With Bruce Willis wreaking havoc in the theaters with the triumphant return of John McClane, I am reminded of a time not-so-long-ago when the title of Undisputed Biggest Bad Ass belonged to one Jack Bauer, of CTU Los Angeles. When we say that John and Jack are heroes cut from the same cloth, we are actually understating the situation somewhat. In many ways, both John McClane and Jack Bauer are just modernized versions of the classical cowboy character: a lone gunman with a shitty personal life, faced with ridiculous numbers of enemies, burdened by idiot "allies" and driven by an inexplicable desire to do what’s right, no matter what the cost.
Both Die Hard and 24 adventures usually take place over a single day, although obviously because of Die Hard’s medium, it’s impossible to tell the story in "real-time." Like Jack Bauer, McClane finds that he is unable to catch a wink at any moment during this period, and that the fights he gets into become progressively more impressive as the day wears on.
Both Jack and John represent the wrath of the working-class moral right, although Jack is a government-subsidized patriot while John is a pension-challenged brawler. Neither of them care much about property damage (hell, it’s all insured, right?)
Because of their dedication to their careers (and possibly also due to the rather large number of people they have mercilessly shot, stabbed, blown up or bludgeoned to death), neither John nor Jack have very good relationships with their wives, girlfriends or daughters … even considering that they have saved their lives countless times. This is more of an emotional jab at the audience than anything else; nothing makes you feel for a guy more than knowing that he’s unappreciated.
Also, both men have serious addiction problems. John is an ex-alcoholic, while Jack is an ex-heroin addict. Both have quit, it seems, possibly in an attempt to be better role models. (Most professional killers would do the same.)
Taking a page from Bauer’s playbook, Die Hard 4.0 actually sees John with a young civilian sidekick in the form of Justin Long. Bauer has, of course, been doing this for ages: every 24 involves Jack trying to protect some stupid kid from being abducted and ransomed. (Interesting note: up until the 3rd Die Hard, John’s sidekicks have all been black. That’s mid-90’s social-stratification for you.)
Hostage crises are a staple plot device of both Die Hard and 24, mainly because it allows our heroes a chance to crawl around stealthily in air ducts and elevator shafts, unbeknownst to our hapless terrorists. Until Die Hard 3, John’s adventures were mostly confined to single large structures on Christmas eve (the first was a 30-story building, the second was an airport), which allowed him to maximize the use of ventilation shafts for stealthy travel. Obviously, this kind of creative constraint was only going to work for so long, and John’s next two adventures slowly metamorphosed into a more 24-like run-and-gun.
Jack Bauer: You cannot do this job and have a normal life at the same time.
John McClane: Another basement, another elevator … how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?
Jack Bauer: You are going to tell me what I want to know, it’s just a matter of how much you want it to hurt.
John McClane: Motherfucker, I’m gonna kill you, I’m gonna fuckin’ cook you, and I’m gonna fuckin’ eat you!
Jack Bauer: Dammit, I don’t have time for this!!!
John McClane: Yippee-kay-yey, motherfucker.
Neither John or Jack employ martial arts in any of their respective fights. Instead they rely on anything they can get their hands on, although obviously something with a trigger and a sight is preferred. As such, both the 24 and Die Hard series feature a vast assortment of handguns, rifles, machineguns and the occasional rocket launcher. Neither use stabbing weapons very often, with the possible exception of the Microtech Halo III or the occasional random icicle.
In Die Hard 1, John kills his first thug by dropping him down a flight of stairs. What makes this kill memorable is that John is, strangely, attached to him at the time. This kamikazee fighting style has become a staple in the Die Hard series, which largely explains why John usually looks like shit at the end of each movie.
In 24 Season 1, one of Jack’s first kills is a vicious punch to the heart that sends a minor villain into cardiac arrest.
Die Hard 1: John takes care of another thug by wrapping a chain around his neck, hoisting him ten feet into the air and smashing him against a wall. This kill is echoed by Jack Bauer in 24 Season 6, which is how he gets rid of head terrorist Abu Fayed. Interestingly, Bauer says, "Say hello to your brother," as he does this, which is the exact same line McClane throws Simon Gruber in Die Hard 3.
