The Fat Detective and the Rogue Cowboy: Die Hard (1988, dir John McTiernan); Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990, dir Renny Harlan)

My last few posts have focused on male/masculine fat best friends.  Thus far I haven’t sought out films specifically for their portrayals of fat people– or, to be more accurate, I’ve been heard to whine “But I don’t wanna rewatch Bridesmaids”– so it’s not surprising that most of the films default to having male protagonists with another man, somehow coded as less heroic, in a support role.  I decided to lean into the trend and revisit the first two Die Hard films.  I first saw Die Hard and Die Hard 2:  Die Harder a few years ago; while I wasn’t actively looking at the role that body size plays in the character dynamics, I found the developing bromance between John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to be one of the more intriguing parts of the film.

As we’ve seen in previous films, McClane and Powell form a contrasting duo; the differences between them go beyond body type and race.  Both are archetypal cop characters, but from opposite ends of that spectrum.  McClane is a fiercely independent male power fantasy.  Explicitly identified with cowboys, he’s the rogue agent who breaks all the rules because his ideas are invariably more effective than the protocols set by those in power.  Even his personal life finds him bristling against cooperation: he has become estranged from his family because of his reluctance to leave New York after his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) lands a great job in Los Angeles.  There were several reasons that I prefer the original movie to the sequel, which isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the most unexpected reason was that I don’t find McClane nearly as interesting when he’s put in a situation that requires teamwork.  It’s somewhat surprising that he outranks Powell by the second film. 

McClane is defined by his profession, but specifically by being part of the NYPD.  New York City as part of McClane’s identity is an expression of regionalism, but it also seems to be an inherent part of his stubbled, streetwise masculinity.  He is out of place at the Nakatomi Christmas party, especially when another man greets him with a kiss on the cheek, and is practically a different species than Ellis (Hart Bochner), Holly’s smarmy, coke-snorting coworker.  The film portrays association with LA as a symptom of a character being phony and weak:  after moving to LA, Holly goes by her maiden name; McClane has a much harder time gaining respect with his LAPD badge in Die Hard 2.   Even the local news team turns into a minor antagonist, as reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) forces himself into the McClane home for the sake of his scoop.

McClane’s likability and authenticity comes not only from Bruce Willis’ charisma, but from his alliances with average joes, especially black men.  McClane is initially characterized as an unpretentious populist by making friends with his limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White)– naturally, he sits shotgun and puts his kids’ giant teddybear in the back seat where the LA phonies ride.  In the sequel, McClane forms an alliance with nerdy director of communications Leslie Barnes (Art Evans).  However, he is more brusque with other average joe characters: possibly due to the stress of having so many people standing between him and the bad guys, or a change in director and writing team, but it may be that LA is rubbing off on McClane.  However, the role of Grounding Black Friend is fulfilled most strongly by Sgt. Powell, both in terms of the depth of their relationship and by balancing out the milieu of upper class white LA.

Powell is a by-the-book cop, representing the everyman who supports and roots for McClane.  He isn’t as phony as the other LA-based characters, but he is an emasculated figure.  His lack of power is visually manifested through fat stereotypes; in both Die Hard and Die Hard 2, he is introduced by an armful of Twinkies.  In the first film, he tells a convenience store cashier that the Twinkies are for his pregnant wife, which is met with skepticism.  McClane is also introduced while fulfilling a paternal role– wrangling a giant teddy bear for his children– but flirts with a pretty flight attendant in the process.  Powell doesn’t have the skilled action hero control of McClane:  he doesn’t realize that the Nakatomi Tower is overrun by bad guys until McClane throws one of them onto the hood of his cop car.

 reginald veljohnson, die hard, al powell, powell, sgt powell, twinkies

Powell is sensitive and emasculated when compared with McClane, but his sensitivity also serves as a strength, in line with the fat detective trope.  Not only does Powell form a correct hunch that McClane is a cop, but he does so after one brief conversation. Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), Powell’s superior, arrives just as this conversation ends.  His approach to the as-yet-unnamed McClane is cautious, but the audience is more attuned to the need for immediate action:  his blowhard skepticism reads like a waste of precious time.  Powell also proves himself to be a step ahead of Robinson when he correctly surmises that the terrorists are shooting at the cops’ floodlights, which Robinson loudly repeats as his own revelation once the lights are starting to shatter.  However, Powell is a team player.  While he directly disagrees with Robinson, he ultimately lacks McClane’s ability to undermine authority.  At one point, Robinson interrupts Powell and McClane’s conversation, snatching the radio from Powell’s hand.  Powell grimaces at the affront, but says nothing.  McClane, on the other hand, responds to Robinson’s demand that the LAPD take over by calling him a “jerkoff” and demands that he give the radio back to Powell.

