Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Critical Analysis: Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan, is considered one of the best modern examples of the post-classical Hollywood action blockbuster and an inspiration behind three further sequels and a host of recent imitators, many of which are decisively inferior to Mctiernan’s 1988 film. It also created an action star out of Bruce Willis and one of Hollywood’s most popular performers. In this analysis, I will briefly examine a number of important themes and features of its narrative function, particularly the characterizations found throughout the film and the techniques utilized by McTiernan to effectively relay their meanings.

Die Hard, upon its original release was compared to films such as Rambo or the Lethal Weapon series as a post-classical, high-velocity, shoot-em-up style of film containing “mindless, plot-less fun.” However, a much more careful examination of the film reveals a much denser interpretation, an idea that Thomas Elsaesser attempts to address in his article, Classical/post-classical narrative (Die Hard). One of the many ways this is the case is the carefully structured description of McClane’s (Bruce Willis) character in the very early scenes of the film, as mentioned by Elsaesser, where McClane experiences a series of ‘brief encounters’ that inform us into the nature of his character. Among other things, we see his potential as a ‘ladies man’ and an expression of a witty sense of humour. While we see McClane utilising his skills in violent combat for much of the film, his largest piece of luggage is a giant teddy bear displaying a fatherly touch. The Elsaesser article also makes a very interesting parallel between McClane’s arrival and that of the terrorists. Both are outsiders to the world of Multinational Corporation and both are potentially disruptive forces in the corporation Christmas party. But the links between the characters of McClane and his terrorist foes will be raised later.

Stylistically, Die Hard and similar action films like ‘Lethal Weapon’ project a particular urban look, shifting their palettes between bleached and washed out pastels to dark metallic blues and greys. We can link this technique to the theory of the two sharply contrasted locations present within the one central realm, these being the new high-rise office building as a whole and the interior ventilation ducts and elevator shafts that act like an interior skeleton. The open floors of the building are where Gruber and his gang are most comfortable and often have the upper hand, but when McClane draws one of them into isolation from the other group or flees into the ventilation, he clearly has the skills to out maneuver them and eliminate their numerical advantage. Die Hard’s most persistent image, and one of its most gratifying, is the shattering of glass. The choice of editing also produces a shattered space composed of rapid cuts between non-continuous locations, so that the action too appears fragmented. A quote by Fred Pfiel provides an interesting meaning to this observation, in which he says “the action is taking place here – and here – and here, in spaces whose distance from one another is not mappable as distance so much as it is measurable in differences of attitude and intensity.” He is saying that moments throughout the film are defined by how loud and intense the sequences are, not by the length of time between these scenes. Scenes of intense action are found often, but irregularly throughout the film, culminating in an adrenalin-pumping final act. One such example is the very first fight scene, taking place without any exchange of bullets, but through a hard-fought wrestle. McClane, despite his triumph, is battered and bloodied during the fight and shows his heroic vulnerability. The quick multi-angled cutting creates a shattered portrayal of the struggle and the audience feels positioned amongst the blows, despite their extenuated isolation from everyone in the building.

The film skilfully plays with ambiguities surrounding the city’s law enforcement, and McClane in Die Hard triumphs over his enemies almost entirely without the help of regular law enforcement procedures and officials, whose guidance and aid invariably prove to be “irrelevant and ineffectual.” McClane’s expectation of these officials to be present as helpers is proven wrong as they inadvertently help Gruber, with the consequences nearly proving fatal to the hostages and McClane himself. Al Powell, the only cool head to realize the situation with any accuracy, is overruled by the chief detective, who naively dismisses the falling body as “a disgruntled employee” and tags McClane as a “likely terrorist” himself. To complicate the film, the ‘romance plot’ that drives McClane’s motivation to free the hostages and attempt to win back the love of his wife is interrupted by ‘a buddy plot’ between McClane and Powell and their emotional embrace (which is triumphantly portrayed in the film’s score) at the conclusion signifies this transition during the film. While McClane and Powell never work side by side, the assurance that McClane has a partner on his side is enough. However, Fred Pfiel raises another interesting complication; the degree to which the ‘terrorists’ function as mirrored doubles not only for the corporate managers and the professionals that they have taken hostage in the film, but also for McClane himself. The entire group of ‘foreign’ terrorists are intelligent specialist technicians in the fields of electronics, explosives and computer hacking while also being, mainly through the character of Karl, almost indestructible fighting machines.

