“Man to Man”: Power and Male Relationships
in the Gunplay Film
Anyone seeking the essence of the gun-based action film would do well to begin with the last few minutes of 1988's Die Hard. Beginning a swift procession of central themes, John McClane, the bruised and bloodied working-class hero, emerges from the destroyed Nakatomi Plaza, the skyscraper headquarters of a Japanese-owned multinational corporation. McClane has just saved his estranged wife from the clutches of a cultured, foreign anti-hero through a spectacular and highly improbable feat of gunplay. Despite the ostensive primacy of the boy-loses-girl, boy-kills-villain, boy-gets-girl-back plot, the heterosexual relationship is immediately overshadowed by a series of male-male interactions as the white McClane and his African-American buddy Sgt Powell finally consummate their relationship with a hug; the arrogant yet astoundingly incompetent Deputy Police Chief angrily confronts McClane; and Karl, the villain's presumed-dead right-hand-man, appears from the rubble to menace McClane with a sub-machine-gun (at which point McClane literally pushes his wife out of the action). Sgt Powell then kills Karl, thus completing his transformation from feminized, twinkie-eating, overweight, non-gun-using man to (under McClane's influence) a steely-eyed, unflinching man-with-a-gun.
Die Hard is a classic example of what could be called the “gunplay film,” a type of film that is often derided as “just stupid.” In these films, neither guns nor the people who wield them behave realistically, plots are simple and predictable, and the largest part of the appeal appears to be in watching men killing each other and blowing things up.
Yet, while all these observations are true, three important points argue against the judgment of “just stupid.” First, gunplay films make a great deal of sense when understood as a form of modern mythology—ideological allegories in the service of violent masculinity. Second, the behaviors of the characters in these films make a great deal more sense when viewed with the understanding that these movies are primarily about male relationships—violent, homosocial relationships mediated predominantly through gunplay. Finally, while guns do not behave in movies in the same ways that they do on the streets, they do in fact