What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Three

Die HardSo I’ve been meaning to write the last three Die Hard posts for a couple of months now, transforming my raw notes into something readable, but my life was basically mugged by putting together the GenreCon program, then chairing panels at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, then coping with the fact that GenreCon’s attendance kinda exploded, then actually running the con, then going to the UK, then watching my deadlines go boom, then moving then, then…

Well, shit, I guess I’m out of excuses, and it’s time to finish this series off, albeit nearly three quarters of a year after it started.

WHAT WRITERS OUGHT TO KNOW ABOUT DIE HARD, PART THREE

Since it’s been a while, it might be worth going back to taking a refresher look at the posts regarding Die Hard’s Ongoing Metaphors and my notes breaking down The First Act. In fact, even if you remember the second post, go back anyway. I adore first acts. They’re some of the busiest places in any story, driven by a ruthless efficiency ’cause they have to set everything up in a very short space of time.

Today we start looking at the Second Act, whereupon we need to tackle one of the fundamental lies of the Three Act Structure – IT HAS FOUR FUCKING PARTS. The first act is all set-up, the last act is all climax and dénouement, and the middle-act is this two-step journey that is all about building up to a critical mid-point then moving away from it. Any book on structure worth it’s salt will break it down like that too – journey to the midpoint, journey away from the midpoint, third act. Yet we stick with the Three Act Structure ’cause writers are stubborn and in love with the number three. Fuckers.

Rather than confuse everyone and fucking with the numerology of the three-act structure, I’m just going to talk about the way Die Hard handles Act Two, Part One. Bear with me.

ACT TWO, PART ONE – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

So, to recap: narrative is a structural system, and one that’s pretty damn easy to hack once you have an understanding of how it works. The First Act is full of complexities that need exploring, but the second act is much less complex. It’s where all the stuff we traditionally think of as “the story” starts happening, ’cause we get to stop paying setting the internal conflict of our protagonist and start distracting the audience with, well, “terrorists” with machineguns.

Act Two, Part One generally has much fewer beats you need to hit than the opening act, since your main job at this point is basically throwing a series of try->fail cycles at your protagonist. It’s also harder to write, ’cause it’s the point where the lack of structure is replaced by a need to keep escalating the narrative tension while simultaneously distracting the audience with subplots.

Or, in the hands of scriptwriters of lesser skill than the team behind Die Hard, the point where you distract the audience with a series of pointless shit they need to wade through until the story gets interesting again.

To recap, let me list the absolute key scenes/movements that mark the major story beats in your first act:

  • Establishing the World
  • Introducing the Narrative Conflict
  • Having the Protagonist Choose Not to Engage
  • Introducing Some Kind of Object Lesson/Mentor
  • Break the Protagonist Out of Their Reluctance/Kick off the Second Act with a Bang

In contrast, here’s the list of key scenes/movements that mark the major beats in the first half of your second act:

  • The Mid-Point of the Story

Seriously, that’s it. After hitting five separate narrative movements in the first act, you’re basically filling in time before you reach the mid-point of the story, where you take the protagonist to a very dark place (or, if you’re feeling nicer than the universe is to John McClane, a very happy place) and teach them an important lesson that will change everything forever.

And this is the real key of the mid-point – it’s a narrative pivot. It gives the protagonist all the information and tools they need to know in order to resolve their primary internal conflict, then makes it impossible to immediately utilize those tools. It spins the action off in a new direction. It changes things in an interesting way and gives the story a whole new dynamic.

Everything else that happens in this act leading up to that midpoint is just setting up the sub-stories – there’s usually more than one – and giving the viewer enough signifiers to suggest that there’s a whole bunch of secondary characters/antagonists/problems that have their own narrative arcs under way.

The trick with these sub-plots is that they’re all going to tie into your primary plot in some way,, and flesh out the kinds of conflicts you’re exploring there. Scriptwriting guru Blake Snyder sums the first act up as the presentation of the thesis, and the second act (both parts of it) as a chance to explore the anti-thesis.

