Thoughts On: Die Hard
A New York cop stumbles upon a terrorist heist when visiting his estranged wife.
Ohhhh, this is a good film. Is it perfect? No. Is it a movie-masterpiece, an undeniable classic of the action genre? Yes. Will I watch it at any point in time and at a simple ask? Hell, yes. Why is this film so good? In short, it’s a coalition of exceptional technical screenwriting, great direction and air-tight editing. The reason why this film is so enjoyable comes down to tone and pacing. We are sucked into the film and dragged into a thrill ride because of great moments of character that punctuate the action set-pieces and moments of suspense. In other words, it’s because John McClain is such a likeable hero figure that we care about the bullets flying, bombs exploding, glass shattering. In the simplest terms, we want him to win and the screenwriters knows this. In knowing our investment, the screenwriters have the ability to manipulate us, to make us feel the glass slicing John’s feet open, the pounding in his chest as he throws himself off buildings, his overwhelming desperation as his wife dangles above certain death. For this manipulation, Die Hard is a great cinematic experience. Moreover, it is a great lesson in, as mentioned, technical screenwriting. Die Hard is an archetypal action film because of the way it handles both character and time. The technical details of this have been mapped out in a plethora of screenwriting books, and for this reason the ‘Die Hard paradigm’ has been bastardised. Moreover, because technical screenwriting is a class of screenwriting that can be, to a certain extent, mapped out and turned into a beat sheet, there is the implication that these films can be reproduced. This is why we see them time and time again. As a weak attempt to ensure successful movies, studios, filmmakers and screenwriters try to replicate what makes films such as Die Hard great. For this reason, I want to hint at aspects of Die Hard that make it so good, but in a way that is hopefully ambiguous enough so that it doesn’t imply that you only need to do this, that, that, this and then that to write a good film. I say this in an attempt to celebrate this film without directly attributing it to a plethora of movies that came before and after it – some good, many bad.
Here we have a bunch of films that are much like Die Hard that aren’t bad – not at all. The first thing to notice is that many of these films are older than Die Hard which implies that its archetypal stature isn’t indicative of originality – just of prominence. As is referenced in the film, Die Hard has its roots in classical westerns and bloody action pictures of the 80s. High Noon and John Wayne pictures account, in large part, for the inspiration of McClain’s character. He is the manly man, the hero that will put all on the line for honour, what is right and the fair maiden. We see this idea in Speed, Mad Max, The Raid and Lethal Weapon too. The most interesting example is Mad Max: Fury Road. Whilst the fair maidens aren’t being saved by the manly man in this film, they are be saved by, for lack of a better term, a manly woman. (Yes, that’s a sexist attribution, but what can you do?). What Mad Max: Fury Road says about this idea of a hero is that it’s all about fighting for the underdog and those you care about. In such, actions films are quite romantic in their appeal to collectivism, family and the group. Whilst Gosling isn’t running through rain to sweep some ditsy broad off of her feet, Reeves, Willis or Theron are hauling ass through a storm of bullets, fire and shrapnel to save their loved one, romantic interest or group. Another key and expressive example of this can be seen in both Lethal Weapon and The Raid. We aren’t seeing a traditionally romantic fight for ‘love’ in these films as it’s not a man chasing the woman, but two buddies or brothers fighting together. However, all of these variations of a hero’s goal are ultimately there to appeal to an audience’s selfish biases. This isn’t a critique of the audience, just a recognition that we like those who’d be there for us and be willing to save our useless asses. This selfish bias is then an idea of togetherness, you helping me, collective goods and self-sacrifice. It’s precisely this that lies at the core of the classic western heroes John Wayne is often seen playing. Selfish biases, collectiveness and self-sacrifice are what allow us to sympathise with them. However, there is a tough veneer plastered over this mushy romantic core. It is, quite simply: YIPPIE KI-YAY MOTHERFUCKER! It’s the brash flippancy of the action cowboy that can tell his enemy to suck his dick and fuck off before breaking his arm or putting a bullet through his brain that puts the bow on his bulging package. This hardness wraps up the mushy romanticism as to follow a much more universal idea of collectiveness. People, groups, communities, countries can’t just be loving, self-sacrificing and nice. There must be a self-respect, a will to protect oneself alongside this as to ensure sovereignty, to make sure you aren’t walked over. This is what we see in heroes: self-sacrifice and self-respect.
