No Oscars but Plenty of Action: Subverting Traditional Masculinity in Die Hard and Point Break


In a recent podcast of Slate’s Culture Gabfest, moderator Stephen Metcalf, movie critic Dana Stevens, and Deputy Editor Julia Turner discussed the inaugural issue of Kindling Quarterly, a new print publication aimed ostensibly, despite the protestation of the publication’s founders, at “hipster dads.” Whatever one thinks of the quarterly’s premise, all agreed that ideas about masculinity were in flux. Metcalf described the current state of American masculinity as “troubled” or “ambivalent.”  The rise of creative types with flexible schedules who promise to be more present parental figures than their own fathers, Metcalf argued, was in many ways a new phenomenon, if not in its fundamental existence at least in its increasing cultural pervasiveness.

Of course, masculinity’s decline or the threats it faced from various corners have been a constant in American life.   In no particular order, industrialization, imperialism, international war, immigration, communism, migration, manifest destiny, and numerous other forces play a role in determining just what made a man a man.  The rugged individualism of the nineteenth century made less sense amidst the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the early twentieth century. The consolidation of these developments than led to the rise of corporations whose conception of manliness depended on prompt and obedient workers.  William Whyte’s famous The Organization Man (1956) and Sloan Wilson’s fictional, but all too realistic Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955), serve as prominent critical observations regarding this trend.  Needless to say, traits that defined men in the era of Teddy Roosevelt sunk in the wake of WWII and an expanding American economy of the mid 1950s.  As a state that benefited mightily from WWII expansion and the postwar military spending and federal infrastructure that followed, Southern California stood at the center of these masculine fluctuations.

Neither Utah nor McClane, 1950s Masculinity

With this in mind and the Oscars this weekend, it’s worth remembering that few media capture the perceived ethos of American masculinity in late 20th century America than two L.A. centric blockbuster action films, a genre not known for challenging gender roles. This July, Die Hard, perhaps Bruce Willis’ most iconic film, turns twenty five. Willis’s John McClane redefined action heroes in the late 1980s and early 1990s while also recalibrating masculinity in ways that reflected a questioning of the kind of archetypes put forth in films like Tango and Cash, Rambo, Commando, or old John Wayne movies.  Likewise, three years later Kathryn Bigelow, brought her own interpretation of modern masculinity and male relationships in the action film Point Break.  Though her controversial but provocative Zero Dark Thirty, which through its female protagonist asserts its own comments on gender roles, failed to garner her a nomination for best director at this year’s Oscars, Bigelow’s long been shaping American perceptions of masculinity.  Interestingly, genre films like Point Break and the Oscar award winning Hurt Locker, seen as traditionally masculine corners, have provided her most incisive takes on the sea change in masculinity that began with John McTiernan’s 1988 classic Die Hard.  The two films manage to encapsulate two Los Angeleses and the means by which men negotiate their lives: Die Hard’s Towering Inferno corporate high rise of death and Point Break’s beaches, populated by mainstream-hating, skydive-loving bank-robbing surfers.

Bruce Willis, Corporate LA, and the Late 1980s

Euro Trash Villain personified Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia)

“You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child,” snarls Euro trash super villain Hans Gruber (played brilliantly by Alan Rickman) “Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?” The famous exchange in which McClane attests to a predilection for Roy Rogers instead encapsulates much of the movie’s larger comment on American masculinity.  In a recent Filmspotting podcast, Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen revisited this scene and others in the late 1980s classic, during which the two critics celebrated the film’s clever, subversive anti-machismo.

Unlike the freshly scrubbed visages and sculpted bodies of future California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis’ John McClane looks world weary and tired. “Willis was 32 when the film was shot, but seems older in it,” notes Grantland’s Alex Pappademas in a recent retrospective of the actor. “McClane has a wife and two kids, a receding hairline — he’s unmistakably an adult. He looks burned-out even before he spends the night crawling through air ducts and getting knocked around by Alexander Godunov.”  Of course, McClane’s discomfort with Los Angeles emerges early in Die Hard when he witnesses one woman affectionately jumping into her boyfriend’s arms at LAX.   “California,” he mutters to himself — “as if physically demonstrative affection were some kind of weird New Age/Tantric thing,” notes Pappademas. “McClane is judgmental of the world like someone who knows it’s passing him by.”

McClane’s prowess with guns and fire hose hardly seems apparent. It takes nearly 40 minutes to pass by before we even get a hint of McClane’s survival skills. Instead, the viewer learns of his broken heart, curmudgeonly nature, and continuing, if estranged affection for his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia).  When he confesses to L.A. police officer Sgt. Al Powell (played by future Family Matters star Reginald VelJohnson) that he made mistakes in his marriage and should have been more supportive of his wife’s career choices, one gets the unusual spectacle of an action star mid-disaster engaging in an impromptu proto-bromance therapy session.  McClane understands he made mistakes and that he shoulders some of the blame for his marriage’s difficulties. In 1988, a cynical ex-NYC cop action hero coming to such a conclusion or even exposing any sort of vulnerability represented a sea change.

