In Defence of… Al Powell’s Redemption
A friend and I decided long ago to live our lives by one rule. A rule we must abide by no matter the cost. On occasion it has proven difficult to follow the rule, but we struggle through and are ultimately rewarded. The rule is this: “If Die Hard is on TV we watch it”. It doesn’t matter how late it is on, or how early I have to be up the following morning. If it starts at midnight and I’ve got a five o’clock start, it doesn’t matter, I watch it. It doesn’t matter how much of the film has already aired. I’m flicking through the channels and see there’s forty five minutes of Die Hard left to watch, you can bet your ass I’m glued to my seat for those forty five minutes. So basically, I really love Die Hard, as does my friend. Which is why, during one of our many “You know what’s great? Die Hard? Yup” conversations I was extremely surprised to be told by my friend that he doesn’t care for Sgt. Al Powell’s big moment at the end of the film, where he shoots terrorist/thief/badass Karl and saves John McClane’s life.
This actually blew my mind. My mind was blown to the point that I didn’t actually respond, and instead just squinted in disbelief at this stranger I once thought I knew.
So I asked around and it turns out quite a few people have similar reactions to that scene. It seems most people who have an issue with the scene find the problem to be who it is that Al Powell kills. Karl is killed earlier in the film. John McClane beats him up and down, tells him “I’m gonna kill you! I’m gonna fucking cook you, and I’m gonna fucking eat you” then wraps a chain around his neck and tosses him off some stairs. The dude is dead, right? Gotta be. We even see him still hanging there later. Definitely dead. So the fact he turns up at the end still breathing comes across, to some, as a cheat. A lot of the people I asked say they’d have no problem with Al Powell’s big moment if it was any other terrorist. But other people I spoke to said the reason the moment didn’t work for them was because it was too overblown and cheesy. As Karl is knocked back by gunshot after gunshot the camera slowly pans up past Al Powell’s gun, the music swells, Karl drops, and the camera stops on Powell’s face. It’s as hero moment-y as hero moments get. And it is totally earned. Sgt. Al Powell has to get his moment of redemption in that way and by killing THAT exact terrorist.
“I shot a kid. He was 13 years old. Oh, it was dark, I couldn’t see him. He had a ray gun, looked real enough. You know, when you’re a rookie, they can teach you everything about being a cop except how to live with a mistake. Anyway, I just couldn’t bring myself to draw my gun on anybody again”
When we meet Sgt. Powell this is who he is, a cop who made a mistake and is struggling every day to live with it. But he’s still a cop. That hasn’t left him. And when he gets that fateful call over the radio to check out Nakatomi Plaza, he proves it again and again. When everyone else outside of Nakatomi is either inept or simply has no concern for McClane’s survival, Powell is there as the voice of reason. He is smarter than his superiors, constantly trying to tell them the way it is. He knows McClane’s a cop, despite little evidence to suggest so, because he recognises something in McClane that is also inside of himself. It’s just buried deeper in Powell. After an argument with the chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson about McClane’s blame or lack of in regards to the death of a hostage, he is told that he is dismissed. Powell’s response: “No, sir. You couldn’t drag me away.” He knows he needs to be there for McClane, to talk him through and to keep him sane. John McClane saves the day and saves the hostages, but it is Sgt. Al Powell that keeps McClane going and gets him out.
Die Hard is a film that heals its hero through violence. As did (and do) a lot of action movies. It is a trope some find problematic but for the purposes of this conversation what that says about those movies, and those that watch them, is irrelevant. It is simply how they work, and for Die Hard it works perfectly. At the start of the film John McClane is a man who is in danger of losing his wife. She moved out to L.A to pursue her career and John let her go because, honestly, he thought she’d fail and come running back to him. There is an arrogance to him, but not so much so that he isn’t willing to fly out there in an attempt to win her back. This being a movie of course he wins her back. But this being an action movie he doesn’t win her back by admitting his faults or apologising or really atoning in any heart felt way, but by killing a whole lot of dudes. That’s how he saves his marriage. Of course he loves you Holly, look how many people he killed for you. That’s how the film works. So for Sgt. Al Powell to be truly redeemed he also has to get his hands bloody. McClane had a whole film to prove his metal, strength, and courage but that’s because it’s his film. Powell is just a supporting character, he only gets one moment to really emphasise his redemption, so it has to really hit home. He can’t just shoot some random faceless bad guy because, so what, John just killed like twenty of them. It has to be someone of note, the worst, scariest, most dangerous of terrorists, and Powell has to save John McClane in the process. It has to be Karl. The one guy John McClane himself couldn’t put down, the one guy that just won’t die. That just won’t stop. And he’s got John McClane dead to rights.
That’s why the moment is so huge. That’s why the music swells and the camera slowly pans up to reveal who is on the other end of that gun. You want to call it overblown and cheesy? Fine, whatever, but it has to be that big. Al Powell shot a kid. It forced him off the streets and behind a desk. It stopped him being a cop. But when Karl the unkillable gets the drop on everyone, it is Sgt. Al Powell that stands up and does what he has to do. He draws the gun he was so afraid of drawing again and fires without hesitation. Because he never stopped being a cop. It’s just who he is. And when the smoke clears and he and John share that look, they are equals. Powell proves his metal, strength, and courage and he is redeemed.
Now you could argue that his actions throughout the film are enough to earn that redemption without the final shooting. And you wouldn’t be wrong. We as an audience don’t need to see him kill Karl to respect him. He had won our admiration long ago by simply being an all round stand up guy. As far as we are concerned he is forgiven for his past mistake. So take the final shooting out of the film. What happens to Al? He goes back to his desk job having earned McClane’s respect. He helped out a true blue hero cop and he feels good about doing so. But his opinion of himself hasn’t really changed. He is still the same guy. His arc never completes. So put the final shooting back in. He gets this cathartic moment where he pulls his gun, after so long of being afraid to do so, and it’s the right choice. He was wrong about himself. He made a mistake and he has to live with it, but he also has to move past it, and in that scene, in that moment where he fires on a genuine threat, he does. His regret no longer shackles him and he is free to be a cop again. The moment isn’t for us, as we already loved him, but for Sgt. Al Powell. He redeems himself in his own eyes, and that is why it’s essential. His arc resolves.
It is a big action movie moment in a big action movie and as far as I’m concerned it works brilliantly. Like every other moment in the film. I love that scene as much as every other second in that superb film and could happily go on about why for another thousand words, but I can’t, I have to go… Die Hard is on TV.