The way Die Hard does this is by laying in subplot after subplot, which create the complications that keeps thing from being resolved too easily. With that in mind, I’m going to start looking at the subplots that are kicked off and developed in this part of the film, leading up to the major mid-point action where John McClane’s life is changed forever.Once again, the structure tends to happen in narrative movements – sequences of scenes that built to a specific point and either set-up or advance a subplot in a major way.

Once again, I’ll throw in the time-codes for those who are playing along at home.

Strap yourselves in, ’cause this is going to be a long one.

SECOND ACT MOVEMENTS: INTRODUCING THE SUBPLOTS

SUBPLOT ONE: WHY ARE THERE TERRORISTS IN NAKATOMI TOWERS? (23:00 – 32:45)

So we left the end of Act One with Hans and his “terrorist” pals invading the office Christmas party, while a barefoot John McClane disappears up a stairwell. We get a few scenes of John walking through the partially constructed upper levels of the tower after making his escape, trying to make phone calls and generally discovering how screwed he is. Basically, reinforcing that shit has gotten real.

Then we get to the real meat of the films major subplot: Hans and crew are here, doing evil, and they need to be stopped. And because the film has concerned itself with setting up the plot about John and Holly’s marriage for the first twenty minutes, it puts some real effort into this.

Our focus is shifted away from John for a prolonged period for the first time since the film started, and we are given a whole bunch of info about Hans and crew: that they’re educated (pay attention to early dialogue); that they’ve planned well (look at how well Hans has researched his first victim, Mr Takagi); that they’re politely evil (Hans takes great care to be polite to his victim and compliment him about clothing/work/etc).

And while this film is all about introducing Hans, there are little flashes of camera work where we’re given an insight into some of the other characters:

  • We got a two-second shot of Karl, the second-in-command among the terrorists, who will later get his own subplot with John and stands out because he’s the only terrorist who moves in this scene apart from Hans. Everyone else just stands there, looking armed and European.
  • We get a moment where Ellis backs away from Hans as the terrorist leader walks past, reaffirming the hints we had that Ellis is a chickenshit asshole back in act one and letting us know that he’s not going to be one of the faceless crowd of victims.
  • We get the momentary stare between Holly and Hans when Takagi identifies himself, a precursor to the fact that she will be the adversary who stands up to Hans on the hostage side of things.

All of this takes, like, six seconds, but it’s genius. This film, I swear to god, it does the little things so fucking well. There are flashes back to John every now and then, reminding us that he’s there, but this are on par with the little flashes to the terrorist truck that occurred through the first act. A reminder that John is there, doing stuff, now that the film is rolling out the welcome mat for Hans.

These flashes to John aren’t really about advancing the story. What these flashes do really well, though, is add to the mystery – right after we get another showcase of Hans as an educated, well-off chap when he comments on the quality of Takagi’s suit, we cut to a shot of John spotting the terrorists moving around some heavy-duty military hardware. It up the mystery and the stakes. What the fuck is this well-dressed, educated, English mother-fucker doing here? When Takagi asks what kind of terrorist he is, Hans laughs the idea off without providing an answer.

Hans is all about the contrasts and the mystery. He makes Alexander the Great references and talks about reading Forbes, then shoots Takagi in cold blood. He’s also the perfect foil for John – while McClane struggles to talk to the people in his life, from his fellow travelers to his limo driver to his wife – Hans is perfectly capable of holding a conversation about all the minutia of Holly’s big-business world.

We get a little over seven minutes of Hans at the start of the second act, right up until he kills Takagi and goes about getting his money “the hard way.” This affirms him as a big deal – spending this long away from the protagonist is rare outside of an ensemble film – and it makes it clear that the tenor of the film has changed. We’re no longer in feel-good reconciliation land where John and Holly work out (or fail to work out) their differences; we have a new player on the board and he’s a bad, bad man.

