How the Drama in “Die Hard” is Increased by its Relationships
Die Hard is one of the best and most popular action thriller films. Die Hard started a craze of setting action films of hostages locked in contained locations by some really bad guys. Set in a Los Angeles skyscraper, Die Hard was later copied by films set in a train, ship and aeroplane, as just three examples. These copycat films were of varying quality but one misstep they (and even Die Hard sequels) often made was to not fully grasp another important part of the first Die Hard premise that made that film so dramatic.
Yes, the key component of Die Hard’s premise is its location, but also important to its drama was — to abuse what has become a cliché in politics — “the relationships, stupid.” What made Die Hard a smarter, deeper and a more dramatic film was the cleverness and high value stakes of its three main relationships.
The most important relationship in Die Hard that adds emotional meaning to this action story is hero John McClane’s relationship with his wife Holly. Holly is the reason McClane flies to Los Angeles and is visiting the Nakatomi Plaza Christmas Eve. This tough New York cop is desperate to convince his wife to get their family back together. What’s the worst thing that can happen to them? Holly, and dozens of her co-workers, are kidnapped by terrorists and threatened with execution. To have a chance at saving his marriage with the woman he still loves, McClane must now rescue her from the terrorists. McClane’s personal goal to save his wife and marriage adds layers of empathy and poignancy for the audience to feel. This romantic motivation of McClane’s makes this actioner also a love story and drama.
Another key relationship for McClane in Die Hard is with Al, the LA cop. Al is a man torn with a terrible personal problem we care about: He has to overcome his own self-doubts and fears about a tragic mistake he made 11 years ago as a patrolman. As Al steps up his game as cop in the wrong place at the right time and comes to believe and support McClane, he struggles to overcome his self-doubt. We have all made mistakes and suffered self-doubt, so our hearts go out to Al as he supports McClane in his dire situation of fighting a gang of terrorists.
The final key relationship that adds depth and cleverness to Die Hard is that between McClane and his nemesis, the elegant and vicious Hans Gruber. Stylishly played by Alan Rickman, Gruber has a personal feud with McClane as they play high stakes cat and mouse with each other (and Gruber’s henchmen.) We watch intrigued by the intelligent and dangerous ploys these adversaries use against each other, knowing they will conflict unto death. And we enjoy their dialog during these games of death. If McClane can’t outwit the cunning Gruber, Holly and the hostages are dead.
Yes, Die Hard being set in a (then) new location with its own specific dramatic problems makes it a thrilling action story. But what separates Die Hard from so many of its imitators (and many other action films) is the quality of the relationships between its many characters. These relationships add soul to this action thriller. A lesson many writers, directors and producers today can learn from.
Former LA producer, Scott McConnell is a script editor and story developer now based in Melbourne, Australia. Read more of his articles that reveal his script editing/developing premises. For help with your story, write to Scott at [email protected]
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