John McTiernan’s 1988 action classic Die Hard is one of the tent poles of American cinema and its influences can be felt across genres and decades. The tale of a normal man pitted against impossible circumstances is powerful, but it seems like modern action stars tend to veer away from the everyman and towards something else entirely.


Over five films of wildly varying quality, the Die Hard franchise cemented itself as an iconic standout in the genre. Though it’s been almost a decade since the final entry, modern action films could still take some lessons away from the one and only John McClane.

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John McClane is an NYPD Detective who, through a quirk of circumstance, winds up at the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s up against impossible odds, he takes all the help he can get, and he doesn’t get away scot-free. He manages to defeat a group of armed terrorists through a long campaign of guerilla warfare. The first film is utterly believable. John isn’t portrayed as especially skilled, he’s not the generic “one-man army” of other action cinema of the era. Watch any Steven Seagal film next to Die Hard. Seagal walks through his foes unscathed and brutalizes every man he gets his hands on. Bruce Willis as John McClane isn’t invincible, he gets wrecked in the melee and barely limps away from Nakatomi Plaza. This level of human fallibility is key to the original Die Hard, and it simply isn’t present in the average action film today.

The Die Hard sequels had trouble making John McClane feel as human as the original. In Die Hard 2, McClane was famous for his actions in the original film. The third and fourth entries threw caution to the wind and turned the character into a more typical action hero. John McClane wasn’t just an unlikely hero within the text of the film, he was the turning point in the career of his portrayer. Bruce Willis became an action star overnight thanks to Die Hard. Just like the character, he was in a situation one wouldn’t expect him to succeed in, and he pulled through despite the odds. John McClane is a landmark hero in the action genre, and there are constant rip-offs and films inspired by the franchise. However, the modern action hero doesn’t take as much from the lesson of John McClane. They’re much more likely to be inspired by a very different man named John.

When John Wick dropped in 2014, the action franchise was forever changed. The film’s approach to storytelling, fast-paced action, and efficient world-building have been a blueprint for a ton of other entries. Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the film is delivered in its title. John Wick isn’t the underdog, he’s seemingly the most capable person in his universe. From the moment the man returns from his early retirement, he’s portrayed as a slasher villain with style. He is distinct from the 80s “one-man army” types like Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, but he’s almost the opposite of John McClane. In many ways, he’s the perfect combination of the two. John is a legend who is feared by all who oppose him, but he’s also believably human. He’s able to defeat dozens in direct combat single-handedly, but he never gets away unscathed. He’s all the power of the one-man army with all the fallibility and stakes of the underdog.

Countless modern action films boil down to John Wick with a different star in the lead role. Ever since Keanu Reeves donned the sleek suit and picked up the Glock 26, dozens of others have lined up for similar projects. This is the main reason the underdog everyman hero has fallen by the wayside. The John Wick model doesn’t work without a hypercompetent super-assassin in the middle of it all. This ensures that the average action hero rarely feels overwhelmed. This works very well for John Wick, but, since it’s become the default state for action films today, it might be more interesting to see more films take notes from a classic hero like John McClane.

John McClane is interesting because he’s a normal man with a limited skill set who has been put in a situation he shouldn’t be able to survive. Everything is against him, the odds aren’t in his favor, and it’ll take strength, skill, luck, and sacrifice to make it out alive. One could imagine themselves in the role of John McClane, struggling to survive when all hope seems lost. Modern action movies could see a return to form with heroes who find themselves wildly in over their heads. The all-powerful assassin is still fun, but there’s room for more underdogs in this genre. John McClane never wanted to be the hero of his story, but a lot of people want to see more heroes like John McClane.

MORE: Last Action Hero: Every John McTiernan Movie, Ranked By Rotten Tomatoes

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