Most writers -- this one included, I'm sure -- have credited McClane's Everyman qualities as the key to his popularity. Unlike the Arnolds and Stallones of the world, he's not a bulletproof, 'roided out titan; he's just a schlubby dude from Jersey with a white undershirt and unstoppable resolve. But Sternbergh rightly suspects there's more to it. "Who among us really aspires to be an Everyman?" he asks. "For Pete’s sake, I’m already an Everyman."
So why do we love Bruce Willis' John McClane so much? Sternbergh finds there's more to McClane's popularity than Everyman-ness; more, even, than his sarcastic one-liners and tough guy attitude. It all comes down to the way McClane upends all the traditional dynamics of order and chaos in action movies:
"The 'Die Hard' films offer a different promise: not that everything will go right, but that there’s always hope that something will go wrong. Most often, that something is John McClane. 'Just a fly in the ointment,' as he describes himself. 'The monkey in the wrench.' His adversaries are consistently personifications of bloodless efficiency. They’re not watch-the-world-burners like the Joker, but a lock-step group of automatons -- accented terrorists, rogue American special-ops soldiers or computer hackers -- who roll in wordlessly to enact some implausibly elaborate scheme: snipping wires, setting explosives, plugging in passwords, popping open vaults and shooting people using silencers. McClane, ultimately, is the meddlesome kid who messes up their careful plans. He owes less to Marshal Dillon than he does to Scooby-Doo."
The Marshal Dillon line is particularly interesting since McClane has, since the first "Die Hard," aligned himself with (and been aligned by others with) cowboys. Hans Gruber compares him to one when they talk on the radio ("Who are you? 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?") and then McClane jokingly replies that he's always been a big fan of Roy Rogers. Later, when he has to give Sgt. Al Powell an alias over the radio to protect his wife, he chooses Roy. And if you're reading this, odds are pretty good you know McClane's famous catchphrase.
All of that adds up to the theory that I've held since college -- that "Die Hard" is a sort of Neo-Western; a modernized version of a classic frontier tale. The lawman comes from the East to the West (which, in 1988, is populated by Japanese corporations and cokeheaded douchebags), saves the day, and then leaves town with his woman at his side -- by limo, instead of the more traditional horse. I even wrote a paper about it in an undergraduate course about critical thinking and the media. I got an A.
But Sternbergh's right: the Western comparison doesn't quite work. The cowboy hero brought order to a chaotic frontier; McClane brings chaos to a relatively civilized Los Angeles high rise. He's a lawman, but he's almost working against all the other lawmen in "Die Hard" -- the cops consider him a nuisance and the FBI agents mistake him for a terrorist.
Even if it destroys my ideas the way McClane destroyed Nakatomi Plaza's elevator this is a great essay, one worth reading no matter when "A Good Day to Die Hard" came out.
Read more of "On the Enduring Appeal of 'Die Hard.'"