Having picked up on the main aspects of John McClain’s character as an archtype we have to delve into more intricate details. There are two main approaches to characterising a person in a story. One is giving them a life, another is giving them traits. To characterise a figure by giving them a life, you say that they are a 30-year-old man that has a wife, kids, is a New York cop, such and so on. What you are doing is contextualising them as a character; giving them a place in the world that we can understand and believe in. The second approach to characterisation doesn’t rely on a wider context. To give your character traits, you simply have to make them a strong personality. In such, what you are doing is having them repeat certain actions so that the audience comes to understand and predict their behavioural patterns. The illusion then conjured is the audience believing that they know this fictional person like they would a real one. Such is the crucial goal of both techniques. By giving a character traits and a life you are trying to convince the audience that they are a real person that they can like, understand and sympathise with. John McClain’s characterisation is heavy on the ‘giving a life’ approach. This works very well, but is a little cliched at times. Moreover, this approach to characterisation is done with almost all characters to a borderline gimmicky and contrived extent. We are told who each person is, what their pasts are, who they live with, who they live for, ect. This can be an effective way of implying that a character is a real person, but it can come off as little more than simple and vacuous exposition. This happens at points throughout Die Hard. But, to balance this expository kind of characterisation, screenwriters will appeal to traits. These moments of characterisation are played between the audience and character and so appeal to a philsophy of pure cinema (showing things, not telling them). The biggest fault of Die Hard is that there’s an unbalance between us knowing who John lives for, loves and so on and who he actually is moment to moment. We hear the yippie ki-yays, we see him refuse to give up, but Willis’ performance relies more on dialogue than it does nuance and smaller actions. My favourite character of all time is, without a doubt…
The reason why I love Amélie comes down to Jeunet’s succinct portrayal of his main character through her past as well as her present (in terms of her traits and how she behaves). Because of this, Amélie is the best example of a character written with balance, so for further details on how to execute this concept I can only recommend watching this film.
Coming back to Die Hard, we see the characterisation of John McClain to be the most essential (yet imperfect) aspect of the movie because of its links to old westerns and the manner in which they inform his character both in terms of the life he lives and the way he behaves. The commentary of the film is then, in part, about what the John Wayne archetype of cinema gives us: a manner of contextualising a character through a tough way of living that is often dangerous and to do with helping others (being a cop) as well as conveying traits that somewhat mask a romantic internal (shooting people and yippi ki-yay motherfucker – all to save a loved one). These are the fundamentals of John McClain’s character. But, on more broader and conceptual terms, to produce great characters in respect to technical screenwriting, you only need to recognise ideas of collectiveness as well as trait-based and life-based characterisation. It’s these ideas that are the crux of what McClain as a character produced through technical screenwriting teaches.
On a side-note, I just want to pick up on ‘technical screenwriting’ as a concept quickly. To define and distinguish the term, technical screenwriting is a form of writing that relies on an almost mathematical setting of events. These events are often called beats and what they do is give your movie a strong sense of structure. So, not only do they then provide vivid character arcs like those seen in The Matrix or Star Wars, but they facilitate very succinct plots like those seen in Back To The Future or High Noon. A good example of what these beats are can be seen in Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat. His beat sheet is as follows…
1. Opening Image (1)
2. Theme Stated (5)
3. Set-up (1-10)
4. Catalyst (12)
5. Debate (12-25)
6. Break into Two (25)
7. B Story (30)
8. Fun and Games (30-55)
9. Midpoint (55)
10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75)
11. All Is Lost (75)
12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)
13. Break into Three (85)
14. Finale (85-110)
15. Final Image (110)
**The numbers in parenthesis are page numbers
I won’t delve into detail on this beat sheet here, just use it as an example of what goes into this kind of writing. All in all, technical screenwriting encompasses a basic paradigm of how movies feel and are paced and so is an appeal to formula. However, in opposition to this we have films by the likes of Tarkovsky, Bergman, Kubrick and Lynch. It’s films such as The Mirror, Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eraserhead that can’t be put down onto a beat sheet and so aren’t the products of technical scripts. I won’t then infer that beat sheets and films such as Die Hard that can fit into their paradigm are terrible. Yes, the likes of Die Hard aren’t as good as 2001 (especially to a pretentious cinefile) but, they have their merits and we can all sit down and enjoy them. However, putting the side note to rest, I’ll end by saying that technical screenwriting is a formulaic approach to filmmaking. The two major parts of this, as mentioned, are character and plot. We’ve already delved into the some of the technical aspects of Die Hard’s characterisation, so let’s get into its plot.
