Good Example: Die Hard

by Jay Stringer

It’s easy to overlook certain things. We might remember a great film for the quotes, the quips or the big stunts. But these are all window dressing. Films are great because the hard work has been put in. DIE HARD is not a great film because of it’s famous quotes, explosions, or the roof-top jump; It’s a great film because it’s a well crafted story.

We know everything we need to know about McClane within the first two minutes. He’s a cop, he’s laconic, he’s stuck in his ways and he has a family. He’s not afraid to look ridiculous, and he’s fallible –given to us at first by the fact that he’s afraid of flying. That is a whole character given to us in two minutes with no prologue, no useless dialogue and no exposition.

Extend that to the first five minutes and we see almost everything we need to about the situation. We see the McClane family is in trouble, that they live on opposite coasts and that John would sleep in the spare room, but there’s hope. Holly is hoping he calls, even if she’s too cool to say it to anyone other than the housekeeper. Within ten minutes we know the whole back-story and, we also know that Holly is using her maiden name, which is the cause of more tension, and that their whole future rests on this Christmas Eve. Oh yeah, we also know that it’s Christmas Eve.

Some films would spend the first thirty minutes giving us all of that, in a variety of tense scenes. DIE HARD gets it to us in five minutes and then moves on to the next thing.

The film is full of cues that tell us what’s going on. The music evokes Christmas carols, but twisted into brassy and dark action music.  When the “terrorists” led by Alan Rickman, start to take the building, it’s done with almost no dialogue. No instructions are barked out in dodgy actions, there is no need to tell the audience that the building has been locked down nor that the computers have been hacked; we see it happen. When the phones are cut, we get to see it happen, and then there’s no need for a character to look anxiously off screen and say, “the phones are down!” These are the marks of an action film that treats its audience with respect.

We also get to see each of the bad guys’ characters through their actions, we get the charismatic leader, the unstable one, the meticulous one, and the loudmouthed computer geek.

I wrote last week about good ways to structure a mystery. One of the best, and simplest, ways is to direct the audience away from it. For instance, the first time you watch THE USUAL SUSPECTS, you are not asking, “who is Keyser Soze?” The question the films tricks us into asking is, “how is Keaton still alive?” DIE HARD does something similar. Without ever lying to us, the film convinces us that we are dealing with terrorists. But then their leader, Hans, is quoting classics. He teases us, “who ever said we were terrorists?” Through the film we get a gradual reveal of their master plan, until we see that the story is actually one huge bank robbery. Most films would hit us with that straight away; “Can Bruce Willis stop the most daring bank robbery ever?” DIE HARD has a little fun with getting us to that question. We also get to see that the stakes are real, Hans kills Mr Takagi without hesitation, and I remember jumping out of my seat the first time I saw that.

The film is set up to take place in the real world, and it sticks to those rules. Too many films expect us to accept ridiculous leaps of logic in the name of fun. DIE HARDgoes through each logical step one by one. “Why doesn’t McClane find a way to attract the police?” He tries, and the villains cancel it. “How can’t a highly trained squad of killers find one man in a locked building?” They do, often, and he gets hurt. “In such a hostage situation, wouldn’t the FBI turn up with big weapons?” Yes, that’s part of the plan.

There are some simple and effective character arcs that carry the story. We see McClane go from a fish out of water with a broken marriage, to a man risking everything for his wife, to a family man and hero. It’s the process of stripping everything away from him until he realizes what’s important. Each obstacle he is given is more dangerous and more immediate than the one before, giving him several chances in the film to give up. We see the cop, Al, go from washed up embarrassment to gun-toting hero. His is just as strong a journey as McClanes, we see him learning to trust his street-cop instincts again, standing up to his bosses and the FBI, and using a gun for the first time in twenty years.  The moment when Al shoots Karl is just one of many emotional payoffs throughout the film. It’s a testament to how well these characters are set up that we care about their victories; we laugh when Holly punches Thornburg, we’re tense when McClane faces off against Hans, and we‘re moved when Al earns his personal redemption with that last gunshot.

There’s also an interesting look at the role of the hero. Most films like to give a protagonist and make sure we, and the film, always knows he’s the guy to route for. It seems to me that the films that really stick with us, be it a DIE HARD, or THE DARK KNIGHT, do more than that. A hero risks nothing if he doesn’t rick the faith of the people he’s fighting for. Batman would rather be hated by the city he is saving than let it lose its spirit, and McClane is willing to be hated by the hostages and the police in the name of getting the job done.

These films are rarer than they should be. Action films too often see the set pieces as the route to success, rather than then window dressing. But the good news is that we will always have DIE HARD, no amount of poorly crafted action films can do anything to erase this one.

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