Die Hard Neocon

2007-06-27 (General release)

Owing to the immutable Hollywood logic that dictates if a sequel can be made then it must be made, this summer the Die Hard series is once more upon us. If the previews are to be believed, installment number four, Live Free or Die Hard, arrives chugalug with the same smash-mouth bravado that has defined the series and a generation of action films, not to mention the career of its star. Considering the general profitability of film sequels, the main question worth asking about Live Free or Die Hard is “What took so long?”

Beyond prosaic answers like the difficulties of getting a script written and working out the logistics and timing, the obvious reason is September 11. After the attacks, the film industry no doubt feared Collateral Damage — that is to say, the lessons of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ill-fated terrorism-vendetta flick, whose release was pushed back by four months and which eventually grossed an underwhelming $40 million in spring 2002. However, Hollywood has crept back toward 9/11 both darkly (Syriana and Munich) and directly (United 93 and World Trade Center). And if the eagerly received exploits of 24‘s Jack Bauer demonstrate anything, it’s that many of us are psychologically ready to play ball when it comes to pop culture terrorists and hostages.

Thus five years into President Bush’s war on terror, we are only now calling upon one our greatest cultural assets in vicarious ass kicking: Detective John McClane. And if Live Free or Die Hard sounds suspiciously like a cocky slogan that might have been batted around in Bush speechwriting bull sessions, it could be because John McClane has been a neocon all along.

Two decades ago, the first Die Hard film helped give birth to an action-film template and redefine a heroic archetype. The template was so ubiquitous, it yielded a familiar shorthand: the film Speed was easily pitched as Die Hard on a Bus, Steven Segal’s Under Siege was Die Hard on a Ship, the Wesley Snipes vehicle Passenger 57 was Die Hard on a Plane, and so on. What these and other imitators failed to grasp, though, was that the success of the Die Hard trilogy was less a matter of its formula — loner underdog overmatched against terrorist operation in an enclosed space — than a factor of the charismatic pull of its hero.

Willis’s McClane — a balding, unshaven alcoholic shooting for Brando with the wife-beater but landing somewhere closer to Homer Simpson — captured the everyman ethos without ever trying. At a juncture when Schwarzenegger’s biceps threatened to muscle out heroes cut from the Joe Six-Pack mold, McLane gave us Rocky Balboa with a Berretta pistol, banged up and bloodied in situations where Bond would barely let a hair fall out of place. It didn’t take long in any of the films for sweat and grease and blood to so discolor McClane’s undershirt that he looked like a mechanic clocking out at South Jersey auto shop. Moreover, the average Joe at home recognized the look and slipped that much more easily into vicarious projection.

In the early ’90s, in what you could call his pre-Pulp Fiction Blue Period, Willis plumbed the depths of this cynical, skid row cop figure in The Last Boy Scout and Striking Distance. But it has been the role of McClane that’s hovered over most of his subsequent roles like a smirking apparition, and it is McClane who remains uniquely poised to again conquer the action-movie fan’s imagination. And as much as McClane is an archetype with class overtones (the blue-collar “fly in the ointment”), he also serves as a belated projection of American neoconservative thought. Though neocons find themselves in retreat from the Pentagon, the UN embassy, and the World Bank, their fictional embodiment is back.

As a title, Live Free or Die Hard is not just a swaggering amplification of the New Hampshire state motto, a fitting declaration of go-it-alone self-reliance. It is essentially an epigrammatic expression of neoconservatives’ post-9/11 philosophy. Promoting democracy in place of autocratic regimes, the thinking goes, can stem the tide of violent extremism. A moderate public sphere which supports the open exchange of ideas can siphon off the radicalism, namely Islamic radicalism, fostered by repressive, despotic states. In that sense, William Kristol might argue, living free is the guarantor against dying hard. (Of course, the tragic evidence from Iraq thus far seems to be that, in the power vacuum succeeding a murderous despot, one can both live free and die hard. But that’s another matter.)

Like the neocons, McClane is brought to center stage in the original Die Hard by a savage act of terrorism committed by foreigners against Americans in a metropolitan high-rise. Since then, McClane might say, I’ve been aggressively taking the fight to the enemy after the fight was brought to me. Dick Cheney would surely see no shame in that.

McClane’s efforts and his go-it-alone self-reliance in the films arguably mirror the legacy of neoconservative foreign policy. Long before Security Council deadlock was muddling international mandate, McClane was wrecking unilateral havoc where he saw fit. In the Nakatomi Tower, his “allies” with the LAPD and FBI proved not only feckless but counterproductive. In Die Hard 2, Dulles Airport flatfoots play much the same role. In McClane’s world — and in the world of the neocons — sometimes only a lone ranger is able to confront the immediacy of tyranny. What, are you gonna’ negotiate with Hans Gruber? Furthermore, you can bet McClane would have little use for an anti-ballistic missile treaty, an international criminal court and a Kyoto Protocol. For the neocons, global obligations harm — or at least hamstring — US interests. For McClane, department protocol is nothing more than bureaucratic impediment. The world is a savage, even Hobbesian place, and it’s every lone cop — and sovereign nation — for himself.

This brings us to the most striking affinity between neocons and McClane: the cowboy pose. George W. Bush — who, for better or worse, tethered his presidency to the neocon vision — is often associated with his Stetson-wearing, brush-clearing caricature. Bush has done little to spit-shine this image of the folksy cowboy, just as Willis played up the cowboy stereotype when confronted with Alan Rickman’s sophisticated, Savile Row-adoring Gruber: “Who are you then?” Rickman sneers. “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne, Rambo, Marshall Dillon?”

Editorials of the past half decade have hissed in much the same way every time Dubya went all Roy Rogers with his own “smoke ‘em out” and “dead or alive” swagger. “Such language feeds the image overseas of Mr. Bush as a hopelessly inarticulate, trigger-happy cowboy,” opined one Guardian (UK) column. “Liberals from both coasts and Europeans who derisively call Mr. Bush a ‘cowboy’ foolishly insult not Bush, but one of America’s prime ennobling myths,” a writer noted in the Village Voice. Those cowboy myths forever resonate; they burrow deep inside us and McClane, arguably more than any action hero of the past quarter-century, has breathed 20th (and now 21st) century life into them. And while the Western landscape has long since receded to mere memory, Bruce Willis shows us how to play cowboy in dangerous, modern American life. George W. Bush actually does it at the level of foreign policy.

Live Free or Die Hard may turn out to be a soothing swan song for the neoconservative moment: McClane has the hubris to go it alone in his indiscriminate use of force against terrorism and pulls it off. History may well vindicate the Bush Doctrine, but the early returns don’t look so great. Which is why, in many ways, that cavalier American action psyche needs John McClane’s idealism and effectiveness more than ever. At a time when the neocons can’t seem to win at geopolitical reality, yippie-ki-ay fantasy can’t lose.

+ + +

Michael Serazio is a freelance writer and doctoral student in Philadelphia.