Hollywood films are generally location specific, with Los Angeles and New York, being the most popular filmed locations in the United States. Indeed the birth of Hollywood as we know it, in the era of Edison, was conceived out of a number of factors, including escaping the patented laws of the medium on the east coast, the large areas of land to build film studios, and of course the sunshine climate. In time the disproportionate anomaly of films, filmed on the west coast gave way to the resentment by some that New York was as good a place than any to make films and that the studios were ignoring some of the best film talent because they lived there or were unwilling to relocate.
Indeed some filmmakers to this day are associated solely on either an east coast or a west coast perspective, or have utilised a city on either coast indistinguishably. Check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Vertigo which utilises the west coast landscape of San Francisco with a keen eye. The neo noirs and the noir of the 40’s were definably LA specific; therefore crime, private detectives and police corruption are closely associated with the city. Look at the films Chinatown, LA Confidential, Sunset Boulevard, The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon; these films could not have been made anywhere else. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen are easily associated with New York and have elaborated this city as part of their personal identity in the making of their films. Manhattan, Annie Hall, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Hannah and her Sisters, Goodfellas etcetera etcetera are all identifiably a love letter to the city of New York. Whereas Michael Mann is clearly an LA director having put his sheen on the west coast city in films such as Heat, Manhunter and Collateral.
Where does Die Hard fit into this form of tribalism? Die Hard is clearly an LA set film but we do not see much of the city. We see McClane arriving in LA via a plane and touch downing at the LAX airport. He is then chauffer driven to the Nakatomi plaza where he spends the duration of the film there. Aside from a few small scenes including the inside of a newsroom, Bonnie’s home, and Sergeant Powell shopping for Twinkies in a convenience store, this is all we get to see of LA. This is hardly a love letter to the city of angels.
Let us turn to the character of John McClane and pose some questions.
Who is he and where is he from?
McClane is from New York, he is a native New Yorker and member of the NYPD.
What is he doing in Los Angeles?
Visiting his wife and kids for the Christmas vacation.
Why isn’t he with his wife and kids in Los Angeles or they with him in New York?
Because he is unwilling to give up his job in the NYPD and relocate to Los Angeles when his wife Bonnie furthers her career by taking a job at the Nakatomi plaza.
Estranged from his wife for around 6 months McClane has already a festered animosity towards the ‘city of angels’ inherent in the film’s back story. His wife has burgeoned on a career on the west coast while he stayed in New York to officially cope with some open cases but unofficially because he didn’t expect her to last. McClane’s east coast mentality towards the west is expressed early on in the film where a squealing girl in pink spandex runs past him and jumps onto her supposed lover. He remarks “California!” as a form of disdain but also because this is what he secretly wishes for himself when he is reunited with his wife. The second instance of contempt for the west coast (and a tad bit of homophobia) is when some random stranger comes over kisses him at the office party then wishes him a merry Christmas. This time the action prompts a “Jesus!” then a “fucking California!”
The east coast/west coast enmity is also extended to the police force. McClane’s frustration with his LA police counterpart’s begins first, when he makes a call to the operator to inform them that terrorists have taken over the Nakatomi building and have also taken hostages. The operator on the other line fails to take his plea seriously, having doubts over the reliability of this claim and stating that the line is reserved for emergency cases only: “no shit lady what do you think I am doing ordering a pizza?” Her doubts are understood to a degree because McClane had previously raised the alarm, only for Gruber to report it in as a crank call. Only when she hears gunfire on the line, that she decides to send a patrol car to the building.
When the situation finally becomes acute to the LA Police force they send in Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson to take charge. But Robinson is not part of the solution he is part of the problem. Like a difficult to please father he undermines all the good McClane has done at every opportunity even where the evidence shows otherwise. He accuses McClane of working with terrorists; of being a hindrance to the effort and at one point even lays blame for the death of the yuppie cokehead hostage Elliot, on McClane.
“All we know is some son of a bitch shot your car up and it is probably the same son of a bitch you have been talking to on that radio.”
Even McClane’s only ally in all of this; Sergeant Al Powell is complacent in the ineptitude, or for more of a better word impotence of the LAPD. Of course McClane recognizes Powell as a decent man and good cop but he can tell that he is a desk jockey rather than a practical member of the police; teasing him for the way he drove his car when attacked by gunfire and a dead body fell on his patrol car. This is supplemented by Powell’s story of accidentally shooting a kid which in turn had confined him to the desk and made a case for him to never pull out his gun again.
Other than Powell, McClane is alone in his endeavours even though he has repeatedly sought for help. From his point of view, the New York Police Department would have responded better and quicker. He would have known people from the NYPD, and more importantly none of this would never have happened if his wife had not decided to take herself and the kids to the west coast. “Fucking California!” everyone would have been better off in New York.