One of the things that makes a great antagonist is their thorough belief that they are the good buy in their own story. I don’t know that you can argue this is true of Hans – he’s too self-aware – but that seven minute period we’ve just spent getting to know him basically serves as the act one for his story. He gets a hint of what’s coming to fuck-up his carefully laid plans when John makes a noise, but dismisses it when a quick search reveals nothing.While John’s internal journey is all about learning not to be a macho jerk so he can get back together with his wife, Hans has his own internal journey – and it largely revolves around being so convinced of his own genius that he doesn’t take threats seriously until they’re too late.

But that’s for future scenes. We get a little more information about Hans long-term goal and the vault – nearly impregnable, with a seventh lock the terrorists tech-guy can’t break – effectively presenting Hans with the impossible goal right as his own little “act one” wraps up. We have the basics of Han’s plot in a nutshell: the terrorists want to get into the high-tech, impregnable vault. We also have a mystery to keep us interested: who the hell are these guys and why do they want the vault so badly?

SUBPLOT TWO: THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT (32:34 – 40:00)

We move into the second major sub-plot that’ll be driving the second act – John fucking with the terrorists plans and generally serving as the fly in the ointment.

This is really the meat of the story – the point where we get introduced to the Try-Fail cycle. In essence, stories just repeat the same pattern over and over again – the character tries something to resolve their problem, but it doesn’t work. The next thing they try escalates things, but it too fails. This continues on for a while, until something finally succeeds.

John’s already started this when he tried to phone, but he sticks with the simple solutions as we move into the meaty part of this subplot – he get a lighter to the sprinkler system, hoping to get the fire department out. A solid plan, but the terrorists are ahead of him there. They cut things off and send out a guy with a machine-gun to take care of the problem.

John tried something. It failed. He’ll need to up his game next time he tries to get some attention.

Incidentally, the guy Hans’ sends out? A blond, glasses-wearing German named Tony, who happens to be the younger brother of the long-haired blonde, Karl, who got some focus in the previous movement. He goes searching for John, but John ambushes him, leading to one of the films exchanges that are pitch-perfect.

“You wont hurt me,” Tony says. “There are rules for policemen.”

“Yeah, that’s what my captain keeps telling me,” John replies, ever the rebel cop who struggling with the constraints of the world around him. It’s a nice call-back to act one, reminding us that despite all the minutes we’ve spent on Hans and his crew, this film is still about John McClane figuring out who he is and how he can get back together with his wife. It’s also a important thing to keep in mind as we go into the mid-point, ’cause being the rebel cop is a big part of what makes John and insufferable ass to his wife.

He tries to knock Tony out – an important thing to note, since John doesn’t start out trying to kill people – but they get into a fight, which ends when they tumble down the stairs. John’s killed his first bad guy and acquired the gun.This is good guy 101; John can talk the talk of being a maverick cop and we need a dead bad guy for the story to advance, but the audience likes him more when he doesn’t kill someone in cold blood.

If only future Die Hard films remembered this lesson. Or, you know, any of the lessons that can come from pulling apart Die Hard’s subplots.

*Sighs* *Glares at Die Hard 4 and 5*

Anyway, at 36:28 the film cuts back to Theo, the terrorist’s tech guy, hacking into the vault with Takagi’s details and cutting into the vault with a drill. It’s less than ten seconds long, but it serves an important purpose – refreshing our memory of that first sub-plot beat right before John unpacks Tony’s bag trying to answer the central question of the first subplot – who are these guys?

When he doesn’t get any reasonable answers, he decides to send a message via the building’s elevator: a dead Tony seated on a stool, with a sign on his chest that says: Now I have a Machinegun. Ho. ho. Ho.

It arrives just as Hans is threatening his hostages, making it very clear that nothing is going to go well for Hans tonight.And so our second sub-plot is introduced and ends up mirroring the first – with Hans and his crew trying to figure out is killing their guys, just like John is trying to figure out who the terrorists are.

Now that we’ve got the big main plot established (John learning to be a better human being and reconciling with his wife) and the major subplots are set up with long movements, we get to some of the lesser sub-plots that thread through the movie.

THE MINOR SUBPLOTS

Not all subplots are created equal. Once you’ve got your main plot and the one-or-two major subplots, there’s usually a series of minor subplots that get introduced. They get less time, ’cause they focus on the minor characters, and basically, at this point, you start to see the subplots stacking up one-another. Established with quick ten or twenty-second grabs that get their just by playing off the major subplots that have taken up the bulk of the second act thus far.

