McClane’s not Rambo. When the bullets start firing, the first thing he does is grab his gun, but the second is to look to the exit. Gruber and crew first notice him because they hear him gasping and scurrying away in fear after he witnesses them killing someone. He spends many of the early scenes swearing and talking to himself in a panic.

Twenty-five years later, with McClane enshrined in rap lyrics and video games, the Die Hard series has left McClane’s vulnerability behind on the Gruber-stained sidewalk outside Nakatomi Plaza. Today it’s easy to think of Willis as just a smaller, balder Schwarzenegger. But in Predator, also directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan, Schwarzenegger’s character, Dutch, sets an alien spaceship to self-destruct, then runs through the jungle, deftly leaping just before it explodes. In Die Hard, McClane dumps a load of C4 down an elevator shaft, then stares down at it like a dummy until a rising fireball causes him to bug his eyes out, yell “Oh shit!”, and jump away about two seconds too late.

Sometime in the mid-’90s, Willis transformed into the less outwardly panicked Quiet Bruce. As a boxer on the run in Pulp Fiction, a reluctant time-traveler in Twelve Monkeys, a haunted child psychologist in The Sixth Sense, burned-out cops in Hostage, Sin City, 16 Blocks, and Surrogates, and in many other roles, Willis does more brooding and grimacing than “smirks and wisecracks” or “Moonlighting glibspeak.” He acts less with his mouth and more with his eyes. Instead of insulting somebody with words, he burns through them with a cold stare.

By the time of A Good Day to Die Hard, McClane is closer to this modern Quiet Bruce than the Roy Rogers we first met. At one point his son, John Jr. (Jai Courtney), insults him by asking if he needs a hug. “We’re not a hugging family,” McClane says. That might come as a surprise to Die Hard’s Sergeant Powell, who got a big hug from McClane when they first met face-to-face . They even shared an emotional conversation, with McClane asking Powell to tell McClane’s wife she was “the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me” and that “John said that he was sorry.”

Back then, McClane was learning to be a better husband; now, he’s proud of being Mr. Macho. I suppose this is the toll of having to rescue his wife from two hostages crises, New York from a bombing spree, the country from a hacker attack, and his son from whatever it was in Russia. That sort of life can cause a man to lose his sense of humor and willingness to show affection. So we look at him now and we forget that McClane is not the guy you send in to kill the alien attacker or rescue the P.O.W.s. He’s the guy who “got invited to the Christmas party by mistake.” He was outside his jurisdiction, only moonlighting. Maybe because Die Hard is so good and so timeless, we forgot that Willis was, too.

Is it so shocking, then, that standing next to Rambo and Arnold for the third time is something he’d only do for a ridiculous amount of money? After all, it’s not as if Willis is a Schwarzenegger or a Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose powers are usually diminished when acting outside of a punching-and-shooting context. Last year, between mediocre sequels and supporting roles in DTV thrillers, Willis squeezed in fine performances in Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, two critically acclaimed movies from smart, soft-spoken directors who you can imagine being hazed on and chased off an Expendables set. If that’s the Christmas party Bruce wants an invitation to, then I say we give him one that says at the bottom, “P.S. Bring your harmonica.” Maybe if he lives a fireball-free lifestyle for a while he’ll start to smile and joke again, and when he’s sarcastic in an interview he’ll come off as a charming rascal instead of just a dick. Maybe he’ll become a hugger again.

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