Live Free or Die Hard Too, With A Vengeance
First, a plane lands into a shimmering pool of melting sun- someone has arrived somewhere. The next shot after this is through a window, two men, the environment reflecting glassily on their faces, talk about “making fists with your toes”. From this point on DIE HARD takes transparent panes as its primary visual metaphor, and the things that a buff man can do to these surfaces as its basic depiction of action. Throughout the film, John McClane and his adversaries stare blankly through it, furiously smash it, frantically struggle to smash it, quietly yell through it, listen to it break and fly through it at the times when the music pumping the loudest. Why? In a movie that is culturally relevant enough to make 83 million dollars in 1988 (not as culturally relevant as Crocodile Dundee 2, which made about twenty million more dollars, perhaps, but contemporary enough in its themes to spawn four similar sequels, each of which made more money than the previous, with Live Free or Die Hard making over twice as much money as the first installment), there is some type of echo resonating from the panes that is different from the explosions so often cited as the franchise`s chief attraction. Visual spectacle is John McTiernan`s bed and bathwater; he`s immersed in it, and taking the film`s bloated working class presumptions to heart, glass is the ubiquitous, mundane surface upon which he can bring the fantasy down to play.
Die Hard may be coarse, but it`s articulate, and the play of light and shadows on the panes are loud. The surface is used in several manners, as a familiar metaphor of the “invisible walls” which separate human beings from each other (since this is the eighties and the reconciliation of an as yet unfathomed global capitalism to human terms works out in the manner of conflict between aspiration and greed, or as revelations of gaps- between worth and status, use and value etc.- these invisible walls are almost singularly the brackets around income figures; the glass walls which form the cubicles at Nakatomi Corp being one of many examples), as a pretty screen on which light carelessly plays (why show LA city lights when you can show LA city lights reflected on the face of face of a dazed, open mouth McClane? That`s visual economy, especially when you consider that for McClane “California” is a synonym for “fag” and he`s allowed his distance even in a closeup), as a luxury material itself (glass is perhaps the ideal material to embody the aesthetic of the eighties- the smoothness of the suave fast talking businessman, the flatness of a Nagel print, the transparency of idealistic talk, plus it looks like diamonds when it shatters). Frequently glass is employed as a subtle reflexive tool as well, as there is hardly a car that drives by that does not create a stunning flare in the lens of the camera shooting it. These aspects are always working together all at once, and while Die Hard, as an action movie, brings the material`s quality as a barrier to a nearly hackneyed attention, it is always rescued by the simplicity of the visual effect of light on glass. It`s like shooting at dusk; the sun`s overbearing metaphoric presence is allayed by the saturation and diffusion of its light. In fact, Die Hard is the only movie I can remember that is able to wallow in glimmering visuals while taking place in such a bland setting- at night in an office building, the realm of the listless vacuum.
John McClane, a populist, working class NYPD guy who mugs more people with his face than do his adversaries with their blackjacks, has a hard time communicating with words. He prefers to use his body- that`s why he`s recommended to make fists with his feet, and his face looks like a fist wearing a meaty glove. From the first time he gets in a limo (ever, in his life, the real man), where he prefers to sit up front with the jive talkin driver Argyle rather than be secluded by the glass barrier in the back, McClane has an uneasy relationship with the surface. His work ethic and “enough bullshit” attitude has put a strain on his relationship with his wife, but he plans to make amends by surprising her at a work party with an enormous stuffed bear. But the moment he steps into the Nakatomi corporation he is again frustrated by glass. Tapping on the touch screen “that helps you find your dick if you need to take a leak” only reveals that his wife has repudiated their marriage- she has taken her maiden name Gennaro back for the purposes of her career, leaving McClane to shoulder the burden of his name and his traditional values alone. Tap tap frown. “I guess you don`t miss my name” he snidely tells his wife later while wiping his armpit with towel, bemoaning the sacrifice of American patriarchal values to global financial practicality. Though the reflection knows he`s wrong (“very mature” he quips into the mirror after she leaves), he Feels he`s right, and it`s this burning feeling within his stout frame that forms the basis of his struggle with insensate glass and all that separates his being from where it makes a difference.