Overly aggro Agent Johnsons

Throughout the film, director John McTieran and the movie’s writers undercut the usual tropes regarding 1980’s action extravaganzas. As Larsen and Kempenaar argue, Die Hard spends a great deal of time undressing our usual action movie stereotypes.  McClane seems to be playing tough, mixing vulnerability with pathos and humor.  In the world of Die Hard, machismo fares poorly. The tougher and louder the law enforcement – whether it be the F.B.I.’s Agent Johnsons or blowhard LAPD Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (played by the late great Paul Gleason) – the more idiotic and problematic their actions. Bigger guns, louder words, and unthinking aggression fail to deliver the result these officials desire.  Holly McClane serves as another reminder of changing perceptions regarding manliness. Unlike most of her male colleagues being held hostage, Holly maintains an even keel and cool head. Even Alan Rickman’s Gruber lacks the kind of physical presence one might assume of late 1980s supervillians, yet undoubtedly his words carry weight as his feathered haired henchmen do his bidding.

Still, Die Hard also points to economic changes undergirding the Los Angeles of the late 1980s.  In City of Quartz, Mike Davis argued Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration courted Pacific Rim investment heavily, drawing foreign monies at staggering rates that came to shape the built environment of the larger metropolitan region. Holly’s employment for a Japanese firm and its glistening high rises serve as a reminder of American fears regarding the nation’s slipping status to new rivals in East Asia, a position today occupied by China.  When she abandons the symbolic Rolodex watch near the movie’s conclusion, she disassociates herself from the kind of corporate life that contributed to the damaged essence of John McClane.   Kempenaar and Larsen also critically note that the movie contorts itself to both mock the kind of disposable pop culture that Gruber suggests has corrupted American minds but admits its own compliance in such developments with a winking knowingness.

Johnny Utah, Bodhi, and Young Men in the Age of Extreme Sports

“Bodhi, it’s really hot out here, we should take our shirts off.”

“22 years. Man, LA has changed a lot in that time,” F.B.I. agent Pappas (Gary Busey) tells newbie “quarterback punk” Johnny Utah. “The air got dirty and the sex got clean.” If Die Hard employed the action feature as a medium for a broad criticism of 1980s machismo, Point Break used boyish Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah. Former Rose Bowl quarterback from Ohio who “missed his window” at going pro due to a knee injury, Utah operates as a kind of young, single, more conventionally handsome, federal version of John McClane.  Utah’s not McClane exactly, but his journey represents what masculinity’s transformation meant for younger men.  After all, expectations of men and their behavior depend on age as well; what’s masculine at age 23 might simply be foolish at 32.

Point Break unfolds on the sunny beaches of L.A. rather than the gleaming Pacific Rim funded corporate towers of the city.  Reeves, fresh off his turn as Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Tod in Parenthood, gave Utah a boyish charm that related loosely to these two dimwitted characters on the “brink of manhood.”  Yet like Willis’s McClane, Utah reflected shifts in perceptions of masculinity.

Clever observers like Katherine Barscay point to the work of Judith Butler, who has argued that gender remains largely performative; gender represents a learned set of characteristics that has assumed an air of naturalness, but these characteristics as demonstrated above depend on context. Clearly, extreme sports and surfing facilitated such performances.  Granted, Slate critic Matt Feeney argued the film’s characters made poor surfers (wrong footing maneuvers and in general getting the mechanics wrong), but it still achieved greatness as the “best skydiving movie ever made.”  Bungee jumping, sky diving, and sundry other “extreme” activities fed adrenaline junkies and titillated young men and became such dominant symbols, it became Mountain Dew’s ad campaign while MTV’s Jackass enjoyed booming ratings and filmed three movies. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman suggested the movie transformed  “reckless athletic valor into a new form of aristocracy.” More disgruntled critics labeled it “macho mysticism.” It proved so pervasive, that over a decade later, the writers of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle utilized extreme sports junkies as comic stock villains.

Doing the Dew: thanks, Point Break!

Keanu Reeves’ Johnny performs masculinity like Derrick Zoolander pretending to be a monkey: fully committed if a bit vacant. As an undercover cop, Utah must traverse random sky diving expeditions, brawls with Nazis at the beach, and “night surfing” with his spiritual mentor Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) while negotiating early morning raids and F.B.I. bureaucracy with Pappas.    Though competition for status between men occurs throughout, the value of male bonding serves as a core feature of the film.  However, Barscay argues that Bigelow makes Johnny “a damsel in distress” as Pappas and Bodhi pull him in different directions.  When he attempts to teach himself the ins and outs of surfing, only Tyler (Lori Petty), his eventual love interest, selflessly intervenes to save him from drowning.   “You wanna commit suicide, you do it someplace else,” she yells at him, only later to be charmed by his charisma, tenacity, and falsified personal history. In the end, Johnny never really saves Tyler per se, and Bodhi more or less releases her.  Still, though Tyler exhibits self-possession and independence that stood at odds with heroines of the 1980s, her character exists more to link Johnny and Bodhi, hence cementing the film’s central focus on masculinity, notes Barscay.