From the first time we see the band of villains; we are given a visual clue signifying that Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) will be their leader. When they exit the truck, the camera remains stationed in the one spot and the men scamper out and then exit the screen. Soon enough, leaving in the middle of the pack, a figure moves forward right into the middle of the screen and a close-up is shortly held. On the next shot, as the men round a corner, this figure we saw before is now at the front of the group, leading his comrades into work. Dressed in a quietly expensive, custom tailored wool suit, he oozes coolness and confidence in the success of his plan. The suave, clean cut Gruber swaps fashion labels with Nakatomi’s CEO before casually yet brutally dispatching him, regrettably sorry that he chose not to help. Elsaesser quotes that “Hans, while having the brute force and manual skills of McClane, also belongs convincingly in the world of executives and global capital to which Holly aspires,” and while I mentioned earlier that the ‘terrorists’ were outsiders in this industry, Hans is the one exception. Holly represents order, stability and family and McClane’s attempt to save her is an attempt to overturn the moral and social chaos imposed by the villains. It is because of Holly, that we are allowed to see McClane express love, anxiety and fear, emotions whose expression is denied the villain.

Another feature of Die Hard that has been praised is its unusual choice of soundtrack, often cited when discussing the uses of innovative film technology in post-classical Hollywood. But what differentiates Die Hard from other texts of the post-classical action genre is the use of music as one of the primary elements involved in “undercutting the ‘hero’ and elevating the so-called villain to a status of anti-hero.” While the identities of the key players in Die Hard are clear, just who is antagonist and who protagonist is not so clear. Die Hard screenwriter Steven de Souza argues that Hans Gruber was unequivocally the protagonist of Die Hard. It is his plan that drives the film, and the audience is given every opportunity to read the film as being supportive of the villain. The mediation of McClane and Gruber’s interaction by CB radio delays their face-to-face confrontation and makes their first meeting, in which Hans poses as an escaped hostage, much more dramatic. It may be Theo who breaks down the barriers, but it is Hans who holds the secret (the magic key) to the final barrier. The music provides more focus on the villain through its triumphant tunes, presenting him as a tragic hero. The scene where Hans and Theo finally break into the vault and share their jubilation at having their hands on their prize is glorified through the use of one such triumphant tune. You could be forgiven for being happy that Hans’ ultimate plan has culminated in success. In Hans’ eventual slow-motion death, seen from above in an extreme high angle shot, we never see the body hit the ground, and it is not a bloody, messy death like many of the others, making this easier to disregard emotionally.

The mutilation of McClane’s body in Die Hard is articulated through a gaze structure that organises the action by situating point-of-view. This is achieved by foregrounding the shot-reverse-shot formula despite the fact that almost no one is able to look at someone else. This method commonly links adversaries, while allies are generally shot in the same frame, not looking at each other, and separated by subsequent shots. When McClane finally encounters Hans, we see him magnified from a low angle that is coded as the crouching Hans’ point-of-view. We see Hans from the high angle of someone standing over him as McClane is. His vulnerability in this situation is elegantly expressed through the deliberate positioning of the camera. The common position of the male body as centrally fore-grounded is important in establishing a meaning of it appearing simultaneously as a machine of destruction and as a subject of constantly eroded and mutilated flesh. We closely see the wounds on McClane, showing his increasing vulnerability. The film’s editing works to structure an alternation between extremes (claustrophobic proximity and monumental distance) and the camera’s parallel work alternates high and low angles to create the appearance of the body being minimized and maximized in the image.

Finally, in a film full of clever symbolic imagery, one of the most interesting scenes takes place when McClane is radioing Powell, confessing his failures with his wife, while at the same time pulling shards of glass from his bloody feet. Al functions as a substitute for Holly, and McClane asks him to pass on his confessions and his teary apology. McClane can be seen sitting in front of a mirror in this scene, continuing the persistent importance of glass, and we see him both as “a subject of pain”, with his doomed relationship and as “a body of pain”, with his badly cut feet. The pain that McClane feels towards his wife is much deeper than any pain created by his injury. The emphasis on Die Hard’s blockbuster spectacle does not come at the expense of the screenplay or the intricacy of the characters and the plotting. I am in agreement with Elsaesser’s article in saying that many of the early reviews on Die Hard can be considered incorrect falsities in the sense of what can be uncovered once a deeper analysis is undertaken. One of the most popular action films ever made, Die Hard will continue to influence the contemporary Hollywood action genre for years to come.


  1. i just can't resist this movie andy, your analysis was thoroughly enjoyable and raised plenty of points i hadn't even thought of despite seeing it countless times. i sure miss film school some times.

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