Okay, now from just the title, I know I’ve already lost you. Don’t the words “action hero” and “realism” react like everclear and chocolate milk, instantly rendering both worse for our audacity to combine them? And even if there were some action heroes that at least attempted a vague cast-aside glance at the realm of the possibility, there is no way John Jet-Jumping McClane is among them, let alone at the top.
Don’t worry, I was right there with you before I thought things out, and I promise there is logic to these seemingly mad ramblings. But, before we get into John McClane specifically, we need to set a few ground rules for what we’re working with. Ground rules such as…
All Action Heroes Are, Obviously, Bullshit
I’m not going to address the realism of what action heroes accomplish, because that would be like debating who would win in a fight between Ken Shamrock and Vern Troyer. Of course no one could actually do what they pull off. With the exception of a few former presidents and the rare soldier blessed by god and raging testosterone, very few people have ever pulled off any of the antics close to what action heroes do on a regular basis. Yes, some people do have shining moments of badassery so brilliant the very sun averts its eyes, but not even they can do it on the consistent basis with which action movie heroes perform. No one has the chance the save a kidnapped senator’s son while fighting off a terrorists organization single-handedly and winning over the villains daughter for some hot sexy-time. That would be the wildest fucking confluence of circumstances in a real person’s life, and any others they might have if that reincarnation shit is real. For an action hero, that could easily be the opening credit scene.
This is because real people don’t exist in a world where shit is always happening, and where they are always coming out on top. Action heroes are the closest examples we have to what the real children of gods would be like. They have, literally, dozens of people who can shape and control their reality watching over them, making sure than even the smallest of defeats circle back around to become awe-inspiring victories. These are people who live in a world where criminals rig their toilets with bombs and crazy theories about maps hidden on historical American documents turn out to be totally correct. Why?
Because the action hero is always right, in one way or another. He always wins. And even when he seems to lose…
Death, Pfft, Fuck Death
Chev Chelios falls from a helicopter, hits the pavement, and gets up running in time for the sequel. The Terminator has more reincarnations than The Buddha. John McClane, well, pretty much just pick anything (rides an explosive blast, shoots through his own chest, jumps on fucking jet). Point is, death does not exist for these people, at least not in any tangible, lasting form. The only exceptions would be action heroes whose series have run to the end, and even then there’s always a chance to be rebooted or remade back into life. On top of being able to accomplish pretty much anything they want, provided they do some sweet jumps and a few spin kicks in the process, these chosen beings are effectively unkillable.
Now, their power does not apply to the people around them, sadly, as seen by the plethora of graves hosting women who slept with James Bond. Wait, they sleep with him, then die, does that mean all along James Bond has actually been a deadly sexually transmitted disease? Weird. Anyway, the wives, friends, and assorted loved ones of action heroes are pretty much living on borrowed time, because the minute there’s a need to up the emotional wattage, you can bet one of them is going down in a gruesome fashion. And, unlike the action hero, these folks are probably going to stay dead.
The exception to this rule is the children of the action hero, or, really, any child they’ve bonded with. Killing kids is a bit taboo in Hollywood, so if it’s going to happen it will be the backstory and off-camera. Even once the kids are grown, odds are they’ve got enough of the action hero’s blood to be mini-badasses themselves. This is a double-edged sword, because while it means that the kids will usually come through unscathed, it also means that any writer wanting to crank the living shit out of the drama has an ace in the hole. Of course, to us, this is just writing. To the action hero, it’s the loss of something they care deeply for.
Still with me? Good, because now that we’ve gone over ground rules of action hero worlds, let’s talk about…
The Original John McClane
For purposes of this theory, the original John McClane refers to the character in the first three Die Hard films. Many would argue that only the first film captures the character in his purest incarnation, but that’s like saying Old English is the right form of English because it came first. Shit evolves.
I’m not going to rehash the plots of those films to pad my wordcount, because Wikipedia is a thing, and if you haven’t seen them then you should stop reading and go watch all five films. Yes, five, the others come up soon. I’ll wait.
Wow, that was quick. Okay, so in the first three films we see John McClane: devoted cop, struggling to balance his obligation to duty with the needs of his family. Given the way he handles himself in the first Die Hard, this is clearly not the first time he’s seen some action, but nothing suggests it’s ever been on such a scale before. He struggles, he bleeds, he worries. He is a regular man, thrust into unexpected circumstances, who rises up to the occasion out of necessity. It’s a classic formula that never goes out of style. Second movie is more of the same, though with a bit more punchtacular confrontations. The third gets a bit…well…dumber, but the core of character remains pretty consistent.
Now, while John McClane does grow more comfortable in these situations as they become more frequent, he is still drawn in with reluctance, only willing to go so far because A) his wife is in danger or B) the villain has purposely drawn him in (with a vengeance!). He is the right man in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is not his life, these are rare snippets from shit that keeps happenings to a seemingly random, but still awesome, schmo.
