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Why I Love Die Hard

Updated: Mar 20

It was about 3am two nights ago and I was laid awake thinking, as I often am, about Die Hard. The film is beloved, not just by me, for many reasons - an innovative concept, a script with basically no wasted lines, spectacular performances by Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, special direction. But the main reason it remains so loved is because of what it makes us feel. Humans are alienated from the emotions that a situation like defending Nakatomi Plaza from 20 miscellaneously-European terrorists provides, and as a result desire to consume the media so that they feel these emotions without any of the horrendous intricacies of the situation itself.

Shock horror; fiction is imaginative. I know, I know. Escapism is not a concept I’ve created. But I believe the action film goes far beyond simple escapism to make up for the deficiencies of the 21st-century world.

I feel confident enough to try and speak for a lot of people, at least those similar to myself in age, location and financial circumstance, in saying that I am bored. Not verily in the sense that I don’t have anything to do. I go to work, to the pub, out to dinner, to watch films and football and TV and play video games. But I think that fundamentally, between the routine and reliance on work, knowing that you have to get up and go out every day so that you can afford to stay alive, constantly trying to find meaning and purpose, pursue creativity and health, and knowing that I am one of around all 8 billion of us doing this, makes me really fundamentally bored.

I am, thank God, never going to be in a situation like Die Hard. If I was visiting my wife at Nakatomi Plaza that Christmas Eve, and just so happened to find myself in her office when the bad guys turned up, the film would have ended around 3 minutes later when Hans Gruber shoots me as I enact an ill-thought-out plan to escape in the lift. It is the fundamental understanding that the chances of that happening to me being so negligible that makes the viewing experience pleasurable. We watch these films knowing that they couldn’t happen to us, but wondering what if they did? The main characters - John McClane being the perfect example - are usually an everyman for the fact that all of us watching can imagine ourselves doing these daring escapades. Die Hard is simply one in a long list - Indiana Jones, Police Story, all those really bad Steven Seagal movies. They all pivot on the principle of the viewer being able to situate themselves within it despite being self-evidently fictitious.

Yes, clearly the issue I’m describing is consumer capitalism. Obviously I was going to say that. Anyone who’s spent more than eight seconds on this site knew all of the problems were going to fall back on the root cause of consumer capitalism. The unsustainable and volatile market system, resulting in hiked living costs through rents and pricing goods, and the unwavering self-justification of the marketing of nice-but-unnecessary goods because sales are necessary to perpetuate the capitalist system, all along a backdrop of wages rising nowhere near the prices of any of the aforementioned things, create a deep sense of sedation and unease. We’re not allowed out of the grips of the work cycle, because if we do we’ll quickly struggle to stay afloat. This creates a fear which itself turns into a mundanity when you have the privilege to at least have a job which does keep your ship from sinking. Because of this, the idea of having to save Nakatomi Plaza seems like the most exciting thing in the world, despite the fact that the actuality of it would be completely horrible. There is also the knowledge that you are watching something which isn’t happening, a voyeurism safe in the knowledge that when the credits roll, no one is actually harmed and you can go brush your teeth in anticipation of the next day’s labour. Therefore, imagining yourself in that situation comes with an unspoken safety buffer that allows you to undertake the catharsis of without any of the existential consequences that it would entail.

Of course, I’m not the first person to suggest that violence is how we subvert the existential boredom that consumer capitalism has placed upon us with its vacuity. Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis are perhaps the most popular creatives in this regard, with Fight Club and American Psycho respectively dealing directly with the alienation of the self that consumer capitalism has created since the 1980s and using violence as a way to combat it. For Fight Club, the focus is on a Nietzschean interpretation of modern society, with IKEA furniture replacing God in our pursuit for moral values as religion has become less important in western society, and the focus on the narrator’s pursuit of the will to power - that being self-expression, finding what he actually wants in life - and his journey from the ‘camel’ (water bearer of the world) to the ‘lion slaying the dragon’ (a person realising what they want and having to subvert all societal norms that are holding them back from this). Violence, to both the narrator and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, is the manifestation of breaking the powerlessness and base security that modern consumer capitalism has placed upon our society.

Paradoxically, what both of these books and films do is use their anti-capitalist themes as ways of reinforcing the capitalist principle. Mark Fisher, writing in his book Capitalist Realism, calls on Robert Pfaller’s concept of ‘interpassivity’ in regards to this:

‘the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief. It is impossible to conceive of fascism or Stalinism without propaganda - but capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it… So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.’ (reference: see end).

Fight Club and American Psycho both let us place ourselves in the shoes of someone in our exact dilemma - an everyman deep in the recesses of the consumer capitalist grind, with enough to get by but no real fulfilment in any aspect of their life. With both the narrator and Patrick Bateman’s slow descent into violent madness, we get to experience what it would be like if we became the action star that we so loved; violence without impunity, breaking free from the constraints the system has placed upon us, achieving mental liberation. And, of course, what happens to these characters is the complete and utter destruction of their lives, leaving us with the notion that a life without consumer capitalism would be no life at all.

What I believe action films do, therefore, is perform what I’m happy to describe as ‘emotional interpassivity’. They create intense emotional reactions in us that we don’t feel anywhere else in our lives, and as a result allow us to feel these emotions - which I believe we really enjoy feeling - without any of the existential dangers these situations naturally bring about. I suppose this should be a good thing. We get the emotion and we don’t have Hans Gruber talking to us through a creepy police radio for two hours. But is that really what we want to be doing? Is that personal self-expression? To bring about Nietzsche’s ideas again, if pain and suffering are essential, unavoidable parts of the human experience we have developed a society that provides them in rote, mundane ways and replaced the explosiveness of them in the audio-visual form. That surely is not will to power - that is not self-expression of what we actually want as people.

This has all lead me to consider the inverse of my notions here: if we had fulfilment in our lives, if we didn’t feel tied into a system we had no control over, and we were actually happy with what was going on, would we hate action movies? If we are safe in the knowledge that violent raiders likely aren’t going to come into our place of work and hold us hostage, therefore allowing us to enjoy a movie that depicts this, would having something to lose that we actually cared about - our careers, our motivations, having chairs handcrafted by your grandparents and not from Sweden’s flatpack finest - render action movies the most horrifying 109 minutes a human could conceive? I’m leaning towards yes on this.

But until yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker makes me feel dread the likes of which I’ve never experienced, I’ll keep watching the best Christmas movie ever created every 3-or-so months with impunity.



Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. 12-13. Zero Books.

Sam Mandi-Ghomi is co-founder and co-editor of Left Brain Media. You can find his other work here.

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