Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Structure of Die Hard

Spoilers:  Die Hard.

I recently watched the classic action movie Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) again.  This movie spawned dozens of imitators and became a pitch cliche ("it's Die Hard in a...").  Here's how the structure breaks down by the three act theory:

Main Character:  John McClane!

There are no real domino or prologue.

Catalyst:  The catalyst comes with the arrival of Hans Gruber and his gang of bad guys at Nakatomi Plaza.  Obviously this will give our hero a big problem.  The Main Tension is established.

Main Tension:  Will John be able to defeat Hans and save his wife?

Act One Turning Point:  The bad guys discover John is in the building when he pulls the fire alarm.  The Act One Turning Point is sometimes called "the point of no return."  Now that Hans knows John is loose in the building, they are not going to let him hide or walk away.

Midpoint:  The police arrive in force (because John throws a body out a window to get Al's attention).  This appears to be a high point at the time -- the cavalry has arrived! -- though it will turn out the police are not much help.  It also expands the story and gives the writers more material to keep Act Two going.

Act Two Turning Point:  Hans regains the detonators John had found and John's feet are cut up when he's forced to run across broken glass.  John has lost his leverage, he's wounded, and it seems now that nothing will keep Hans from succeeding.  From here things spiral downward -- Hans gets into the vault and John treats his wounds.  Hans figures out that Holly is John's wife.  All bad.

Twist/Epiphany:  John discovers why Hans wanted the detonators.  This allows him to save the hostages.

Resolution:  John rescues Holly and kills Hans.

One thing that struck me on this viewing, perhaps having just posted about want and need:  John's want is clear.  He wants to save his wife (and secondarily to defeat the terrorists).  But his need is less obvious.  At first glance he might not seem to have a character arc at all.  He's a rich character -- his marriage is in trouble and a lot of it's his fault.  But what does he need to learn/change about himself to succeed?

Then I got to the scene where John is pulling glass from his feet and talking to Al on the radio.  Fearing the worst, John asks Al to tell his wife, among other things, that "she's heard me say 'I love' you a thousand times but she's never heard me say 'I'm sorry.'"  That's his arc.  John needs to admit he was wrong to save his marriage.  His experience in this story causes him to value what's important in life.  It's a nice arc for an action movie because it's plausible in the scope of the story. 

We need those scenes even in action movies so that we care about the characters and what happens to them.  For a character like John McClane, he isn't going to reveal his emotions until he's pushed to the very edge -- which is why the scene falls where it does in the aftermath of the second act turning point.  If you watch, you'll see many such moments at that exact spot in movies.

Perhaps one of the reasons Die Hard is a classic.

1 comment:

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