It is quite a chore to be one of the most celebrated action heroes in American cinema history, having, over the course of more than two decades, been the model by which many of your ilk are judged. As they are today, as they were when you first graced our screens in 1988, action movies are a dime a dozen, full of cookie-cutter characters and outlandish caricatures that encompass virtually every cliché imaginable; from the overconfident, self-assured villain whose maniacal schemes seem so implausible yet they always seem so close to coming to fruition, to the bureaucratic authority figures whose moral ambiguity and/or inherent corruption render them impotent against said villains, to the seemingly invincible, doomed to suffer, fated to prevail hero (or in some cases anti-hero, whereby the flaws outnumber but never outweigh the merits) whose inconceivably unwavering sense of justice ensures their victory. You, John McClane, the quintessential American movie hero, having fought off – not once, not twice, not even thrice, but four times – some of the most brutally violent, intelligently sociopathic terrorist groups ever depicted on film in efforts to rescue nameless hostages, your wife and family, and ultimately your country from their vicious plans. With news that we will in 2013, 25 years after your introduction, be offered a fifth installment in the Die Hard series, I must pose to you, Mr. McClane, a question: Haven’t you had enough?
Now, let me be clear – I love the Die Hard series. Throughout these four films, you’ve become something akin to an American James Bond, a veritable paragon of virtue whose actions often match the violence and resourcefulness, if not necessarily the intellect, of your antagonists in an efforts to achieve a greater good, usually involving the protection of innocent lives. Unlike the abstractly global concerns of a typical Bond villain, your opponents have rarely been more than glorified bank robbers and anarchists less interested in any sort of dominion over the world than in their own greed or self-fulfillment; in the words of your first foe, the nefarious Hans Gruber, “Who said we were terrorists?” Also unlike James Bond, and indeed unlike most action heroes, especially those you’ve inspired, you get hurt – emotionally and physically – and invariably end all of your adventures in an extreme state of exasperation and damage. You spent the first film running around with glass shards in your feet, getting shot at by terrorists and confused FBI agents alike, engaging in one of the most furious fistfights I’ve ever seen, and were so exhausted from the ordeal that you barely spent the last five minutes of the film with more than a blank and tired expression. Hell, you shot through your own shoulder wound at the end of Live Free or Die Hard to take out the villain. Add to this your acerbic and sardonic wit, and it’s no wonder you’ve been referred to as an “anti-Bond.”
You do have your archetypical heroic qualities as well, not the least of which being your penchant for witty retorts and one-liners, exemplified best by your renowned catchphrase: “Yippi-ki-yay, motherfucker.” You often approach the most dangerous situations with a no-nonsense, outright vigilante attitude, at one point chiding your hero status as the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet persevering “because there is nobody else to do it right now.” Over the years, we’ve seen you rise above the depths of your personal despair at your continuous inability to maintain a healthy familial relationship with your wife and children, usually succeeding in regaining their respect as you save numerous lives, including theirs… only to lose it by the time we meet you again in the next film, trying to earn it back at the expense of a few criminals’ lives and millions of dollars worth of property and collateral damage, all of which you end up having to answer for. But hey, it’s all in a day’s work, right?
But now we return to my question of haven’t you had enough? When we first met you, you stated that you’d been a police officer for 11 years, placing you in your mid-to-late 50’s by now (an estimation supported by the actual age of the actor who portrays you, Bruce Willis). Factor in the excessive strain you’ve been under over the years resulting in your body possibly having enough scar tissue to encompass most military brigades, not aided by a pervasive smoking habit and alcoholism that would impede on your health and stamina, if we are to look at you with any sense of realism in our peripheral vision, you’ve got to be pretty bloody tired by now. I know, I know… you’re an action hero, a character in a movie series, and thus you’re not subject to the laws of physics and physiology that would affect us normal human beings.
But in some small sense, you are subject to those laws. As stated, you were different from the standards of your kind because you weren’t invincible, because you got hurt, and because you were often rewarded with more derision than respect or adulation. Indeed, Live Free or Die Hard did have you somewhat aware of your advancing years, from your contempt for modern technology in favor of tried and true methods to your curmudgeonly attitude toward the young hacker and his budding romantic attachment to your daughter. Yet, I will say, you handled the issue of your age rather eloquently, or at least more so than other protagonists like you have. Case in point, Indiana Jones, whose age had become so much a source of self-abasing humor in his fourth adventure that he’d become a parody of himself. Or another example can found in Roger Murtaugh of the Lethal Weapon series. Granted, from the get go of the first film, he’s 50 and states numerous times that he’s “getting too old for this shit,” which becomes one of the tropes of the series to the extent that both he and his younger and at one time more fit and virile partner Martin Riggs acknowledge their passing years by their fourth outing… and that was only 10 years after the first film, never mind the 18 that span your series.
If it’s unfair to bring up the subject of your age, let’s also look at other areas to which you run dangerously close to self-parody, particularly with regards to your aforementioned alcoholism and family life. It’s safe to say that your actor, Bruce Willis, is as responsible as the plethora of unoriginal and uncreative writers ripping you and your films off for their own hackneyed action movie fantasies for perpetuating the downtrodden qualities of the American action hero. So many of the characters he has portrayed – from Korben Dallas in The Fifth Element, to Tom Hardy in Striking Distance, to David Dunn in Unbreakable, to John Hartigan in Sin City, to Jeff Taley in Hostage – have been policemen or protectors whose lives are in shambles, characterized by a smorgasbord of failed relationships, self-destructive behavior, and a façade of nihilism underscored by a hardened moral core. Even Jock Mosley in 16 Blocks and Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout are virtually your twins, and not just in appearance!
Also take into consideration the degrees to which your opponents have had to up the ante to make each successive film more engrossing. Willis had stated some years ago that he was done with “save the world” type films, yet the word is for the fifth installment that he wants to take you, Mr. McClane, out of the United States. Considering the nationwide (and by implication, global) impact of the terrorists’ plot in Live Free or Die Hard, one can only assume that you’d have to save another country or possibly the world a la Jack Bauer in the 24 series (indeed, one of the tentative titles for the next film is Die Hard 24/7… coincidence?) in order to make your next adventure more palatable to the average moviegoer.
The point is you are already dangerously treading the fine line of maintaining your hero status and becoming the butt of your own joke. My comedic/philosophical guru Bill Hicks once stated that the only way to prevent movies from becoming more and more boring as filmmakers struggle to top the action and budgets of the past would be to start using terminally ill people as stunt doubles. I wonder if that may yet happen with you and the Die Hard films. Having seen the subpar films that came in the wake of your iconic status, I can certainly say that you’ve managed to narrowly avoid becoming boring, although your taking out a helicopter with a car did remind me a little too much of a similar trick in a 1991 film called Stone Cold. With 2013 being the 25th anniversary of your introduction to the world of cinema, I wonder, John McClane, just how much more punishment you’ll be able to take, as well as just how much more legitimately thrilling and enjoyable action you and your films will be able to dish out without having to become a caricature of your former glory. Seriously, John… should a fifth film become inevitable, I can only ask that you please proceed gracefully and don’t let yourself become a victim of your own legacy.
Your concerned friend,