to happen is going to happen, and there's nothing he can do about it.
Before we get into that, we need to start at the beginning. The film opens with Cole's dream. He's a young boy watching a man being gunned down at an airport. As the film continues, the dream recurs several times, each time slightly different than the last. In one instance, Jeffery Goines appears with a long ponytail and a yellow jacket. In another, a blonde Dr. Railly is clearly seen to be running toward the dead man.
When Cole discusses the dream with Dr. Railly, we learn that it is, in fact, a memory from his childhood:
COLE: You were in my dream just now. Your hair's different. Different color. I'm sure it was you.
RAILLY: What was the dream about?
COLE: About an airport. Before everything happened. It's the same dream I always have. When I was a kid.
RAILLY: And I was in it? What did I do?
COLE [sighs]: You were very upset. You're always very upset in the dream. Just never knew it was you.
RAILLY: It wasn't me before, James. It's become me now because of what's happening. [Sighs.] Could you please untie me?
Why the dream changes is open to interpretation. Perhaps the film is contemplating our lack of objectivity with regards to the past and memory. Or perhaps Cole's actions are changing the past, but the time line is healing itself to ensure that the ultimate outcome, his death, remains the same.
Either way, this dream clues us into Cole's ultimate and inescapable fate. He doesn't recognize himself as the man being killed, but he does realize that the future can't be altered by his time-traveling adventures. As he tells the psychiatrists…
COLE: How can I save you? This already happened. I can't save you. Nobody can.
The same goes for Cole. Even if he doesn't realize it; he can't save himself because his own death has already happened. When it comes to the past, there are no take-backs.
Again, this element of Cole's story singles him out as a Jesus stand-in. Like Jesus, Cole is destined to die. Also, both men try to avoid their fate. Jesus prayed for God to remove the fate of being crucified at the Garden of Gethsemane. Meanwhile, Cole tries to run away with Dr. Railly to the Key West of 1996:
COLE: Listen: I've done my job. I did what you wanted. Good luck. I'm not coming back.
Neither got their wish in that regard, and both ultimately decide to take up their destiny and do what they must.
For Christians, Jesus' death results in the ultimate salvation for mankind. But can the same be said for Cole? That depends on how you read 12 Monkeys' final, enigmatic scene. But we'll leave that discussion for our "What's Up With the Ending?" section since it has no bearing on Cole's character. He's already dead.
All we can say here is we hope it turns out well for the human race, or else Cole has been locked in a time loop where he gets to infinitely witness the nightmarish scene of his own death for no reason.
Wow: there just aren't enough puppy videos on the whole of the internet to make that less depressing.