The neat thing about Die Hard is the way all its subplots are basically natural progressions of one another. Just as the first subplot is complication for John’s main storyline, and the second subplot is a complication for the first, subplots three, four and five are now complicating elements getting in the way of otherwise “easy” solutions to the major sub-plot arcs

SUBPLOT THREE: THE BUILDING IS AGAINST ME (Starts: 39:00 – 40:50)

We hit subplot three, where John is listening in on the terrorists from his hiding place on top of the elevator, only to have it start moving on him. It’s a little thing, less than a minute over, but the film calls back to it again and again – the building itself is against John, and not just because the terrorists control it.

Basically, the unfinished terrain of the building is going to inconvenience the hell out of John in the second act, but he’s going to learn things from it that will help him out in the second half of the film.

SUBPLOT FOUR: TELL KARL HIS BROTHER IS DEAD (Starts: 40:50 – 41:10)

At the 41 minute mark we learn why Karl has been given the little visual queues that make him stand out in the early parts of the second act – John has just killed his younger brother, and Karl is dead-set on getting revenge. Hans is trying to control him – he just wants the situation taken care of without affecting the plan – but Karl is an angry, angry German chap who really wants John’s blood now.

SUBPLOT FIVE: HOLLY ISN’T “BUSINESS” (41:11 – 41:40)

SUBPLOT SIX: ELLIS IS A DICKHEAD (41:11 – 41.40)

We then get a double-whammy – Holly and Ellis are watching the argument between Hans and Karl take place, and they figure out that John is the likely ’cause. Both these characters are on their own personal arc, just as John is, and we get an insight into those subplots as well.

Holly sees that John is alive and is immediately relieved; Ellis immediately thinks that John is going to get all of them killed.

“John’s doing his job,” Holly argues, the first time we’ve seen her show that aspect of his life some respect since the film began. This arc is as much about teaching Holly that she still loves her husband as the rest of the film is focused on breaking John of his macho bullshit.

Technically both these subplots started in act one, which is why they’re able to be dealt with so quickly here.

SECOND ACT MOVEMENTS: ADVANCING SUBPLOTS

Having introduced a whole bunch of major and minor subplots in their own movements, the film now start moving things forward in a series of narrative movements that will advance one or ore of the subplots while introducing one final major subplot to the mix.It mixes this up by throwing out a few extra  subplots, just to keep things spicy (generally speaking, a film will run about 6 or 7 subplots; Die Hard goes a little overboard, but it’s very confident in its presentation)

MOVEMENT: MAYDAY! MAYDAY (41:40- 43:40)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Four

The film sees John make his way to the roof, trying to raise contacts on the radio he stole from poor dead Tony. Once again we see the Try-Fail cycle in action, only this time the fail advances a couple of our subplots – alerting Hans and Karl to John’s presence, and letting them know where he is.

Once again we’re reminded of John’s inability to get along with people in authority, as the local dispatch more or less dismisses his reports of terrorist activity. We get to see multiple subplots advance, as it touches on both John disrupting the terrorist plans and Hans really wanting to get revenge for his brother’s death.

SUBPLOT SEVEN: HELLO SERGEANT AL (43:30 – 44:28)

The film’s seventh subplot revolves around Al, the local cop whose sent out to investigate what’s going on at Nakatomi. Like Hans, he’s introduced to the film as a contrasting character to John McClane, only in Al’s case he’s an overweight desk cop with a pregnant wife at home. You know, unlike McClane, who has a list of scumbags to catch as long as his arm and a wife who went to the far side of the country without him.

Anyway, we meet him in Seven-Eleven, buying a terrifying amount of junk food, before he’s sent out to the Tower to investigate what’s going on. What’s important about this scene is what occurs in the final seconds – every other member of the LA police force John deals with is basically presented as incompetent and a fuck-up. It’s highlighted in the scenes just prior to this, when the dispatch ignores John’s warning. Al isn’t like that. He will have his moments of getting things wrong, but ultimately he’s the LA analogue of John McClane, an everyman who can be trusted to do the right thing when guided by his street-smarts and instinct.

