Saturday, 8 November 2014

Die Hard on a Film Blog

In 1988, director John McTiernan released his iconic blockbuster action film Die Hard, which became a huge success spawning four sequels and a huge wave of imitators with varying degrees of quality. This would itself become something of a trend in action films of the 90's. The 60's was fond of the espionage thriller (James Bond) and police procedural (Bullitt), the 70's and 80's were the era of urban vigilantes (Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Ms. 45, Escape From New York) and big-budget overly-long disaster movies (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure), and the 90's marked the rise of the "Die Hard on a.." subgenre of action movies.

The basic concept of the formula is simple enough, and it is not hard to see the social circumstances from which it is derived. Die Hard centered on a cop who gets trapped in a mall overrun by terrorists, and he manages to work from hiding to fight back and outwit the antagonists. The sequels took this concept but applied it to new environments, but it also sparked a wave of other imitators. Speed puts the idea of Die Hard on a bus, The Rock puts it in Alcatraz. Con Air is a bit like Die Hard but with the mall replaced by a prison plane and the terrorists replaced by psychotic escaped crooks. Air Force One is Die Hard on an airplane. It even still lives on today, as last year we got not one but two films that worked as "Die Hard at the White House": White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen.

In any case you get the same basic plot of a group of dangerous people (usually terrorists) taking over a specific location with one character deciding not to submit to their demands and fighting back. Typically this character is a man, or at least I haven't yet found any of these films where a woman gets to be the the one sneaking around. Generally women are among the hostages or small supporting roles, with the hero being a man and the villains all men.

Con Air is arguably a partial exception in that it does have on action girl in the form of Sally Bishop (and bonus points for her being tough while spending most of the movie in handcuffs) but while she does get a few action scenes to herself her role is greatly overshadowed by the other male characters. They even included a scene where despite there being no romantic tension between them (and the protagonist already being married) she gives Cameron Poe a momentary kiss on the cheek to show her appreciation of his efforts. While this does show how the two have come to respect each other (being a prison guard she was naturally a lot harder on him when she was introduced) the same effect could have been achieved with a short conversation or a handshake.

It's ironic because this was about the time when action girls were really starting to make it into the cinema. It was only four years before Die Hard we saw the introduction of Sarah Connor in The Terminator, who began as an everyday waitress but had the beginnings of an action heroine by the end, and nine years before Die Hard we saw Ellen Ripley courageously stand up to the monstrous alien that had easily taken out her male colleagues and blow the darn thing into space (something that would of course get taken up several notches in Aliens). It was also only about four years after Air Force One (arguably the last of the major "Die Hard on an X" films) we saw Lara Croft travel the world in search of lost treasure with antagonists ranging from Illuminati henchmen to living statues.

This was also at the same time as the Bride was running around with a katana killing numerous people in a gruesome fashion in Kill Bill. Additionally there several television shows in the 90's that boasted having multiple tough female leads including Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For that matter action girls have existed since the beginning of film. Look up D.W. Griffith's The Lonedale Operator, released in 1911 and you'll see a heroine who, while still ultimately needing to be rescued, is resourceful enough to hold her own until help can arrive.

Yet still, after Die Hard we get this long list of "manly" action movies following a specific formula. Speed, Under Siege, Con Air, The RockAir Force One all feature male protagonists. It's the men who get to be the ones to sneak around and beat up the terrorists and while not necessarily weak, the roles of women are very small by comparison. In Die Hard, the most Holly Gennaro is help the other hostages stay calm and become a representative to confront Gruber about their immediate needs (in one scene, she asks for a couch for a pregnant woman and suggests letting groups of people go to the bathroom to avoid a mess). Sally Bishop in Con Air is more of backup character (even when she gets to bludgeon Cyrus over the head with a rifle, she is mainly trying to distract him from Poe).

Though more recently there have been a few possible exceptions such as Panic Room and Red Eye, I have yet to find a single female protagonist in any of the films comprising the original Die Hard action cycle. With other action sub-genres there is often some gender variety. Even with the likes of Dirty Harry and Death Wish we still got female urban vigilantes such as Ms. 45. Even the old westerns and film noir have had their share of female heroes even if not as frequently as the men. What is it about this trend that makes it so exclusive to the masculine image?

Part of it may have to do with the fact that the "Die Hard on an X" trend is clearly influenced by the cinematic trends of the 80's, particularly what I have come to understand as the "hard bodied" action hero. This is the sort of character made famous particularly by people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvestor Stallone. Action films of the time often included heroes like John Matrix or Rambo (the latter of whom is even referred to by Hans Gruber in one of his first radio conversations with McClane). These characters were more like killing machines who could stand out in plain sight in front of thousands of henchmen armed with machine guns and never even get phased when they are wounded (if that happens at all).

