Clash of the '80s Action Icons: Martin Riggs vs. John McClane

Or maybe lung cancer gets them both.
Or maybe lung cancer gets them both.

Last weekend, for the umpteenth time, I found myself watching Die Hard again. Perhaps it's a function of my advancing age, but even with the embarrassment of occasional riches available to me on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and On Demand, I still take comfort in watching Bruce Willis shoot Marco in the groin.

That rewatch came on the heels (well, a few weeks or so) of my checking out Lethal Weapon 2 again for the first time in years. And as John McClane worked his way through Nakatomi Plaza, eventually dropping Severus Snape out a window, I found myself wondering how he'd stack up, action hero wise, vs. Martin Riggs, the detective sergeant played by Mel Gibson in the LW series.

For purposes of this comparison, we'll be looking at the first three films in each series (Lethal Weapon 1-3, and Die Hard, Die Hard 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance), because the later entries in each franchise are unbearable shitshows.

And honestly, Lethal Weapon 3 kind of is, too.

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I'll be evaluating these American heroes using six not-at-all subjective criteria. The winner will receive a script I've written for the next installment of their respective franchise. The loser will receive...the same.

I also realize calling them "'80s action icons" is a bit of a stretch, since only the first Die Hard and the first two Lethal Weapons took place in that most day-glo of decades, but for better or worse, that's when these iconic characters originated. And, to paraphrase Norman Maclean, a river of bad one-liners and worse hair runs through them.

Category: Durability: The running gag through all three Die Hards is how thoroughly John McClane gets the shit kicked out of him. In the first one, he enters the final showdown with Hans Gruber shirtless, covered in blood and soot, and limping on a foot lacerated by broken glass. In DH2, he gets blown out of/ejected from a cockpit, beaten by various mercenaries, and kicked from the wing of a 747. And in DHwaV, he ... has to run a lot. That's arguably worse than being beaten up.

Riggs is such a stone badass the only bad guys who can lay hands on him are the alpha goons (Mr. Joshua, Pieter Vorstedt). Sure, he gets kills a dozen guys less than an hour after having electroshock applied to his nipples in the first movie, and also survives multiple gunshot wounds at the hands of Arjen Rudd, but these are always climactic fights, not results of a sustained pattern of abuse.

Advantage: McClane

Category: Fashion Sense: It's kind of cheap to give this to Riggs, because all he wears in the LW movies are jeans, denim/flannel shirts, farm jackets, and cowboy boots (though still not enough to draw him even with Danny Glover's 6' 4" frame). Then again, that's practically haute couture compared to the wife beater/slack combo McClane wears in two of the first three Die Hards. He looked a little better in his seasonal ensemble in DH2, but was soon back to his old slovenly ways, gallivanting around in a fireman's coat, of all things.

Still, let's not kid ourselves: fashion in the late 80s/early 90s was no friend to anyone.

Advantage: Riggs, insofar as there has to be one.

 

Category: Hair: Even I had forsaken my mullet by 1992, but the powers that be at Warner Bros. kept Riggs' glorious hairvalanche on through the third Lethal Weapon (albeit in abbreviated form). My (post-hair band era) dislike for the hairstyle doesn't really enter into it, however, considering Riggs' competition is the "fluff it with a shrimp fork" Norwood 2 McClane sports in the three movies about dying hard.

Advantage: Riggs

Category: Quality of Villains: The bad guys in Lethal Weapon were ex-military and mercenary drug smugglers led by former Shadow Company commander General McAllister. The bad guys in Lethal Weapon 2 were South African diplomats using their immunity to shield their drug smuggling (and the third one had a rogue cop or something, I just remember Riggs eating dog biscuits).

Drug smuggling was a big deal in the days before Islamic terrorism.

I'll allow that Die Hard 2's Colonel Stuart and his rabid anti-Commie followers were lamely generic, but only because William Sadler's naked kung fu can't hold a candle to Alan Rickman's diabolical charm. Even the fact the plot was essentially duplicated for With a Vengeance doesn't dilute its panache, or make Rickman's performance any less fantastic.

Advantage: McClane

 

Category: Sidekicks: Let's see, Martin Riggs had: Leo Getz (Joe Pesci)

While John McClane had: Argyle the Chauffeur (De'voreaux White) Marvin the Janitor (Tom Bower) Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson)

Riggs suffers in this category because he's got a partner in each movie. And even allowing the argument that Zeus wasn't really a sidekick -- he's the only one with a last name, and he picked the handcuffs to free McClane on the tanker -- Pesci wore out his welcome after LW2.

Advantage: McClane

Category: Law Enforcement Ability Finally, since we're discussing the exploits of two policemen (and "zere are RULES for policemen"), it might be useful to consider exactly how good they are at their jobs. McClane is a Lieutenant in the first three DH movies, Riggs is a Sergeant (he gets promoted to Captain for allegedly hilarious reasons in LW4). Neither are ever apparently demoted for their various "issues," though Riggs is clearly mentally unbalanced in LW, while McClane is suspended at the beginning of DHWAV.

However, Riggs is the only one in the first three movies who ever performs any actual police work. McClane is on vacation in the first two movies, visiting Los Angeles in DH, and picking up his wife at the airport in DH2. One could argue that he's attempting to determine the location of Simon's school bomb, and he does end up foiling the Federal Reserve Robbery, but it isn't exactly by the book.

Riggs, on the other hand, puts together the theory that Dixie killed Amanda Hunsaker, ends General McAllister's heroin operation, and crippled South Africa's economy, virtually ending apartheid single-handedly.

Advantage: Riggs

THE WINNER: Amazingly enough, with the score locked at 3-3 we have a tie. So it's on to our sudden death category:

Bathroom Scenes: Terry Gilliam reportedly gave Bruce Willis the lead in 12 Monkeys when he learned his heartfelt conversation with Al about his wife was improvised. And it is a powerful scene. However, the contest is between '80s action heroes, and few things are more representative of that decade than a toilet blown through the roof of a house onto a station wagon. Advantage, and winner, Martin Riggs


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