Bruce Willis’s family has announced his retirement. At 67, he’s lost some of his mental powers, having been diagnosed with aphasia. Now we face the sobering possibility that the iconic blue-collar action hero may become an invalid. We owe him all the gratitude we can summon for the delight he offered his audience for a generation. His career may be seen as a kind of public service, since he was the most inspiring citizen-hero the movies produced in his lifetime.
Willis was the last actor to have at least a little “star power.” What made actors stars was a combination of five things: Charm—that they knew how to please; the talent to imitate impressive gestures or speeches; a few famous roles that revealed the national character and even the national drama; working for remarkable directors and writers; and, of course, luck.
The people we call stars were beautified visions of American types we know and sometimes admire. Their performances on screen heightened or intensified things we could recognize, but which we didn’t usually put together with the right story. The national love of admirable or shocking stories, the national habit of going to theaters to see them, reassured Americans about taking character seriously. For once, the judgments we make regarding praise or blame are serious, public, and maybe even unifying. We’re not as partisan, divided, and suspicious at the movies as we are in politics—instead, we feel we can be ourselves for once.
Manliness and Social Class
We should remember Willis for the high points of his career. I’ve already written for Law & Liberty on Die Hard, the movie that made Willis a star and restored to America an understanding of the citizen. John McClane doesn’t just look out for himself, but shows public spirit, concern for others, for the common good, and the confidence and wit to act when others fail or hesitate. As America was becoming ever more oligarchic, ruled by various unelected elites, Willis as McClane gave Americans a chance to fight back and maybe even restore the public dignity of the middle-class audience. It’s not rich or celebrated or successful Americans, but a working-class guy bearing the burden and taking the risks, though never getting rewarded. It’s not the very educated or technologically sophisticated, but the oft-despised manly man who can figure out the problem because he’s not deluded by arrogance and he’s used to things messing up and needing fixing.
Now, I’d like to write about the third Die Hard, called With a Vengeance (1995), directed by America’s greatest director of action films, John McTiernan, who had made the first Die Hard (though none of the others). McClane is again fighting terrorists and an incompetent government, especially the police and FBI, institutions that arrogantly fail to protect ordinary Americans. Further, it’s about terrorists bombing New York, which was alarmingly realistic in light of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In a reversal of Western stories like the original Die Hard, here McClane goes east: back to New York City, not Los Angeles. Since the frontier is now closed, after conquering the wilderness, we have to face up to our decadence and resurrect citizen virtue.
John is now estranged from his family: apparently, he couldn’t work it out with his wife and has lost his kids. Does he even have a reason to live? He has no private life, which makes him the perfect victim for America’s problems, but also prepares him for heroism—he can dedicate himself fully to public life. This is the movie’s opening question about this iconic character: is McClane the true citizen conservatives want but are scared to do anything about? Or the stereotypical white, middle-class racist liberals fear and want to destroy? After a terrible explosion in Manhattan, a terrorist threatens worse if the police don’t obey him by sending McClane to Harlem bearing a racist sign. His police department friends don’t revolt against this suicide mission, which he accepts; they seem to despise McClane or are at least exasperated with him.
Here, we begin to see what it means to have a thriller—the movie seems both ridiculous and dead serious. We don’t believe any of it, but we are drawn to be interested in the story. Are we willfully skeptical of a real problem the artists place before our eyes or is it just a crazy story? Now, if you look at it naively, as a child would, you will notice, it opens with America’s race problem. As it was in 1995, this remains the most explosive political issue, which hurts our pious attachment to our past and our founding, and which is of course much worse now than in the ‘90s. Why should anyone bear this political burden personally? McClane seems to do it for two reasons: first, because duty is the only thing he really believes in, and second, because he is really angry.
McClane has a bad reputation and is failing at being middle class. Would anyone miss or mourn him? Far from striking the viewer as a hero, he seems expendable. In Harlem, he only survives because of Zeus, a black man who risks his life to save him out of a kind of love for his own community. Like McClane, he tries to protect Americans from themselves. He sees a few black guys getting angry, and fears they might murder McClane, and he knows the police consequences would be bad.
The rest of the movie is about the difficult friendship between the two, hinting at the possibility of racial reconciliation through mutual respect, starting at the personal level. The threat of terrorism reminds Americans of a common good, that is, what they stand to lose. But in order to gain it, they have to help each other and prove they are not cowards. It’s a complicated story about citizenship, not without suspicion and deception, childish puzzles and adult moral drama. Zeus, played by Samuel L. Jackson, has kids to take care of, whom he teaches with a combination of Booker T. Washington and Malcolm X. He wants them to become educated and have self-respect, but also to fear, mistrust, and fend off authority. Like McClane, he doesn’t have a wife, but he wants to fight for a future for his kids, which all parents want.