It`s no surprise that the terrorists first appear onscreen with huge glasses, which are pushed up the nose confidently after the first killing of the security guard. The “buff nerd” European wears glasses as he cuts alarm wiring; his brother wears a reflective facemask as he chainsaws cables. When the computer hacker “bets his ass he wishes to proceed”, he puts a pair of goggles over his regular glasses. These glasses are not merely to indicate that the terrorists are intellectuals, as it goes without saying that all those who don`t think in terms of practical justice are misdirected and enemies of the burning flame, it`s more to show they have incorporated artifice and division into their very being. McClane comes closer to victory in proportion to the amount of clothes he sheds. Hans Gruber, the chief terrorist, on the other hand, finds it difficult to kill Nakatomi only because in doing so he would be ruining a nice suit. And when McClane first taunts the terrorists by sending them the desecrated corpse of the buff nerd, the glasses are removed and a humiliating santa hat replaces them.
As things begin to heat up and McClane first becomes aware of his singularity (both as an individual and as a force of justice) in his struggle to save human lives from the destructive force of money and corporate collectivity, he is at first befuddled by the glass which surrounds him. He watches Nakatomi`s blood spray all over a window through which he stares weakly aghast. He flees, gun drawn, into an unfinished room (the skyscraper, paradigmatically, is “under construction”) wherein sheets of glass appear to be aligned without structure and panics. It`s all boiling confusion for naked man in this glass funhouse, and it`s only exacerbated when, seeing a police car turn blindly from the scene of terror in the distance, he bangs weakly on the glass, yelling “You stupid motherfuckers! No!”. Still caught up in society`s modes of repression, McClane still views the surface as an impenetrable wall, and his tough cursing at this point is more impotent than wry. This changes the next instant when, in response to the buff nerd`s assertion that “there are rules for policemen… you won`t kill me”, McClane murders him with a sweaty grapple. McClane, as an individual struggling for survival, is now as free to break the glass as he is the rules. “Shit where am I?” he asks before he knocks a window down into a deep chasm (no shattering is heard, no breaking yet).
Glass, in it`s ability to be passed through in various ways, marks a threshold. The film is conscious of this, and in its conception of action as an ever escalating series of plateaus, uses this quality of glass in a sophisticated manner. Thus as “Al/Pal”, McClane`s fat black radio buddy who can`t shoot people due to the equivocality of justice in an ambiguous world, agrees to investigate the minor disturbance at Nakatomi, he pauses, then pushes open the glass door of a convenience store. Al is a man who cares too much about others to make such big deal of his individuality, it is his lot to open doors meaningfully rather than bust through them aggressively. In this function he`s more McClane`s wife than Holly Gennaro; they humanize each other while the man and woman weep with nostalgia and struggle to communicate.
The next threshold becomes obvious in this light. McClane, trapped and hidden in the upper floors of the Nakatomi building, must alert the world of the situation. Al, as a lil old beat cop oblivious to what`s going on up in the towers, can`t see the problem unless it has a human face. McClane`s human face can`t be seen tapping on the glass from miles away. As Al circles the empty lot in front of the building obliviously looking for a clue, McClane tries to break the glass with a chair. It only succeeds in making a gaping vaginal crack in the glass (“Mother of…” John whispers at the crack). Only a dead human body, tossed through the window onto Al`s car has the visual and metaphorical force to break through this first pane. Glass is heard shattering for the first time, and for the first time a human connection is made. Al, freaking out, backs his car up too fast and breaks a window. As random machine gun fire and breaking glass is heard, McClane stands by his formerly vaginal window and quips “Welcome to the party asshole”.
