Smoke on black background

From pacing to symbolism, Die Hard 2 depends on John McClane being a smoker – and them’s the fax. Spoilers. Obviously.

It would be fair to call John McClane a committed smoker. In each of the first three Die Hard movies he lights up a cigarette within 10 minutes of the opening credits. Of itself that might not seem extraordinary – after all, pretty much everyone1 smoked in the 1980s and early 90s. Even in-flight smoking wasn’t completely banned until the end of the 90s. Suffice to say, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

Old newspaper advert advocates smoking
V0047581 Piccadilly cigarettes endorsed by a doctor and an ice-skater: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0

There’s a captivating image in Die Hard 2 – and this is saying something for a film laden with frequent graphic violence and William Sadler’s ‘naked ballet’ – in which McClane (Bruce Willis) smokes a cigarette without using his hands. It happens around 10 minutes into the film. McClane’s waiting for his wife’s plane to land, his car’s just been towed, and he’s killing time at the bar.

The scene is memorable because McClane lights up, then stows both cigarette pack and lighter in different pockets simultaneously meaning that, for a few seconds, he’s hands-free but still puffing away (while also identifying that some folk are up to no good). But whether McClane smokes with his hands, a hookah or gay abandon – so what?

Given smoking was a norm at the time of the film’s release (1990), very few of its characters are shown smoking on screen – not even for background realism. With the exception of a villain who lights a self-congratulatory cigar moments before being blown clean out of the sky, only McClane is significantly shown smoking. McClane is set apart; he’s different. But different how – and how does smoking seal the deal?

McClane’s the good guy

Obviously McClane is the good guy. He’s the kind of guy on whom it falls to battle the forces of evil and incompetence to single-handedly save mankind. Even the people on his own team are a liability. They’re semi useless (Trudeau), totally useless (Capt Lorenzo) or deadly turncoats (Major Grant). The good guys are subtly clipped – emasculated in some fashion – so that they never outshine McClane. The bad guys may be hyper masculine, but they’re still always soundly defeated.

So McClane is a lone ranger, which is quite apt for a man modelled on the image of the all-American cowboy. In fact, McClane is a very particular kind of cowboy: he’s the Marlboro Man.

Marlboro Man (or the Marlboro Cowboy) were marketing campaigns for the cigarette brand of the same name. The ads ran from the 50s to the 90s, and continued to boost sales even as the world was waking up to smoking’s health risks. The ad concept came to stand for “the ultimate American cowboy and masculine trademark.” (AdvertisingAge)

McClane is the lone hero in the same way that he’s the only smoker on screen. Both hammer home the message of masculinity, virtue and patriotism – which is how the West is won on screen.

Incidentally, McClane is referred to as another archetypal cowbow – John Wayne – in both Die Hard and Die Harder (by Hans Gruber and Capt Lorenzo respectively). Sgt Al Powell, reprising his role in Die Hard 2, calls Mc Clane “cowboy”. And, of course, there’s McClane’s bastardized cowboy catchphrase, “yipee-ki-yay, motherfucker”. Or at least, that’s how he pronounces it.

What smoking means on-screen

Smoking works on film: it’s purely visual, with none of the smell or the nagging health concerns. “There is no need for phallic symbols today when naked breasts and naked bottoms jiggle and bounce a foot from the camera,” writes Aljean Harmetz, but cinema has a long history of masking sex with smoke. To be fair, Die Harder isn’t that kind of movie, but it’s interesting that its single scene of overt flirting is also one in which McClane is smoking.

The sight of McClane hooking up with Al Powell by phone ‘n’ fax is clearly too much for the young woman whose equipment he borrows. She suggests they meet later but McClane – in charge, masculine … goddamit, a cowboy – taps his wedding ring and tells her he’s after “just the fax, ma’am”.

There’s a similar turn of events in the earlier Die Hard movie. McClane, getting off a plane as the film opens, is given the eye by a young flight attendant. He clocks her glance and looks back … but waits until reaching the baggage carousel to light up. As Harmetz puts it: “Until some brave new world allows frontal male nudity, cigarettes will probably remain a handy shorthand for potency, even though, in our less subtle age, guns have taken over much of that function.”

There’s one other kind of symbolic short hand at play in the film franchise: class division. If McClane is a lone hero, it’s partly by virtue of class distinction.

He’s a working class white guy in a corporate world dominated by the Germans and Japanese (in Die Hard). They’re high-tech, he’s hands and fists and street smarts. His wife belongs to the new world, he’s a salt-of-the-Earth beat cop.

From cops to air traffic controllers, the world won’t listen to McClane, but he’s always right. “I hate being right all the time,” he says, while luxuriating in the deliciousness of being right all the time.

Smoking, meanwhile, is a working-class badge of honour, a refuge, and “one of the few pleasures left for the poor on sink estates and in working men’s clubs” (Health Secretary John Reid)2. McClane smokes, and we get the measure of the man.

Smoking tells us when to breathe

Cinema is no place for poker players; not when all emotions must be shown to be useful. The range of human experience is condensed into easy feelings – angry, tense, sad, very sad and so on. More than that and things gets complicated and detract from the popcorn. Cigarette emotions are even narrower on screen, where they typically represent tension or post-coital satisfaction (which, as Freud put it, is the release of tension).

For McClane, cigarette breaks are down-time from slaughter – for him and for us; they’re a breathing space between the action. They represent his frustration when he can’t stop Windsor 114 from crashing, they’re a segue between killing a guy with a baggage carousel and connecting the dots, and they’re a victory dance after he ejects from the General’s plane and avoids ‘certain’ death.

Presumably McClane smokes at these points because it’s easy for the plot, and because his options are limited otherwise (although, to his credit, he does cry, kind of, when he can’t avert the plane crash). McClane smokes, and it adds a rhythm to the film and the emotion vested in it by the viewer.

The mystery of the never-ended cigarette

Die Harder has more than 2 hours of screen time to play with, but ain’t no one got time to watch McClane smoke a whole cigarette. McClane lights up on screen six times (and only five times to smoke a cigarette).

When he is seen smoking, it’s brief and almost subliminal; like a character tic or a catchphrase – except here, the important thing is that we see or sense that McClane is a smoker. Why? So that we know he has a lighter. Why? Because it’s that lighter which he uses to spark a plane’s leaking fuel to literally bring down the bad guys.

When Colonel Stuart (Sadler) causes a commercial jet to crash, his fate is sealed. His comeuppance must match the crime for the sake of cinematic balance, rather as a Shakespearean denouement releases the spell of the play and sends you home with less troubled mind. McClane’s lighter is the deus ex machina, but it appears less contrived than that because we just happen to know that McClane is a smoker. How? See above.

Sure, if McClane wasn’t a smoker there could have been some other way to introduce a lighter but that would have meant less time to see a guy being stabbed in the eye with an icicle, an unarmed pensioner being shot in a church, or a villain being shredded by a plane’s propeller.

Smoking, rather than killing off McClane with some long drawn-out cancer, kills off the crooks instead, allowing him in turn to save his wife’s plane (and, as a consequence, a number of other planes in the vicinity). As a habit, smoking may have fallen out of fashion but, in Die Hard 2, its functions remain frozen in perpetuity. Smoking doesn’t just seal the deal … it saves the day. But only in Hollywood.


1 Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that a third of US adults smoked in 1980 (25.5% in 1990, the year Die Hard 2 was released). That number fell to less than 18% in 2013, and just over 15% by 2015. The number of US male adults who smoke has consistently been just above the population average.

2 While the rate of smoking among adults has been falling, it remains consistently higher among lower earners – ONS release.

Picture credit: zhilkooleg