Thus, it’s telling that before he heads to Nakatomi he takes a look at the building from a distance, and he sees the flash of gunfire on the roof. He’s the first local to realise there’s something bad going on…and if only he listened to his instincts (which is the fatal flaw Al’s grappling with, just as John is grappling with his own internal struggle), he could do a lot more to help John out.

Again, this isn’t a major subplot, so it’s given a short, sharp scene to kick things off.

MOVEMENT: GUNFIGHT ON THE ROOF/INTO THE DUCTS (43:40 – 50:30)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Three, Subplot Four

And so we get into the section of the film that people are probably remembering when they write Die Hard off as a dumb action movie. The running gunfight takes place on the roof – John versus a bunch of Hans’ thugs, including Karl who methodically stalks John while everyone else is running around with their machine guns on full auto. John takes cover, fires back. Karl looks dangerous ’cause he’s being methodical, and eventually John gets cornered and has to escape into the air vents.

First thing he encounters – a big fucking fan, ’cause THE BUILDING IS AGAINST ME – but he sneaks his way through and gets away just as Karl and co start opening fire.

It’s a temporary respite – Karl and co quickly figure out he’s found his way into the elevator shafts – and we get some conflict between Karl and Hans when it’s revealed that they can lock down the elevator and trap John there. Karl turns off the radio – he isn’t going to be content with “trapping” John after the death of his brother.

Meanwhile, John escapes into the air ducts, in what’s one of the movies most iconic images, and we get the scene that’s been riffed on so many times that it’s become a cliche – Karl shooting up the ducts, then testing them to find John – only this time Hans manages to assert control over the situation moments before Karl would have found John.

It’s important to note that Karl was on the verge of succeeding here; Hans calls him off. That’s ’cause Han’s internal flaw, as a character, is his faith in his own intelligence and planning. He can’t conceive of someone disrupting things to the point that John does, therefore he isn’t willing to risk things yet.

Man, he’s going to pay for that. If only he listened to Karl more…

MOVEMENT: THE DRIVE BY (50:30 – 55:30)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Three, Subplot Seven

Al shows up at Nakatomi in his patrol car – something that’s perceived as being a far greater threat than John. He phones through to dispatch, tells them nothing seems to be up, and both John and Hans focus their attention on what happens next.

Al goes in to talk to the terrorist playing security guard in the lobby, Karl and his team join the snipers watching over things from the windows, John finds his way to a window upstairs and starts trying to smash a window so he can get a warning to Al and call in the cavalry.

Naturally, ’cause this is Die Hard, it leads to a desperate fire-fight between John and two of Hans’ flunkies while Al is deciding there’s nothing worth seeing. When it looks like Al is leaving, John gets his attention by dropping a body through the window.

The terrorists open fire and Al backs away like he’s driving through a warzone, all-to-aware that there’s something going on. We get a brief glimpse of Argyle, the limo driver from act one, oblivious to what’s going on as he grooves to hip-hop. Technically you could argue this is a subplot unto itself, but it’s really more of a running joke that pays off near the climax, so I’ve not really recorded it as such.

Al crashes his car and calls in assistance; the cavalry is finally on its way.

SUBPLOT EIGHT: NEVER TRUST THE PRESS (55:30 – 55:50)

We’re running towards the mid-point of the film, so we get another subplot started when the film cuts to Richard Thornburg, asshole journalist and all-round despicable prick. He’s in the process of lying to some woman about being able to get reservations when he overhears Al’s call, and he’s immediately on the case.

HEADING INTO THE MIDPOINT

MOVEMENT: THE COPS ARRIVE (55:50 – 58:20)
ADVANCES: SUBPLOT ONE, SUBPLOT TWO, SUBPLOT SIX

Suddenly the world around Nakatomi towers is filed with cop cars and sirens. We get a quick reminder that Ellis is a prick (“Never thought I’d be pleased to hear that sound”) before Hans Gruber asserts his control over the situation. In fact, he suggest that this is all part of the plan, which once again reminds us we have no idea who he really is and what he wants with the vault.

