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5 Reasons Why We Love John McClane
What Makes Mr. Yippie-Ki-Yay One of Our Enduring Favorites
By Michael Henley
February 13, 2012
When Die Hard was released in 1988, it had much going against it: goofy title, crazy premise (terrorists seize an office building? Really?), and there was Bruce Willis, who at the time was untested in action roles. Yet Die Hard became an instant classic. 25 years and countless rip-offs and sequels later, we’re back in action with John McClane for A Good Day to Die Hard. What is it we love about John McClane?
1. He’s Blue-Collar
The key to McClane’s appeal is…he’s an unlucky schlub. Not a commando or assassin. He avoids a fight if he can. He’s a New York detective out of his element, constantly juggling family issues and real concerns. He’s underappreciated by all, hounded by bureaucrats, and… constantly besieged by crafty terrorist-thieves.
As odd as it sounds, we can relate to this experience. To be John McClane is to be attacked from all angles, and we know how that feels. Some of his actions defy belief, but what grounds McClane is that he makes choices we instantly sympathize with. John rises to an occasion not at once, but only when he realizes no one else can do it. He isn’t a hero who saves the day because he’s supposed to. He’s an average guy, who does it because he has to.
2. He’s Compassionate
John would have an easier time if he didn’t always have family getting into trouble. Time after time, terrorists target his clan, and he protects them with every ounce of stamina he has. The only movie that doesn’t have a family theme is 1995’s Die Hard With A Vengeance, but it’s no coincidence that it takes place in John’s home of Manhattan, which becomes a character itself, one that we (and John) hate to see mistreated.
John’s compassion isn’t a storytelling shortcut. It’s pure character, a side we relate to so well. And while McClane is surly at times, he can and does make friends out of cops, limo drivers, airport janitors, truck drivers, etc. He’s good hearted. He even laments the death of Ellis, that whiny, coke-sniffing weasel. Far from being a jaded action figure, McClane is all too in touch with his heart.
3. He’s Clever
Not only is McClane a cop, he’s a good cop. He takes notes on his enemies, determines their goals, and improvises like crazy. He can identify a trap before springing it, turns knowledge of geography into his advantage, uses deduction and policework, keeps his opponents guessing, and makes the most of definitely finite resources. He’s not just a gun-toting hero; he uses his smarts, and with 25 years of action under his belt, he remains one of the best walking credits to NYPD training.
4. He’s a Smart-Ass
McClane without the wisecracks would be a different character, and probably a lesser one. Like many of us, he finds release in humor. He’s a smart mouth to anyone who deserves it, and we hang on every barb as an audience, wishing that we could tell off some people in our own lives. McClane gets recognition for being a violent he-man, but one shouldn’t discount his ability to tap into our need for instant, devastating verbal revenge.
Plus: “Yippie-Ki-Yay, Motherfucker!” John takes an insult (from Hans Grueber, who calls him a “cowboy”) and turns it into a triumphant catchphrase. Badass.
5. He’s Human
This is a trait that has lessened as the series has progressed, unfortunately. But for my money, it is the key reason we retain interest in the adventures of John McClane. A hero who can fight is one thing, but one who does so with limitations is quite another, whether they be his bloody bare feet, his bewildered brain, or even his ability to take punishment (we feel every wound and gash throughout the series). In every film, John overcomes his weaknesses by harnessing his strengths. McClane’s a good man. But he isn’t Superman. He is abused to an inch of his life. And he keeps on coming. His durability is staggering, his perseverance inspiring. Everyone wants to be the man who wins against all odds, because that is the story that we want our own lives to be.
We love John McClane, in other words, because he’s us.
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