A huge part of why this film works so well has a lot to do with a few films reference beforehand…
All of these films elaborate on the archetypal plotting and pacing of Die Hard. They each hold incredibly confined plots that incorporate violence and suspense into their narratives. High Noon is (an explicitly referenced) example of this. This film is dictated by clocks on the wall and so provides the illusion of the film playing out in real time. This is where all tension in the film derives from. It’s because Will (Gary Cooper’s character) has only an hour before he’s attacked by a band of old enemies that we feel the sheer momentum of events and the conflicts filling up each second. This is a huge element of films with confined plots such as Die Hard, but is rarely applied so directly. Instead of having a clock on the wall to push the movie toward a climax, action films often imply high stakes that need to be quashed – and quick. In Die Hard, we know its John’s mission to defeat the terrorists before they hack into vault, before many people are killed, before his identity is given up, before the terrorists out-smart him. All of these temporal constraints force John to act. We know he hasn’t got time to hang around on the roof nor the vents or elevator shaft. He has to keep moving and so does the plot. The same thing can be said with a plethora of action films, key examples being First Blood, Mad Max and The Raid. All characters in these films have very clear conflicts and goals. They also have very little time to overcome them. However, just like Die Hard, there isn’t always a clock on the wall. It’s desperation and a search for an end that really drives these films forward. This, like having hard characters, appeals to a larger, more universal idea. This idea lies in action itself. The main draw and entertaining factor of actions films, coming from a personal perspective, is of truth. Whilst The Raid isn’t an MMA fight, boxing match or brawl, it does imply the same physical test on an emotional level. The same may be said for First Blood. Instead of Rambo putting up with his internal conflicts by having a cry and maybe suing a few people, he gets out a gun, knife and motor cycle and decides to fuck an entire town up. Whilst this isn’t very civilised, the implied philosophy of action films is of… well…. action. The likes of Die Hard and Rambo are, to me, a wonderful fuck you to Hamlet and his To Be Or Not To Be. There is no questions when it comes to combat, you have a goal and you run after it. This feeds into the second major aspect of the technically constructed narrative of Die Hard.
We’ve touched on this before, but another element of Die Hard’s plotting and pacing it falls under the concept of The Infinite Story. This idea is little more than the theoretical realisation that all stories can go on forever. Whilst Die Hard has a beginning and an end that fits into one night, the screenwriters could have chronicled how John’s marriage broke down. Moreover, they could have shown us how he became a cop, how he met his wife, what his childhood was like, who his parents were, where they came from, ect. In truth, the screenwriter’s could have made a million films about John McMclain that stretched infinitely into his past and future. The evidence for this is quite simply…
The irony of the plethora of Die Hard films, however, is in how confined and finite the first was. The success and greatness of the original Die Hard was in large part down to the fact that the screenwriters fought against the idea of the infinite story instead of embracing it. To clarify, by having such a distinct beginning and end, such a strong sense of action and goals, the screenwriters give an audience a sense of completion and fulfillment by the time they’ve traversed the narrative A to B. When we see how John has change, that he and his wife are in a better place in their relationship, that everyone is safe and are better people because of this night, we can walk away from the movie feeling that everything is wrapped up and we were given a good 2 hour piece of entertainment. The same cannot be said for The Mirror, Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eraserhead in respect to confined plots. These films lean on infinite stories as they transcend their narrative by being so ambiguous and thematically rich. This is what makes the films so great, but also inaccessible to many. What this says about Die Hard is that because of its control over story, it is succinct and fulfilling, it is a movie-masterpiece.
That said, Die Hard is a ultimately a kick-ass film because of the way character interacts with plot. Because John McClain is a classical hero, both romantic and hardened, his character arc from a cop in a bad relationship to a conqueror of terrorists who only wanted to save his wife is one that interweaves with the barreling plot. It’s because of his internalised philosophy of collectiveness and action that the plot (which showcases this) is so effective. Both plot and character work through symbiotic means to emotionally resonate with the audience, to say that good guys win, that you should go hard or go home, that you should stick to your guns, your own terms, your own principals, morality, ethics and beliefs. It’s through the technically structured narrative that this can come through – all because of its finite nature and explicit means to entertain. Ultimately, Die Hard is such a great example of technical filmmaking, an archetype of it, because screenwriter, editor and director appeal to this idea and force it into fruition.
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