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Die Hard John McClane (Bruce Willis)

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John McClane (Bruce Willis)

Barefoot in the Plaza

It's all in the feet.

If you remember one thing about John McClane, let it be this: dude is barefoot for almost the entire movie. No shoes, some shirt, all kinds of problems. That little fact tells us several John McClane Essentials:

  1. He's way out of his element. Mr. McClane was not expecting his awkward holiday with his estranged wife to be interrupted by pseudo-terrorists toting machine guns.
  2. He's vulnerable. McClane may pull off some superhero-level feats throughout the movie, but he's not invincible. If you prick him, does he not bleed?
  3. Still, dude's a boss. He handles just about everything Hans can throw at him, including on shards of broken glass (literally and metaphorically speaking).

In that sense, his barefootedness reinforces the central tension at the heart of John McClane's character: he's an everyman who somehow manages to transcend to hero level, simply because he refuses to give up, shoes or no.

In his most vulnerable moment, as the movie approaches its final dramatic confrontation, McClane hides out in a bathroom and plucks the shards of glass from his feet, all while confiding in his new pal Al Powell that he's not entirely sure he's going to make it. But make it he does.

At this point, you'd be forgiven if you think McClane is eating his words. At this point, you might be thinking he's the one who gives a you-know-what about glass.

But here's the thing: he doesn't. He gives a you-know-what about his wife, and about Al Powell, and about saving the day. What's an inch-long glass shard in your foot when you've got a Gruber to ghost? One needs simply to take the world's dirtiest tank top off and tie it around one's foot.

Problem solved.

A New York Man in an LA World

But let's rewind a bit.

McClane's most memorable trait may be his bad luck with footwear, but there's a bit more to him than that. In fact, the first few scenes of Die Hard tell you just about everything you need to know about our man John McClane.

He's afraid of flying, for one. A surprising fact for a guy who seems pretty fearless throughout the rest of the movie, this little tidbit means that John McClane begins the movie in a place of vulnerability.

Things don't improve from here.

Once his plane lands, McClane seems rather dumbfounded by California, with all its glitz and glam, hot blondes and stretch limos. He even rides in the front seat with Argyle, a hilarious sight gag that shows just how much of a fish out of water our hero is. It's his first time riding in a limo, so shotgun seems just as good a seat as any, right?

The first few scenes also establish McClane as a pretty terrible family man. He's estranged from his wife, who followed her dream job to California and took the kids with her. McClane didn't follow. His explanation?

"Because I'm a New York cop."

A rather unnuanced reading of that might tell us that McClane values his job more than his family. Fair. But it also tells us from where McClane derives his sense of self: his job. More specifically, his job at NYPD. This is not a guy who's comfortable with corporate boardrooms and L.A. sunsets. He craves the beat. The mean streets. Maybe a hot dog with the works.

When he reconnects with Holly, things seem promising at first. They're happy to see each other, she invites him to stay with her, yadda yadda yadda. But then John self-sabotages, bringing up the change in her last name at possibly the worst moment ever. This is not a guy who knows how to communicate in a relationship. This is not a guy who can let a good thing keep going. Shmoop thinks part of him wants the marriage to fail so that he can stay in New York and stay on the streets. (But what about the kids, John?)

Of course it's worth noting that by the end of the movie, it's exactly those beat-cop smarts that win McClane back his wife. Without his NYPD know-how, he never would have safely navigated her out of Gruber's grip. So the very thing that has driven them apart becomes their marriage's saving grace.

For now, at least. We'd recommend some couples' counseling, too. (See the sequels for more.)

Air Duct Confessional: The Ultimate McClane Moment

When choosing a definitive John McClane scene, we here at Shmoop had a tough time deciding. After all, the guy is always ready with an irreverent one-liner, always game for an outlandish stunt. In practically every scene, he does something memorable. But out of all the John gems, we think his brief scene in the air duct perfectly sums up who this guy is. In fact, it's so iconic, it's been memorialized in a mural. Yeah, that happened.

Allow us to set the scene:

John's on the run from some of Gruber's henchmen, with whom he's just had a gunfight on the roof. One of them is Karl, who hates McClane because he waxed Karl's brother, Tony (of the tight sweatpants and grandpa glasses).

Winging it as always, McClane finds himself dangling in an elevator shaft, with nothing but his machine gun strap to support him. He falls, but manages to catch himself on an air duct, and promptly scrambles in. The ensuing scene is brief, but revealing. He wisecracks—to himself, no less:

"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs," and then, a few moments later as he awkwardly shimmies down the duct: "Now I know what a TV dinner feels like."

First, McClane sarcastically marvels at his situation. What he thought was going to be a brief, kindasorta pleasant holiday with his family has turned into a night from hell, spent crawling, climbing, and careening through a building all while being shot at by large blond men. Then, he switches gears entirely, amping up the sarcasm and lightening the situation with a snarky comment about being wedged in a box of metal. Needless to say, for John McClane, things have not gone as planned.