A change of awareness is quickly visible onscreen. McClane, groping a corpse, finds European cigarettes and decides to `smoke em`. Cigarettes at this time were just beginning to acquire the encumbrance of controversy that would remove them from the standard repertoire of the male freebody and place them into the realm of permanent intent and perpetual commentary. McClane, enthusiastically lighting the stog as though his dick were freshly limp or his stomach newly full, suddenly indicates that he has become aware of his position as a movie icon. He calls himself Roy Rogers in a conversation over CB with Hans Gruber, and immediately following this alludes to the perceived invulnerability of Arnold Schwarzeneggar. By no means does he reference DIE HARD as a concept itself, but his limited insight into the world of pop culture reveals an awareness that wasn`t directly apparent before. The cigarette will take on increased significance from this point out, demarcating where breaths should be taken and with what degree of severity one should judge the increasing frivolity of the action from this point on. Smokes happen immediately before and immediately after action scenes, and with McClane taking these breathers as opportunities to either jibe with Pal on the CB (who, as tough anonymity gradually fades into bland familiarity with the slow influx of emotionally charged reminiscences from either side, becomes Al Powell, struggle buddy) or to display his gruff New York hospitality to the lamely disguised Gruber (an hospitality that quickly turns out to be coldly neutered when the two dickwrestle for the cleverly unloaded gun), the cigarette offers always a way in which ironic distance can be incorporated into the structure of the film, and within the body of John McClane.
With the police force, rather than the police Man, involved, the satirical impulses of the movie become more robust, and social commentary becomes more explicit and takes on greater proportions. From the moment the deputy, lt. deputy, cameramen and beat cops arrive on the scene the audience is prodded to smirk on the plodding imbecility of Justice by decree in contrast to the situational justice doled out by legal vigilante. The force, a bloated mass guided by the tactic book rather than the more intimate type of experience (remember, he`s nearly naked) which informs the lone man`s mute and powerful reasoning, rushes immediately into doom and humiliation in the hands of the terrorists. Gruber, steepling his fingers in anticipation, knows that the bureaucracy of “the force” ensures that its actions will always be half compromise and half sluggishness. He proves this by waiting for them to come to him, greeting them with a hail of machine gunfire that kills the swat team and breaks the glass around the lights that attempt to provide vision for them. The shattering glass in this instance is a foregone conclusion- it reveals to Dwayne T Robinson what he should have already known: the terrorists are beyond the ken of ordinary experience, and leadership in extraordinary circumstances is connected more a matter of physicality than of knowledge or hierarchy. McClane, watching the slaughter of the policemen, is more attuned to the uniqueness of the present situation. He immediately breaks the forbidding glass around a fire axe and grips it purposefully. But McClane has grown weary with such petty symbolism; with cops corpses lying everywhere and the world`s attention turned toward the situation at Nakatomi, a more significant metaphor is necessary. “Fuck it” he whispers, handily tying a grip of plastic explosives to a swivel chair. The explosives destroy an entire floor of the glass building.
The significance of the act does not go unheeded. “I don`t know who you think you are but we got a hundred people down here and they are covered in glass!” shouts the acting chief.
“Glass? Who gives a shit about glass? Who the fuck is this?”. Though McClane is dismissive of the metaphor, the fact remains that those on the force are now physically inundated with his reality.
“This is deputy chief of police Dwayne T Robinson and I am in control of the situation!”
“From up here it doesn`t look like you`re in charge of Jack Shit.” McClane cannot resist the meaty slap to Dwayne`s dignity. It`s redundant, because the deputy chief`s stated position (deputy) is emasculating enough. But it`s also necessary, because the breaking glass can no longer be treated ignored or treated as a natural part of the DIE HARD world. Just as before, when McClane dimly realized his role as a movie hero, here he vaguely articulates an awareness of the threshold which has just been crossed. The humdrum world of submission to judicial bureaucracy and capitulation in the face of the hierarchy which finds its basis in texts and precedence rather than in utilitarian practicality and bodily strength employed in the service of the moment`s arbitrator has been violated; a new awareness is called for, one in which Jack Shit will be suplexed and the issue of who controls what will never come into play.
