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Die Hard: a blockbuster full of ‘macho assholes’

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The Die Hard debate: is it a Christmas film? Frankly, who cares?

You can watch Bruce Willis and a gang of terrorists blow the Nakatomi Plaza to smithereens anytime you like. The real thing we should be looking at is its themes of fragile male egos, the anti-hero and macho assholes.

John McTiernan’s 1988 action/thriller has overarching connotations of toxic masculinity and elements of subtle feminism. In a society dominated by patriarchy and traditional-gendered views, protagonist, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is unsupportive of his wife Holly’s (Bonnie Bedelia) move to Los Angeles in order to pursue her career.

The classic anti-hero

It’s clear that the NYPD cop isn’t comfortable with Holly’s success and when he discovers she’s been working under her maiden name (which ironically saves her life for most of the film), John’s already bruised ego is threatened further.

But the reason we forgive and root for John is because he shows signs of guilt and desperately wants to reconcile with Holly – immediately after shouting at her for using ‘Holly Genero’ he berates himself for being an ‘asshole’. Then as things are looking pretty grim for the bare-footed cowboy wannabe, he breaks down and tells fellow cop, Alan to make sure Holly knows how sorry he is. In a nutshell: he’s the perfect anti-hero with relatable flaws.

And although John is a cop (a powerful, dominant protector type role), he has a very low-opinion of himself and his abilities. When leader of the terror group, Hans Gruber, asks John who he is, John describes himself as:

‘A fly in the ointment. A monkey in the wretch. A pain in the ass.’

On the surface, Die Hard represents the ultimate ideologies of masculinity. But not so far beneath this, it actively mocks and rejects machismo, ridiculing the testosterone-fuelled men in power, who ironically, don’t have control of anything. On seeing a SWAT team running on foot straight into danger, John shouts: “You macho assholes, no – no!”

It’s this that underpins the narrative – toxic ‘macho assholes’ create more chaos and danger. As the film rolls on, the stakes get higher and the list of macho assholes gets longer.

Harry Ellis –  The yellow-belly yuppie thinks he can talk ‘biz’ with Hans while manipulating John. He ends up dead.

Police Chief Dwayne Robinson – Steamrolls everyone else out of the way and loves the sound of his own voice. He’s eventually put in his place when two FBI assholes take over.

Two FBI assholes: FBI Agent Johnson and FBI Agent Johnson (no relation) are two dicks that take over the operation from another dick. Both ultimately die hard when their helicopter is blown up.

Richard Thornburg – dogged reporter with a disregard for the safety of anyone else. Threatens people to get what he wants. Holly gives him a sweet right hook to nullify him – John is all-too-happy to let her take him on.

Looking at these characters, they become a parody of ‘masculinity’ as they’re so clueless and unlikeable. Especially pitted against the everyman such as Argyle, Al and John. 

And then there’s Holly

She keeps a cool, calm and collected demeanor which, in turn keeps her colleagues calm and safe. Arguably, her eerily calm nature could be put down to her trust and history with John:

He’s still alive.


Only John could piss someone off like that.

Interestingly, Holly is the unspoken hero. Her and John’s dispute over the use of her maiden keeps the pair alive, disguising both of their identities for the majority of the film.

With the asshole capacity at full quota…

John realises he can’t take on a group of terrorists with force alone. After his first encounter, he calls in extra help and uses Sgt. Al Powell as a walkie talkie agony aunt. He allows himself to be vulnerable and gets through the night by sheer willpower and the driving force of doing the right thing.

For John, the right thing isn’t becoming a hero and saving the day, but reconciling with his estranged wife, Holly. Although John wasn’t happy about Holly leaving for a different state for her job, eventually he realises how stupid he’s been. And while pulling shards of glass from his foot, he asks his new radio companion to give Holly a message:

“She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times. She never heard me say ‘I’m sorry’. Tell her John said that he was sorry.”

Themes that are still relevant

Later when John finally puts a face to Sgt. Al Powell, he introduces his wife, “Holly Gennero” – a sign of respect and maturity for Holly. However, it’s Holly who reclaims her married name, McClane.

Yet even after all the trauma everyone’s experienced, you can count on an asshole like Dwayne Robinson to be an asshole. Marching over to relay the amount of ‘damage’ John’s caused, all Dwayne cares about is how it’s going to affect him.  

But he’s silenced again by another unsung hero in the form of Al. After not using his gun since a terrible accident, Al draws and shoots dead one of the terrorist after revenge – saving John, Holly and everyone in the vicinity. Dwayne is nowhere to be seen or heard after this.

On closer inspection and after multiple watches, Die Hard (its name explaining every macho asshole’s death), is an interesting and progressive look at the problems that can arise from toxic masculinity and the incessant need to show machismo.

Released in 1988, Die Hard’s themes are still apt. And arguably, the most underrated line of the entire film (that can be applied to a lot of the world’s problems today) comes from John:

“If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.”

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