I have pretended to prefer action heroes more than once when my husband and I searched for a movie to see.
“What about Die Hard LVII?” I might offer.
“That sounds good,” he says, barely concealing his enthusiasm. “Do you really want to see it?”
“Who doesn’t love Bruce Willis and domestic terrorists defeated?”
“Then, let’s see it!” He grins.
Action-hero plots are entirely predictable, the outcome a foregone conclusion. Whether the movie flickering on the screen features Eddie Murphy’s Detroit cop in Beverly Hills Cop, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt on the streets of San Francisco, or Die Hard Bruce Willis as a NY cop in LA desperately seeking his modern bride, we can count on the following:
• In exposition, we learn that for the protagonist, justice is personal. Eddie Murphy hunts down the killer of his old friend, McQueen’s reputation and career are on the line, and Willis wants to save his wife and marriage.
• We also learn that the protagonist is a maverick. Murphy invents back-stories and defies authority almost daily. McQueen quickly perceives that he is one man against corrupted power and goes his own way in great danger. Willis is the cowboy long after Tombstone has grown peaceful; he needs a school marm to protect, but she’s an empowered woman, capable of saving herself until international thieves overwhelm her workplace. Then her cowboy shoots his way to her while she remains composed and confident that her man will save the world with only bare feet and his wits.
• The maverick thinks quickly, endowed with skill and MacGyver-esque resources. Murphy talks fast and has absolutely no fear of authority, celebrity, or firearms. McQueen drives a Mustang up and down San Francisco hills better than any Grand Prix winner, and Willis can knock back a shot of whiskey, walk barefoot over glass, and still shoot straighter than any one shooting back.
• The protagonist is alone against insurmountable odds. Murphy confronts thugs, hitmen, whole police departments, villainy, and better fire power, yet he beats the bad guys. McQueen faces off against Congressional power and the weight of police more loyal to that power than to their own oaths. Willis’s enemies include a high-tech team of world-renowned, remorseless, greedy killers. He’s not even armed at first, but he outwits and stands alone against them all.
• Once the maverick beats all opponents and delivers his own body count, he’s welcomed back into the company of men and especially women. Murphy finds two good friends in two bumbling Beverly Hills cops and earns a nod of respect from his gruff Detroit captain. McQueen returns to the arms of his woman who has finally glimpsed what he does for a living and for what he will die. Willis throws his arm over his wife’s shoulder to help himself make his way away from the mayhem that he subdued. Her pride in and possessiveness of this man are evident.
What we infer from these and other similar stories is the maverick as hero. This character, usually male, goes his own way even before he finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. He’s never been ordinary at all. And he’s well-acquainted with loneliness because few friends and associates line up to stand with mavericks. Others insure their own easier paths to security and power by following the rules, never speaking truth to power, and dodging culpability.
The maverick’s intimate relationships are often endangered or long over. Being so dedicated to exact justice and so well-acquainted with man’s dark heart steel the maverick; he has a scarred heart because Time and injustice have inflicted a thousand tiny cuts. But wives and lovers need an open, soft heart, one not afraid of being betrayed, one determined to spend more time in love than in pursuit of justice. Thus, mavericks are cut from the herd, forced to live alone.
By story’s end, however, the herd makes an opening and welcomes the maverick after he’s borne the heartache and the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to (Hamlet 3.1). Battered, bruised, and nearly beaten, the maverick triumphs, lonely no more, cheered by those who were unable to be mavericks themselves.
Read Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Bullitt (1968), Die Hard (1988), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
Explain why Maya, the female protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty, does not enjoy being welcomed back into the group, as are Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, and Bruce Willis’s Die Hard hero, even after she bears heartache and shocks to deliver justice for the world.