Powell’s fat detective sensitivity also facilitates the growth of his relationship with McClane.  The initial conversation where Powell establishes that McClane is a cop is also enough for them to decide not only to trust each other, but to form an alliance; by their first sign-off, they are calling each other “partner.” The two partners provide each other with necessary information, but Powell also provides the moral support McClane needs, including making McClane laugh by reciting the ingredients of a Twinkie and telling him “I love you, and so do a lot of the other guys down here.”

It’s worth noting that the majority of Powell and McClane’s relationship takes place via radio; they are essentially two voices connecting with each other.  In the context of a mainstream action film, McClane is white and athletic, aspects of a default representation of legitimacy.  Not so for Powell, who is marginalized as a fat person and as a black person.  However, on the radio, Powell is separated from the aspects of his corporeality that could otherwise detract from McClane viewing him as legitimate.  We see the different ways McClane and Robinson treat Powell; we could chalk it up to McClane being a heroic everyman and Robinson being a blowhard boss, but it’s worth considering the fact that McClane is separated from the preconceived notions that are inexorably tied to Powell’s body.

The most obvious marker of Powell’s lack of (masculine) power is that he’s been put on desk duty because he has lost his ability to shoot his gun, following an incident where he accidentally shot and killed a kid.  He triumphantly regains the ability to fill a human body with bullets at the end of the film, when it means defending McClane from the final bad guy. Even if the scene is a black cop killing a homicidal Aryan, in light of the recent publicized lack of accountability from police departments for police brutality, it’s very uncomfortable to consider that regaining the ability to kill is considered a happy resolution to Powell’s character arc.

reginald veljohnson, mcclane, bruce willis, powell, al powell, john mcclane, die hard

Despite having his masculinity redeemed through his friendship with McClane at the end of Die Hard, Powell fills the same role of less masculine, more cooperative foil in his brief appearance in Die Hard 2.  He faxes a criminal background check to McClane as he chews on a Twinkie, gently laughing at his friend’s refusal to “wake up and smell the 90s” and learn how to use the technology that has become a basic tool of his profession, untameable cowboy that he is.  And again, Powell is more of a friend to McClane than the other law enforcement in the film, notably Captain Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), the head of airport police who impedes McClane’s process every step of the way, along with his brother Sgt. Lorenzo (Robert Costanzo).  Both of the Lorenzos are fat; McClane calls Captain Lorenzo a “fat ass” during their unending tennis match of insults.  All three fat characters are shown as ineffectual cops when compared to McClane; the Lorenzos’ ineffectiveness comes from complacency and arrogance, treating McClane rudely while failing to see the big picture.  Captain Lorenzo initially describes himself as a “big fish” in a “little pond,” but towards the end of the film, he is dismissed as a “bureaucrat.”  He is unable to see reality; namely, that John McClane, Supercop is in his airport trying to foil an unfolding terrorist plot.  Powell, on the other hand, realizes what’s going on, but isn’t able to garner the respect needed to convey it to those around him.

dennis franz, die hard 2

Captain Lorenzo and Powell are both fat men who are socially inappropriate.  They have character arcs where the begin their film with problematic relationships to their profession that are ultimately corrected through their association with McClane.  Powell is initially deferential and emasculated (relative to the world of male power fantasy), but finds the strength to argue with his superior in order to advocate for McClane, and then the ability to shoot his gun in order to defend McClane.  Lorenzo, on the other hand, is rigid and arrogant, but is eventually humbled when McClane proves the worth of his disorderly methods.  I see race as the more component of the difference in these fat characters’ trajectories.  McClane spends Die Hard and Die Hard 2 clashing with power-hungry white men (whether military-trained terrorists or jagoff yuppies) and building alliances with salt-of-the-earth black men.  We know that he will never become the former because of how he treats the latter, and the latter ultimately exist to accessorize McClane’s quests.  The politics of fat in Die Hard cannot be separated from similar questions about the politics of race.

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