Why Breaking Bad’s Hank is the real John McClane

Ahead of the last few episodes of Breaking Bad season 5, we salute Hank Schrader, the TV equivalent of Die Hard's John McClane...

When John McClane got off a plane and destroyed half of Moscow in A Good Day To Die Hard earlier this year, it marked the latest stage in the protagonist’s transformation from heroic everyman cop to the world’s grumpiest superhero.

The John McClane in the original Die Hard – played to perfection by Bruce Willis – was a tough, sardonic yet engagingly human character. He may have been capable of taking on a building full of terrorists on his own and without the benefit of his shoes, but he still bled, grew tired and felt pain. More intimate moments, like the one where he sat on a ledge in a bathroom and picked shards of glass out of his feet helped to ground the movie in reality, so that when something truly outlandish did happen – such as an Indiana Jones-like swing from the roof of a building and through a window several floors below – we simply accepted it all as being part of the story.

But as the Die Hard franchise moved through the 90s and into the new millennium, the movies not only became more action-filled, but also saw John McClane gradually morph from a cop out of his depth to an indestructible action hero capable of surviving the fall from the wing of a fighter jet in Die Hard 4.0. In A Good Day To Die Hard, McClane doesn’t even do any actual police work – he just swears and kills people. In Russia. 

One year after the 2007 release of Die Hard 4.0, along came Vince Gilligan’s sublime AMC TV series, Breaking Bad. Like the Die Hard series, it’s about the transformation of an ordinary man into something monstrous: in this case, mild-mannered science teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston), whose affliction with cancer and growing medical bills prompts him to start up his own meth lab, setting him on a course for murder and deceit.

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What’s made Breaking Bad so relentlessly engrossing, from its first episode over five years ago to the present, is the quality of its supporting characters. Among them is Hank Schrader, Walt’s brother-in-law who also happens to be an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The strength of Breaking Bad’s writing is such that Hank grows from a fairly one-dimensional bit-player in the pilot episode to a fleshed-out and genuinely likeable character in his own right.

Over the course of the series to date, we’ve learned that his wife Marie is a kleptomaniac (a plot point introduced so subtly at first that it almost goes unnoticed). We’ve learned that he likes to brew his own beer in his garage, and that he enjoys this pastime so much, he even has special labels made up with his own face on them. We’ve seen him get into shoot-outs and bar fights, desperately try to hide his trauma after a bizarre encounter with a tortoise in the desert, and narrowly survive assassination. 

It’s occurred to us, in fact, that Hank, as he currently stands, is more like the John McClane we remember from the early Die Hard movies than the one in the two most recent sequels. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that Hank actually was John McClane in the 80s: a tough beat cop who, after successfully defeating several groups of terrorists, transferred to the Albuquerque branch of the DEA.

By now, he’s older, with a lot less hair, but is still equal parts tough and vulnerable. Actor Dean Norris even looks passably like a present-day Bruce Willis – though there are far more similarities between the characters than their appearance.

When we see Hank boisterously drinking, making crude jokes and talking about his affection for Shania Twain at barbecues, it’s easy to imagine the old John McClane doing precisely the same thing. Hank has the same mixture of strength, human frailty, humour and courage under fire: Breaking Bad may not be an action movie or a conventional TV thriller, but it’s still packed with some startlingly violent moments . Look at the episode where he engages in a vicious gunfight with deranged drug dealer Tuco, or how quick thinking he is during that tortoise encounter in El Paso. Or the bar fight he deliberately gets into in season three, or the way he manages to counter a deadly attack from those creepy Mexican hitmen, The Cousins.

Beneath his brash, jock exterior, Hank hides the nose of a detective and a remarkable ability to keep his head in a tense situation – just like the old John McClane. It’s a shame, in fact, that the writers of A Good Day To Die Hard didn’t watch a few episodes of Breaking Bad before writing their movie. 

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We’re not saying that the fifth Die Hard should have taken the form of a drama in Alberquerque, but perhaps a look at Hank, and how brilliantly written and performed he is, could have helped remind the writers and filmmakers at Fox how John McClane should sound and behave. Die Hard 5 could still have had plenty of action, but why not show McClane hanging out at a barbecue talking about Shania Twain, or making beer in his garage? It’s moments like those that make the character sing.

It helps that Dean Norris is as seasoned an actor as Bruce Willis, if not quite as famous. He’s been appearing in movies and TV shows since the mid-80s, and usually plays cops and military types, largely because of his imposing looks. But of all his many roles, Hank is arguably his finest.

It was recently said that Breaking Bad’s wonderfully greasy defence lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is getting his own spin-off series. For us, Hank Schrader’s equally deserving of one. After all, who wouldn’t want to see an entire series of Hank’s calamities, both in the DEA and at home? It could be like the Die Hard TV series we never had. As long as Hank never has to go to Moscow, we should be fine…

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