That can no longer be said some years later about…
Post-Gap John McClane
In the twelve year gap between Die Hard with a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard, shit seems to have gone down. John is now divorced, estranged from his daughter, and there no mention made of the son. He’s gone from struggling family man to full on cop who also takes a slightly stalkery approach to watching over his kids like an unshaven guardian angel.
The biggest change, however, appears not to have been to John’s circumstances, but to John himself. Gone is the sense of disbelief at his circumstances, the fear at what the fuck is going on around him, the human element in his dangerous situations. No, now John McClane seems to not even take a shit without expecting the world to dissolve into bullets around him.
Not only does he expect it, but he shows exactly zero fucks when things go crazy. In Live Free or Die Hard he goes to make a standard arrest, everyone starts shooting, and he doesn’t even look surprised. He makes the face you or I make when the person in front of us at the grocery store pulls out a checkbook: “Oh, great, this shit again.” In A good Day to Die Hard he refuses to surrender his gun to a room full of equally armed men until a hostage is taken. It literally takes a life other than his, or his son’s, on the line before taking on twenty dudes seems like a bad bet. It’s like each day he looks deep within a big bag that used to contain all his fucks, and, despite an hour of pawing around, still comes up empty. It isn’t even just that John seems fearless, that would be within the realm of the action hero putting on a brave front. No, if anything, he seems bored. Later in the film he ramps a car into a helicopter and barely cracks a smile. Pre-Gap McClane would let out a whoop of joy, minimum.
This also marks the point where John is no longer being forced into these situations. Circumstances are still presenting them to him, but they’ve stopped using wife or demands to pull him in. Yes, the villain from Live Free does kidnap his daughter, however that’s over halfway through the movie. McClane was already kicking all kinds of ass before that happened. Why? Well, he was there, saw how things were going, and figured he was supposed to do something.
This is, also, where most will say the series diverged from the original concept in such a severe way that the films were no longer even “Die Hard” movies. I’ll give them that, stylistically, that is true, however as far as the movies dedication to a realistic character, this is actually a natural progression. How the fuck does that work? Because…
John McClane is at least quasi-aware of his immortality
As stated, we know in the twelve years between film three and four, some shit has gone down. It’s never outright addressed, but we can gather a lot from his circumstances and reactions, not to mention the reactions of those around him. John’s marriage is gone, so far in the past she’s already remarried, his kids are either following in the family trade or trying to put distance between he and them, and he’s seemingly lost all sense of amazement or terror. What the fuck happened in the gap that we’re not seeing?
Most likely, more of the same. John McClane kept getting caught up in crazy, unexpected shit. He continued to be drawn into heists, terrorist plots, and crazy villain schemes, until the action hero side of his life eroded the family man into nothingness. How do you keep an already rocky marriage working when one of you goes to work at a bank for eight hours and the other fights ten guys on the wing of a plane mid-flight? Those are not two people with a whole lot in common.
The most telling fact that these things keep happening is how no one, not John, not his daughter, not his boss, not his son, is remotely surprised by any of the craziness. Not one utterance of “Man, been a while since I did this” or even a “Not again” is made. This is no longer the exception in his life, this is the rule. Live Free or Die Hard is John McClane’s Tuesday. He’s lived the life of an action hero for nearly two decades.
And, unlike others of his ilk, John has at least somewhat realized his power. Reality is, from a psychological perspective, defined by the world around us. If I raised a kid believing that goblins will punch him if he leaves a light on, then hired costumed little people to enforce that edict each time a lightswitch went unflipped, then to that kid goblins would be real, and little fuckers to boot. John McClane has lived through years upon years of experiences that should have killed him in five minutes, and he’s come out victorious every time. Luck only explains away so much, and most of it isn’t skill. He just shows up, punches and shoots, then wins. How many times would that have to happen to you before you started wondering if you were secretly Superman?
We don’t know the number for McClane, but it sure seems like it was exceeded during the gap. Going back to Live Free, the first time I saw the opening scene where he has nearly infinite bullets for the shoot-out that sprang from him just picking up some kid, my first instinct was to call bullshit. Who goes in that heavy for a glorified cabbie assignment?
Then it hit me, if you were McClane, wouldn’t you? I wouldn’t check the mail without at least two guns and six clips. That’s what happens from living through endless iterations of this shit. Of course he’s always strapped for war. Of course he is unsurprised at ramping a car into a helicopter. Of course jumping onto a jet seems perfectly logical.
Because, when you realize you can’t die and you’ll always win, your concern for whats possible goes out the window. And that is why John McClane is the most realistic of action heroes. Unlike everyone else, he evolves. Some start out not giving a fuck, some never seem to wise-up to what’s going on around them, but only John McClane actually assimilates information from the world and situations around him and grows appropriately. He does the human thing, he learns and adjusts.
Whether you agree or not with that status as most realistic, go back and rewatch movies four and five with that idea in your head. Observe how he only shows concern for others lives, how unimpressed he is with his own insane accomplishments, how blasé he seems to be about the both ordeals.
I don’t know if it will make you agree with my assessment or not, but I do know it makes those films infinitely more enjoyable.