And they never do. Soon enough, the terrorists figure out where he's gone, and McClane is basically a sitting duck in a duct. He manages to escape, but only through sheer, dumb luck.

What Does This Scene Tell Us? Three Things:

  1. John's an improviser. He knows what he's doing insofar as he'll try just about anything to survive from moment to moment (including dangling from a gun strap in an elevator shaft), but it's not like he had any bright ideas for what to do once he got in the duct.
  2. John's serious about heroism, but not serious about anything else. He gets the job done, but he can't seem to resist the urge to make light of the moment—even when there's no one around (but us viewers, of course) to laugh at his joke. We imagine the wisecracks have been a bit of a strain on his marriage.
  3. John's just lucky. We have to remember that, despite his seemingly superhuman abilities, there are many times when John makes it through a moment simply because the action movie gods (a.k.a. screenwriters) have smiled upon him.

This is all just to say, let's not pretend Mr. McClane has it all figured out. While his nemesis, Gruber, sits cool, calm and collected in his corner office, John is flying by the seat of his (ripped and bloodied) pants.

He fakes it, and somehow makes it.

The Accidental Action Hero

That air duct scene also tells us that McClane may be the superman of the hour, but he's not exactly happy about it. He's what we call a reluctant hero—someone who doesn't want to be called to action, but through a mix of circumstance, skills, and a begrudging sense of responsibility, snaps to anyway.

See, McClane's a cop, so he can't help but grab his gun and hustle to help the hostages. But it's not like he's driven by any noble cause. It's instinct, pure and simple. Gunfire? Grab your gun.

Still, there are moments when a sense of humanity, nobility, and depth of feeling do come through. McClane's not just an automaton or an empty badge. We can sense his guilt for not stepping in to prevent Takagi's murder, and we see him struggle with a misplaced sense of responsibility for Ellis's death, too. He may not talk about his feelings much, but he has them, that's for sure. The person who seems most capable of accessing them is—go figure—the other cop, Al Powell. It's only when talking to Al that John's true vulnerability shines through.

So what keeps a reluctant hero going when the going gets emotional? Well, McClane's aided by some excellent police instincts and street smarts. For a man who's never set foot in Nakatomi Plaza, he makes quick work getting the lay of the land, memorizing each floor and using the elevator like his own personal playground. He's also savvy enough to write down the supposed terrorists' names, which he later uses as leverage in his radio showdown with Hans.

McClane is a guy who makes do with what he has, which is all a reluctant hero can ever do, right? After all, "reluctant" also tends to go hand in hand with "unprepared." McClane, like all reluctant heroes, has little to rely on but his wits, so it's a good thing he's so stinkin' witty.

Our Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

And speaking of wit, we think it's high time we let John McClane have a say in describing himself. He conveniently does this when talking to Gruber for the first time. Responding to Gruber's "Who are you then?" McClane snarks,

"Just a fly in the ointment, Hans. The monkey in the wrench. The pain in the ass."

Um, these are not compliments. But they're descriptors that McClane wears like a badge of honor, because to be a fly in the bad guy's ointment is to be a good guy, even if he's not exactly the white-hat type. Here, McClane describes himself as a bit of a rebel, a maverick, a get-'er-done-against-the-grain type.

In other words? He's a cowboy, baby.

Gruber totally calls it. Later in that same scene, he dismisses McClane as "Just another American who saw too many movies as a child. Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne, Rambo, Marshal Dillon."

Always quick with the comeback, John responds:

"I was always kind of partial to Roy Rogers, actually. I really liked those sequined shirts."

Gruber attempts to insult McClane's intelligence by comparing him to American pop culture heroes known for their maverick attitudes. But McClane manages to one-up him and reclaim the comparison in the process.

He may be snarktastic when he says this (something tells Shmoop John McClane wouldn't be caught dead in a sequined shirt), but in aligning himself with Roy Rogers, McClane also manages to give his cowboy essence a wholesome feel. Roy Rogers wasn't a maverick. He was a singing cowboy—"King of the Cowboys" in fact, a family-friendly good guy through and through. It's not the cowboy we'd expect McClane to identify with, but then again he's always ready to defy expectations, to flip a situation on its head.

McClane throws Gruber's insult right back in his face: "You think you can mock me by comparing me to a cowboy?" McClane seems to say. "Well, I'll take that as a compliment." It's a mantle he's proud to wear, and the cowboy motif recurs throughout the movie to efficiently and suggestively set up McClane as the unpretentious, rough-and-tumble hero to Hans Gruber's slick, controlled, cool-as-a-cucumber villain.

His final words of the scene say it all:

"Yippee ki-yay, motherf***er."

In other words, this cowboy's gonna kick your well-dressed butt, Hans.

P.S. For more cowboy moments, see "Al Powell," and "What's Up With the Ending?"

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