Then, mid-speech, he’s interrupted by his radio and we get one of those moments that can make or break a film – the first actual confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, and the mid-point of the story where the narrative circumstances change.

The cop cars are the first clue that we’re playing by a new set of rules in the second half of the film; suddenly McClane has back-up out there, which gives him renewed confidence. He responds by calling Hans on the radio and getting in his face, a moment of triumph. John, you see, think’s he’s won. The cops are here. The cavalry. It’s like he’s forgotten his relationship with authority figures.

Playing this scene out by radio is genius, ’cause you get to have your cake and eat it two. The first meeting between protagonist and antagonist is always rich with drama, but keeping the two apart and unable to see each other means they get to replay this beat later in the film when they meet in the flesh.

We also get our first major advancement of the first subplot when John finds the C4 and the detonators among the bags of the terrorists he killed in the first scene. More questions we don’t know the answer to, but also a major advancement on John’s status as Fly in the Ointment to Hans’ plan – without the detonators and C4, he can’t get into the vault. Suddenly John is no longer an irritation, he’s an active problem that needs to be solved.

There is an exchange about cowboys – a neat nod to the fact that this is, essentially, a Western narrative in terms of its major beats, it just stripped away all of the things that would ordinarily make us think “Western.” John is a stranger who rides into town and disrupts the plans of the local banditos, trusting in his own sense of justice and ability with a gun.

MOVEMENT: THORNBURG IS AN ASSHOLE (58:20 – 59:09)
ADVANCES: Subplot Eight.

We get a quick twenty-second grab of Richard Thornburg, asshole reporter, arguing with his producer. He thinks there’s a big story at Nakatomi and he can get the jump on things. His producer disagrees. Mostly, this scene is all about letting us know that everyone Thornburg works with thinks he’s an asshole. He’s going to serve some major plot purpose later, but for the moment the film is just making sure that we really, really hate him.

MOVEMENT: “CALL ME ROY” (59:09 – 61:40)
Advances: Subplot One, Subplot Two, Subplot Seven

Karl and his boys rush back to the offices to report to Hans about how badly John having the detonators will screw them. Hans checks in with his guy on the vault, checking on the time. Realises that there is now a major problem, which changes the tenor of subplot two in a big way; John is fucking with The Plan.

Al tries to radio John, but the terrorists here. John and Al start a conversation about what’s going on; Hans is still clinging to the idea that this isn’t a big deal – John isn’t yet a threat, ’cause he’s not FBI – but we come back to the detonators being a big deal yet again, pushing the mystery of exactly who Hans is and what his crew is doing here.

John finishes reporting in, settles in with a cigarette to relax for the first time since the second act started.  He seriously thinks everything is going to be okay now. ‘Cause he can’t see the middle of the film coming up on him, turning everything on its head.

MOVEMENT: NOTHING GOOD COMES FROM AUTHORITY FIGURES (61:40 – 62:50)
ADVANCES: Subplot Seven

The cops mobilize in force and the chief of police shows up, thus ensuring that everything is going to go wrong because they’ve put an authority figure in charge of the operation instead of leaving things to Al.

What’s important here is Al trusting his hunch for the first time – an important step in his own personal growth through the movie

MOVEMENT: Gennaro, Holly Gennaro (62:50 – 64:20)
ADVANCES: Main Plot, Subplot Five

We’re in another run of short, sharp scenes that advance the subplots of major characters who aren’t John or Hans. In this case, the scene belongs to Holly, who stands up to Hans and demands toilet breaks for the hostages and a sofa for her pregnant colleague.

We get the reminder here, right on the threshold of the mid-point, because we need to touch on the main plot for a second. We see Holly being good at her job – she’s in charge, now that Takagi has been killed – but also the fear that Hans is going to discover her relationship with John through the family photograph she lay face-down on shelf during the first act.