Back when even bank robbing was bi-partisan

Bigelow’s filmography exhibits a strong attraction to the idea of people pushing boundaries and crossing borders. Outsiders forming alternative families also serve as central themes, all present in Point Break and all comments on late twentieth century America.   The Ex-President Bank Robbers, led by Bodhi’s Ronald Reagan, and the general anti-mainstream thrust of his surfing brood demonstrated a certain level of push back against the kind of corporate structures Die Hard both mocked and embodied.   It was never about money, Bodhi tells Utah near the end.  Rather, they stood for an existence outside the system: “To those dead souls, inching along the freeway in their metal coffins, we show them that the human spirit is still alive.” Bodhi’s own trajectory melded several California traditions: new age spiritualism, political radicalism, and Manson-like cult of personality head case.

Many have argued that underlying tones of homoeroticism exist in Point Break.  Barscay emphasizes this aspect as well, noting that Bigelow’s earlier films demonstrate a similar tension again, placing Johnny in the feminine role. “The two men develop a relationship over the course of the film, but even their first meeting has a homosexual subtext, as Johnny gazes longingly at Bodhi surfing,” notes Barscay.  However, other critics have argued what the viewer witnesses in Point Break isn’t homoeroticism but rather narcissism. Feeney gets at a very important distinction: Johnny sees his “own magnificence” in Bodhi, operating on different sides of the law only intensifies there “mutual identification.” Johnny doesn’t want to sleep with Bodhi, “he wants to be Bodhi—or, more accurately, because he is Bodhi,” Feeney argues, pointing out that Tyler makes comments to this effect throughout the film.  Ultimately, whether homoerotic or erotic narcissism, the larger point remains that the film projects a much different sense of masculinity than counterparts a decade earlier.  Roger Ebert famously the described movie’s male characters not as “men of action, but men of thought who choose action as a way of expressing their beliefs.”  Though this could also serve as a blueprint for stupidity.


Genre and Gender

When Amy Heckerling and Martha Coolidge projected their visions of teen and specifically female sexuality in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl, they did so through a largely maligned genre of teen high school comedies.  Action films rarely achieve praise for establishing realistic standards of masculinity or femininity for that matter, and let’s not overstate the issue. The kind of gender issues they engage often work to emphasize traditional ideas.  Yet Die Hard used the very genre that often defined masculinity in its most traditional and essentialist forms to subvert them, cracking open the possibility of men expressing some level of vulnerability.  Sure, it took an apocalyptic standoff, but McClane grows a bit, doesn’t he?

Bigelow mines Los Angeles surf culture and criminality for her vision of masculinity.  As one of the few mainstream female directors period but especially one working in genres traditionally considered male terrain, Bigelow represents an anomaly, but her exploration of masculinity in the context of alternative families, whether purposefully or not, paralleled larger processes among young people. Books like Ethan Watters’ Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment represents only one example of this reality.  The narcissism that Feeney alleges populates the movie only makes it seem more relevant amidst the navel-gazing culture of social media and reality TV.

If you doubt the influence of these movies consider the following.  Films like 1992’s Under Siege (“Die Hard on a boat”) and Passenger 57 (“Die Hard on a plane”) aped Die Hard’s conceit. In contrast, Point Break’s success seemed to open the door for more movies about “extreme lifestyles” and alternative families. For better or worse, The Fast and Furious might be considered the bastardized illegitimate offspring of Bigelow’s film.  Moreover, though no one used the term at the time, could Bodhi and Johnny be anymore of a “bromance”? The 2007 buddy cop film Hot Fuzz treated Point Break like an ur-text, referencing it continually for comedic affect.  Plus, everybody knows about the notorious Point Break Live!, where an audience member is nightly plucked from the crowd to play Utah using only cue cards, a clear nod to Keanu’s acting talents in the film.

What’s more horrifying — bank robbing or learning your new man crush likes to dress up like Ronald Reagan?

But it all truly came full circle years earlier in 1994 when Speed merged aspects of both films.   Keanu Reeves’s LAPD Cop Jack Traven, a pre-cynicism McClane and his reliable heroine (Sandra Bullock’s Annie Porter) combine efforts to defeat diabolical madman Howard Payne (Dennis Hooper), who demands the city pay because his pension didn’t payout.  Described by numerous critics as “Die Hard on a bus,” Speed confirmed Reeves’s action star bonafides and established Bullock as a cute, capable, smart aleck female lead.  Sure, action films often lack nuance and their plots tend to be ridiculous, Point Break perhaps one of the most egregious in this category, but they provide some very sharp insights into our collective ideas regarding manliness.   With the L.A.-centered  Die Hard and Point Break the rough outlines of twenty first century masculinity were drawn and the rest followed.