In 24 Season 2, in what is perhaps the most memorable kill ever depicted on mainstream TV, Jack shoots a federal witness and uses his severed head as a way to infiltrate a terrorist cell.
Die Hard 2: John stumbles on to two terrorists in the baggage section of a major international airport. He disables one of them with a 9-iron, a Samsonite suitcase, a can of hairspray and a kid’s bicycle, and disposes of the other by running him through a conveyor belt.
24 Season 3: Jack empties a full clip into his wife’s killer, Nina Myers, as she’s lying helpless on the ground. This is the only time 24 has ever used slow-motion to emphasize the importance of a scene, which makes it all the more memorable. It’s such a popular sequence that it even spawned the fan-joke: "If Jack was in a room with Hitler, Stalin and Nina Myers, and he had a gun with two bullets, he’d shoot Nina twice."
Die Hard 3: John takes out Gruber’s helicopter with two well-placed shots at a nearby electric pylon, sending a pair of high-voltage cables into the chopper’s propellers. Jack’s version of this kill is a bit less believable: in season 5, he takes care of an enemy helicopter by shooting at the rear propellers with a handgun. For some reason, this works and the chopper is run aground. In Die Hard 4.0, as if responding directly to Bauer, McClane disposes of an enemy chopper by flying a police car into it.
24 Season 6: Jack’s first kill after his return from a Chinese prison occurs as he’s tied to a chair and being interrogated by terrorists. One of the terrorists get too close and Jack bites off a chunk of the dude’s neck, killing him instantly.
Die Hard 4.0: John offs the main baddie by shooting himself through the chest.
So who really is the bigger bad ass? In terms of catchphrases, McClane has the advantage of existing in a medium that allows adult language, and "Yippee-kay-yey, motherfucker" trounces any number of Jack’s "Dammit"s, emphatic and forceful as they may be. Meanwhile, Bauer has more memorable kills; the heart-punch, the vampire bite, and Season 3’s infamous wall-run-to-neck-break are just the tip of the iceberg for this guy.
Jack Bauer is easily the more well-trained of the two cowboys; John McClane’s charm is that he’s just an average cop who’s apparently unable to die. I think that a fight between these two would depend greatly on the setting, and their general emotional/physical states at the time. McClane would dominate any encounter set in a vertical structure with places you can fall from (e.g., stairwells, elevator shafts, partially-completed buildings, etc.), while Bauer’s inhuman aim would trounce McClane on the open street. In a bare-knuckle fistfight, meanwhile, it’d be all about who can gain a small advantage first. Neither man has problems fighting as dirty as possible, and although John has never bit into another man’s jugular before, he has chewed a couple of fingers off.
That said, the question of who the bigger bad-ass is doesn’t just boil down to who would win a no-holds-barred confrontation. Anyone who’s watched 24 for awhile will know that deep-down, Jack hates his job and only does it because nobody else is quite as good at it as he is. There are at least 3 separate occasions where he’s broken down and wept like a girl as a direct result of the various crimes he’s perpetrated in preserving the American way of life. (One time, he even pukes into a bush.)
John meanwhile, is forced into these situations by unfortunate circumstances, but proceeds to really revel in them while he’s there. One of the signature McClane flourishes is the little snicker he does after blowing up something suitably large or pummeling someone to death with his fists.
In this sense, John McClane is the bigger bad-ass, because he acknowledges his bad-ass stature. Sure he’s just a cop with some phenomenally bad timing, but throughout much of the Die Hard series, you get the distinct sense that he is thoroughly enjoying himself, every step of the way.
In writing this article, I spent quite a bit of time going over the wonderfully extensive Jack Bauer Kill Count, as well as the 24 Wiki. Unfortunately, there’s comparatively little online about John McClane, so for the Die Hard information, I instead resorted to spending a total of about 12 hours viewing and reviewing all 4 features. Any mistakes or misrepresentations present in the piece above are mine, and are not the responsibility of any of the sites I’ve linked to.