Hans senses something’s wrong and fishes, but Holly tells him her name is Gennaro rather than McClane.

MOVEMENT: LOCKED IN (64:20 – 65:00)
ADVANCES: Subplot Eight, Argyle

Another short scene that’s all about checking in with the folks we know from the first act. In this case, Richard Thornburg’s report shows up o Argyle’s television in the limo, and the poor kid drops his glass of scotch and panics, searching for a way out of the car park.

MOVEMENT: WE’RE GOING IN (65:00 – 66:00)
ADVANCES: Subplot Seven

We get a short scene Al, the LA Chief of Police, and the rest of the force. They’re preparing for an assault on the building, having chosen to believe that John’s report to Al isn’t credible, and Al isn’t happy about that.

We’ve now had five short, sharp scenes in a row, which serves to build tension after seeing John settle down to relax a just a few minutes earlier. Instinctively, we’re responding to the quick pace of the cuts; we know something bad is coming, even if John does not.

AND FINALLY, ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE

I mentioned up the front that the first half of the second act only has one major story beat it needs to hit, in contrast to the five or six involved in the first act. That major beat is the mid-point – traditionally the point where something major happens that alters the terrain of the story in permanent and unavoidable ways. It’s also the point where the character’s internal arc usually does a 180 – the thing they think they want falls away, and they learn something about what they’re really after.

Die Hard has one of the smartest mid-points I know, because it’s so incredibly fucking subtle in the way it executes the personal change in its protagonist, John McClane.

MIDPOINT: THE ASSAULT (66:00 – 74:00)

And so we hit the halfway point of the film. It kicks off dead in the centre of the movie’s running time, and it’s the big, set-piece scene where a whole bunch of things come together. John sees the floodlights, asks Al what’s going on. Al gives him a warning and John knows, without a doubt, that it’s a bad idea.

We get a few shots of Argyle trying to find a way out of the building; we see John trying to get a vantage point. Mostly we see Hans and his crew preparing for the assault, utterly unconcerned by the cops presence.

The cops go in. It’s going to be a massacre.

And John sits in his vantage point, helpless to do anything. “You macho assholes,” he shouts. “No. No. No.”

Macho assholes? Wait, isn’t half the problem between John and his wife based on the fact he’s a macho asshole? Die Hard is distracting you with guns and explosions, but we’ve just seen a moment of personal growth in John’s character arc.

The raid goes from bad to worse, with the only person of any common sense among the LA cops proving to be Al, the desk cop. The cops send in an armoured car. The terrorists blow it up with a really, really heavy-duty missile launcher. If you were kidding yourself that these guys were really terrorists, it’s pretty much gone by this point.

John just looks on, unable to do anything but beg Hans for mercy. He comes up with a plan a few minutes too late, dropping the C4 down an elevator shaft to stop the missile launcher from doing any more damage, but the damage is done (and the elevator shaft direct the fire back at John, ’cause the building hates him).

So we’ve got massive property damage, some dead cops, and the situation in Nakatomi towers has radically changed. Things could have gone so different.

If only the cops had listened to John, the authority on the situation, they could have handled things differently and not made such a mess. If only they hadn’t been macho, pig-headed cops who disregarded the rules, then…

Oh, wait, we’re using action as a metaphor for John’s personal growth again, aren’t we? He prides himself on being a rogue cop, trusting his instincts and refusing to listen to anyone else, but he’s just been given a first-hand example of what happens when you ignore people, and he doesn’t like the helpless feeling it gave him.

END OF ACT TWO, PART ONE

So at 5,000 words this clocks in a little longer than my usual Tuesday blog post, which is one of the reasons why there’s been a long gulf between part two and part three. I’ll try to get Part Four, dealing with the second half of the second act, up towards the end of August.

  4 comments for “What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Three

  1. Catherine Caine
    23/07/2014 at 7:56 PM

    I have been looking forward to this next part for ages.

    Worth it!

    • petermball
      24/07/2014 at 5:10 PM

      Part four shouldn\’t take anywhere near as long to put together. Hopefully it\’ll also come in a little shorter than the six-thousand word mark.

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