Die Hard marks a change in these heroes which can be seen in many later action movies, including Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (where interestingly, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a literal hard bodied hero). In some ways John McClane could be considered a hard bodied character, but it is also greatly downplayed from the heroes of the 80's in that he does get hurt. When he gets injured he shows the pain he is in, at certain points even having trouble walking as a result. The hard bodied aspect of his character is that despite the excruciating pain, he is still able to keep getting back up and moving on. It also doesn't help that they are usually in male-dominated professions, such as being ex-military, cops, or in the case of Air Force One the President of the United States.

Whatever the reasons may be, it seems that these films aim to revive or at least allow viewers to experience old-fashioned ideals of masculinity. They can easily be taken as sexist at first glance, though one could argue that it is a bit more complicated than that seeing as the female characters are not usually weak and often more than just distressed damsels (though their roles usually seem extremely small compared to the men). I guess in an age where women were showing they could kill, some directors just wanted their old musclebound macho heroes back.


  1. I remember laughing at Die Hard because he kept having less and less clothes on and he reeked of testosterone. Nikita was pretty bad ass and you can choose from the original French film to Bridget Fonda to the 2 TV Shows. Men have a hard time being rescued by a woman and there are allot of men in Hollywood land

    1. Well, after having to sit through the agonizing experience of Rambo II, it was at least a nice change to see a hero who could actually get hurt and didn't hide the fact that he was in pain.

      Funnily enough, I received a recommendation for Nikita earlier today. I might just have to check it out. I'm not entirely sure if that would count as a "Die Hard on an X" film but even so I'd love to see another great action heroine.

  2. Yeah, the Die Hard on a "x" subgenre is light of female heroines, but not quite to the point of zero (more on that later). I think part of it lies in the simple fact that Hollywood is indeed trying to clone what worked. Therefore, if we get a man in constricted environment taking on terrorist in one movie that becomes a monster hit, we'll get a thousand of them. In this instance, I don't necessarily find it sexist, but a lazy and safe approach to deciding what movies get made. Interestingly enough, the one thing that makes Die Hard more appealing than most action flicks of that era, the fact that John McClane is so human, is completely lost on most of its clones. Sadly, this includes the last two actual Die Hard flicks.

    Now, about the number of heroines in these types of movies. There have been a few efforts. Sadly, I don't know if any of them are worthy seeking out, unless you're me and just occasionally get a weird satisfaction from watching crap. By that, I mean "Skyscraper," which is obviously Die Hard in a skyscraper. Our heroine? None other than Anna Nicole Smith. After you stop laughing, comprehend this: there was also a Die Hard in a beauty pageant movie called No Contest starring playboy playmate turned soft-core porn actress turned wife of Kiss' star Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed. Better yet, Andrew Dice Clay plays the villain with Rowdy Roddy Piper as his top henchman. Sigh. There was even a sequel. Double sigh.

    Anyhoo, Die Hard on a "x" movies featuring female leads are out there, but no one seems to have made a serious attempt at making a legitmately good one. Great post, John.

    1. Actually, now that you mention it I did hear about No Contest, which sounds like a pretty bad movie, not to mention there's a few things to be said about how it was apparently decided to be set in a beauty pageant to make it more "feminine".

      That is true, you can see in a lot of the later imitations more of the "hardbodied" action heroes returning. Even in Con Air (probably one of the most enjoyable of the "Die Hard on an X" films of the period) had a scene where Nicolas Cage takes a bullet to the shoulder and barely notices. It's a bit ironic because a lot of the action movies that didn't follow that formula often had far more human leads, including Sarah Connor in Terminator 2.

  3. You're right, there are more men involved with Die Hard-esque movies. The reason for it is quite obvious, the audience for Die Hard is mainly men and the idea of making the protagonist a man rescuing hostages (women, children mostly) sells. The film studios knew this and capitalized on it. Not to say there aren't female protagonists in action flicks, we've seen Sigourney Weaver and Jodie Foster focused the most over the years in action flicks like Die Hard.

    1. I don't know how much validity there is to claiming the bulk of action movie audiences are men and how much of that is just what the studios think is the case. If movies of the time like The Terminator are anything to go on action heroines do indeed sell so I don't know why the studios continue to stubbornly claim otherwise.