Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988) presents itself as a cheeky updating of the Hollywood Western, with its knowing references to John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gary Cooper, its male characters going around calling one another “cowboy,” its cocky R-rated whoops (“yippee-ki-ay, motherfuckers!”). In its basic plot and structure, Die Hard follows the generic Western formula: an outsider (in this case NYPD officer John Maclaine) arrives in an unfamiliar town, finds the town under attack, and lays down the law (by paradoxically acting outside of official law-enforcement structures like the FBI and LAPD, which are revealed to be ineffectual—a classic Western trope).
But the film interestingly revises the Western genre’s cultural geography in ways that feel (forgive me the use of this word) postmodern in the Jamesonian sense. To put it simply, Die Hard makes the Eastern U.S. (represented by New York City) the repository for toughness, patriarchal masculinity, and common sense, and represents the West Coast (specifically Los Angeles) as ineffectual, feminized, and moronic. This binarism reflects the history of westward expansion in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the development of southern California as a major metropolitan center. Whereas “the West” once meant the space of the frontier—of freedom from social constraints, self-invention, individualism—it gradually became “L.A.-ified,” sullied by capitalism, high population density, and mass culture (including Hollywood itself). When John Maclaine arrives at LAX and catches a glimpse of a bleach-blonde, hard-bodied straight couple locked in a histrionic embrace, he rolls his eyes and mutters “L.A.!” in amused disgust. We immediately understand what he means: this surfer dude and his dudette—both sporting matching long blond tresses—are the walking embodiments of what this film and Maclaine take “L.A.” to mean.
John Maclaine, the Western hero of Die Hard, is about as far away from “L.A.” as you can get. Namely, he’s from New York. In traditional Westerns, where the West was the space of the frontier and the East meant culture, society, and law, men from New York City were suspect; they were “dudes,” poorly outfitted for the rough dangers of life west of the Ohio River. But in the 1980s world of Die Hard, East and West have reversed their polarities in the wake of vapid, air-headed “California culture,” particularly where masculinity is concerned. In addition to the surfer dude at the airport, the L.A. of the film is populated by pompous newscasters, officious, hapless cops, and slimy, rich executives. Surely none of these men is up to the task of saving the city from German terrorists (that’s a whole other East/West dynamic that we don’t even have time to get into here). In this Western, the hero has to come from the hard East Coast, where men are men and cops know how to get shit done. “You’re from New York?” everyone asks Maclaine with a mixture of surprise and awe. In the postmodern Western universe of Die Hard, the East and West of the classical Western are transposed, but they remain at odds: never the twain, it seems, will meet.