Violence and Protection
Together, McClane and Zeus run around New York City at breakneck speed, dealing with a problem that gets worse every time they solve it, gradually turning from the urgent things to the important things. They solve riddles at the behest of the terrorist, to prevent further explosions, but realize that something much bigger than them is going on while the entire city is distracted, not to say stupefied. From Harlem, they go to Manhattan, indeed to Wall Street, the global capital of finance, where the Federal Reserve Bank is robbed of all its gold. The malefactor is a sophisticated European, a mastermind played by Jeremy Irons, a distinguished British actor like the late Alan Rickman, the antagonist of the first Die Hard.
He is almost an evil god, ordering the two Americans around with a cruel, childish “Simon says,” while threatening to blow up an entire school and thousands of children, leading to a shutdown of the city and a situation where authorities enforce what seems like cowardice on the population. The movie gives an image and experience of tyranny and invasion, which America has never experienced, but which are known everywhere else in the world. This reveals the political and psychological depth of the story and the ultimate meaning of the dark passions and thoughts cinema summons, the threat to freedom, and the uncertainty that it can be defended. In terms of its threat to citizenship, white-collar crime offers much more potential for social catastrophe than drive-by shootings do. Indeed, finance without integrity is a threat to the entire regime. Not that the lives of ordinary black people in Harlem don’t matter, but their lives, along with every other American’s, depend on defending the regime, which is itself under attack.
Mythology and Caricature
You could call this robbery of the Fed a metaphor for inflation, a reminder of the role money plays in our modern, commercial republics. Without sound economics, everything falls apart, everyone is impoverished, and the nation’s very confidence breaks. Americans, to be free, have to be brave, but must also work for a living. Just look around America now: with a bad economy, spiraling inflation, and mounting hatred of oligarchic elites suspected sometimes of exploiting ordinary people or profiting from their suffering. Then you’ll understand what the movie is about and will be able to watch it with the necessary attention—I mean the attention necessary to understand why McClane is such an iconic character, what he’s supposed to show us about ourselves, and why we’re so attracted to his story. It’s hard to believe that back in 1995, people thought it was just innocent, not to say mindless, fun: It’s about national agony.
Of course, even if you grant my interpretation and credit director McTiernan with this amazing political vision, a question will still nag at you, because the action genre is so unrealistic. Why John McClane? Doesn’t it become a caricature if he keeps showing up and winning, an indestructible action hero who inevitably does the impossible, beats everyone, solves any problem, and then comes up with a clever if hackneyed line? Really, how many times does lightning strike you? How many times do you win the lottery? How does John McClane become a celebrity through the stunts he keeps pulling off? Or, if we are more serious, and realize what a catastrophe celebrity is in America, how can all this evil befall one man, who is admittedly cocky, but not wicked? Why cannot he retire into private life and be forgotten, as all our public figures are, from presidents to the most scandalous entertainers?
The obvious answer is because McClane loves his country and his heart is breaking seeing ordinary citizens like him reduced to impotence in our decadent times. There is also a feeling of humiliation, because the elite institutions supposed to solve our problems aren’t working; we can’t seem to change them; what now? Loving America, of course, is itself now highly suspicious or debated, a cause of partisan strife, not civic harmony. Do Americans believe that our elites, the most successful among us are also the most patriotic? Don’t many fear patriotism leads to failure instead? Don’t many notice that, however serious the domestic or foreign policy catastrophe, nobody ever apologizes, resigns, or much less is punished for malfeasance or misfeasance? The Die Hard formula is fear of terrorism plus financial crisis because it brings together personal fear and the sense of shame that we are failing and maybe are being betrayed by our rich elites. Isn’t it true that in America, you can hold any elected or appointed office of great public responsibility, let anything from 9/11 to the various economic crises we face happen, and you will still be rewarded, while the evil falls on ordinary people instead?
Patriotism is heartbreaking when our authorities are so obviously unaccountable that only in storytelling do we feel like citizens. The myth of the ordinary citizen was our public response to this problem. Willis was our image of the guy we all know we need when facing corrupt structures. We want him to prove he’s not just an ordinary citizen, that out of his unusual powers and love of America, he’ll save the day. We admired him so much because in his best ‘90s movies, Willis fought against corrupt elites in various visions of a dark future and showed us what we thought we needed. He was a symbol of citizenship, whatever his name, whatever part of the country he comes from. He addresses our recurring fear that our authorities don’t give a damn, and our hope that someone among us does and will act. Secretly, we hope it’ll be you and me, that we’ll summon the courage and prove more resourceful than we’re given credit for, or even give ourselves credit for. Many of us already feel our hearts breaking for America, so we might as well become more public-spirited, at least our suffering will be worth something. We should do something good for our fellow citizens and remind each other that citizenship counts because ordinary Americans can find leaders and achieve impressive things in face of crisis.