With John McClane now making such a big deal of his presence, there is nothing left for the other meaningful characters in the film to do than to attempt to know him. He and Al share an inane moment, trading cliches before Al recites the ingredients of a Twinkie from memory. With so many of the elements that separate DIE HARD`s fictional reality from the place from which we suspend our disbelief shattered, this incredibly mundane list becomes meaningful dialog, perhaps the only kind possible. In contrast, Gruber`s disguise (“Bill Clay”, California fag), which he adopts in an effort to dispose of McClane personally, is thin and transparent, and not only to the audience. “You think I`m fuckin stupid Hans?” McClane asks him.
At this point in the film the action has been escalated to a point where every gunshot is followed by the sound or image of glass shattering. As McClane flees, Hans` impotence is diminished by his ability to shatter glass into beautiful shards. In fact, with the two adversaries as yet unable to harm each other, destroying panes becomes an even more explicit intent. McClane shoots a thug`s knee and the thug falls headfirst into a window, cracking it into huge grisly shards quite different from the small fragments which have become like tinsel on the edifice. Hans retaliates by shooting computer screens, causing glass dust to billow up. McClane shoots a window pane, and a close up of the gem like shards follows. This is the first time glass in its broken form (the normal form at this point) is treated to a close up, and it is meaningful. “Schieten Fenster!” Hans commands in German to his dull witted accomplice. When no action follows, he screams again, in English: “Shoot the Glass!”. How explicit can you get. The characters are done fucking around with the artifice of the narrative- it is now time to address the visual metaphor directly, and release again the danger latent in the paradigm shift. With this renewal of intent (Hans may as well be shooting at the camera lens), the enemy gains the upper hand. Glass breaks everywhere, showers of shimmers fill the screen. Hans has realized that McClane`s power lies not in his ability to avoid gunshots and make swivel chair bombs, but in making war on the structure of understanding itself. Destroy the mise en scene itself; escape from the confines of the narrative. The tactic works. McClane is left cowering under a desk, and he is forced to mutilate his feet walking on the broken glass in order to escape to a bathroom where he winces in mightily in front his quadruply reflected self.
There is hardly anywhere to go from here. McClane cowers in the bathroom, coming apart. Blood covers his body, he rips up his dirty tank top to make a puny tourniquet. The smoke which had formerly been contained within his frame fills the bathroom. He is nearly naked, exuding himself. As before, his body is the only asset with which he can combat the terrorists and the exploding narrative. He gropes his way to the top of the building, where the hostages await their doom. Bellowing the hostages out of the danger zone, he avoids bullets a hail of bullets from the misaligned FBI, runs up against a bomb clock and must rappel down the side of Nakatomi building with a jerry rigged hose. As McClane dangles from the side of the building on a crude tool of his own construction, he repeats the formula of the film one last time. He shoots a huge window to weaken it, then pushes through the glass with his whole body in slow motion. The threat of the terrorists has been for the most part eliminated, the hostages have been for the most part saved. With these plot elements dealt with, McTiernan can revel whole heartedly in the spectacle of the glass breaking, framing the shot as a celebration, a recapitulation and an exclamation. If one shot were to define the film and to stick out in the audience`s memory, it would be this.
Following the visual drama, the top floor of the building explodes, and for the next five minutes, glass shards are literally raining from the sky. Having nowhere else to go, the broken glass is removed from the artificial environment of the corporate tower and is incorporated into the natural environment. Like the clouds and the night, glass shower has become a fact of life, and no one seems to pay any attention to it. Upon McClane`s success, the act of breaking is also dispersed. Argyle, the lazy limo driver who has been inactive all movie, suddenly propels into action and smashes his limo into the terrorists getaway car, shattering the windshield. It`s now anyone`s game.
When McClane finally murders Hans and reunites perfunctorily with Holly Gennaro, the glass rain switches to paper. Documents hail from the sky as they exit the building. Each of the characters slides hypocritically into a role of diminished awareness, reflecting the paradox of the narrative in a film which has shattered it. Al, empowered to kill again, shoots a criminal. Holly gives her name as McClane to a reporter, before punching a different one. And John slips casually into the back seat of a limo and cruises away, artificially acknowledging the image of wealth which he had spent so much time trying to destroy.