Genre and Narrative: Analysing Die Hard

Genre and Narrative: An Analysis of Die Hard

In this blog post I will be investigating the action/adventure film field and considering the importance of genre and narrative, with reference to both theorists (namely Vladimir Propp and Tzvetan Todorov) and the seminal 1988 Bruce Willis box-office hit: Die Hard. Not only is it one of my favourite films of all time – every Christmas at Tyneside Cinema it gets screened and I’m always there! – but it truly has something for everyone. Warning: spoilers ahead!

I’ll begin by offering a brief background of the film. Die Hard could be considered to have reinvented the action/adventure genre. Since its release, many other films have emulated some of the typical features of the film, such as the few, plain pieces of clothing worn by the protagonist(s) and one liners/catchphrases used by the central character(s). An example of such emulation is the 1994 Keanu Reeves film, Speed. Die Hard was Bruce Willis’ breakthrough role and it also allowed Alan Rickman to break into Hollywood portraying villains (Sheriff of Nottingham, anyone?).

The impact of Die Hard has been such that it has created its own sub-genre in the action/adventure field which I will refer to as the Die Hard genre (original, I know). This applies to a film set in a limited location such as a single building, a la Nakatomi Plaza, which is under attack.

So is the concept of genre important? Well, it is certainly a very simple, but necessary, concept. It is derived from the French word meaning ‘kind’ or ‘type’ and in theory can be applied, not just to film, but to any form of media product; however, it is now mostly associated with television programmes and films.

Genre, as mentioned in Media and Meaning: An Introduction, is:

“A straightforward means of classifying products according to the elements they share in common – most notable narrative form, setting, characters, subjects and themes.” (Stewart, Lavelle, Kowalzke; 2004; 41)

With Die Hard being an action/adventure film, there are certain conventions or expectations that you, as a consumer of the text, expect to see. As Nick Lacey describes…

“Film producers use the concept in both the production (knowing what to include and the audience to target) and marketing (selling via posters, trailers and so on) of texts…” (Lacey; 2005; 46)

In my example of Die Hard, those precious and deprived few who have yet to see this masterpiece of cinema would expect to see certain features that are consistent with the action/adventure genre. These features include; explosions, gunfire, bloodshed, an ‘all-out’ main protagonist, an archetypal opposite of the ‘hero’ as the main villain, and a general theme of good triumphing over evil. All of these are present and correct in Die Hard and therefore fulfil part of the audience’s expectations.

As mentioned in ‘Media and Meaning’, the audience expects certain codes and conventions of the characters too. With McClane, the audience is presented with a policeman – granted, he’s off duty – and there are several typical conventions related with the police. American cops carry guns so we would expect the police officer to be armed and to use their gun during the film, as well as being expected to keep a cool head at all times and to think outside of the box. The other side of the stereotypical American policeman in cinema is portrayed by Reginal VelJohnson’s character, Sgt Al Powell. He is first seen buying snacks from a petrol service station when he is called over the walkie-talkie. Though seemingly portrayed as lazy at first, using Christmas Eve as an excuse to not bother conducting a thorough search of the Nakatomi building (inadvertently saving his own life), he develops and takes a much more active part in the film.

Holly McClane is portrayed as a very strong and independent character. Movie-Action.com sum it up best when William C. Martel writes:

“Holly has a love of self reliance and independence so strong that she risks her life by standing up to the terrorists, as in the scene on page 54-I and 54-J [of the script] where Holly confronts Hans, slyly calling him an idiot and stating that “Personally, I don’t enjoy being this close to you,” in order to get medical help and bathroom privileges for the other hostages.”

Despite being independent, she still needs rescuing by John McClane and therefore fits into the typical convention of an action genre lead female.

Genre and Narrative: An Analysis of Die Hard
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber

The main villain, Hans Gruber, also follows typical conventions. His choice in expensive suits and extensive education make him appear smarter and more powerful than McClane, making it seem possible that he could in fact mastermind such a scheme as the one that unfolds in the film. He is also of German nationality which, in recent history, has always been the archetypal race for villains, perhaps also with the Russians – both of which have been in wars with American in the last 70 years.

The cinematography is also typical of the action/adventure genre. Shots are assembled using quick jump cuts to give a sense of pace and action. Close ups are also used not only to show emotions on the faces of the characters but also to pinpoint specific pieces of action or to highlight details the viewer needs to remember. During the scene at 1:28:52, there is a close up of a character’s leg when McClane shoots them in the shins. A flare grenade is thrown and followed in close up which results in the entire screen being filled with blinding white light, emulating the effect it might have in real life.

Being a Hollywood action film, Die Hard relies quite heavily on the stunts and visual effects. In the scene at 1:28:52, characters are shooting at the computers, desks, and windows resulting in minor electronic flashes and mini explosions as well as bullet holes peppering the areas of cover used by McClane, Hans, and Karl, and a grenade is thrown to draw McClane out of cover. These events are all expected, or do not feel out of place, in an action/adventure genre film.

The mise-en-scene is also typical of the genre. The antagonist wears an expensive suit (similar to the Mafiosa style) and the villains all carry guns and devices intended to harm. Low-key lighting is used in the action scenes to add a sense of dramatic tension and atmosphere and is used often on the villains to represent their dark, evil side.

In all, the events in Die Hard are predictable of the genre and reaffirm the expected stereotypes and conventions. The audience has a brief understanding of what to expect from the film from the outset and they are not let down by the action that unfolds.

I’ll begin my investigation of narrative by firstly looking at what the term means, as there seems to be some confusion on the matter and oftentimes it is misused with plot and story. According to Bordwell and Thompson (1997; 90-92), the story is: “…the set of all events in the narrative, both ones explicitly presented and those the viewer infers…” Bordwell and Thompson describe the plot as being everything that is presented to the audience both visually and audibly in the film. The same theorists describe narrative as “a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space.”

Russian theorist Tzvetan Todorov has a widely accepted view of narrative:

“An ‘ideal’ narrative begins with a stable situation which is disturbed by some power of force. There results a state of disequilibrium; by the action of a force directed in the opposite direction, the equilibrium is similar to the first but the two are never identical.” (Todorov; 1977; 111)

This model of disequilibrium can be applied to Die Hard. At the start of the film there is a stable situation; John McClane is travelling to Los Angeles to meet his wife and family for Christmas after a difficult time spent apart. The state of disequilibrium comes in the form of Hans Gruber and his group of bank robbers seizing the Nakatomi Plaza building and holding the workers hostage. It is then up to McClane to solve this problem. The equilibrium is established by the death of the antagonist but this equilibrium is not the same as at the start as several people have been killed (Ellis and Takagi to name two) but McClane and his wife have been brought closer together by these events.

According to Vladimir Propp, there are only eight broad character types within a narrative structure; the hero who reacts to the donor, the villain who struggles against the hero, the ‘helper’ who directs and assists the hero, the princess who often needs saving, her father, the dispatcher who sends the hero on their quest, and the false hero who takes credit for the hero’s actions and tries to marry the princess (Lacey; 2005; 83).

Within Die Hard you have…

Heroes: John McClane; he is trusted with overpowering the robbers and saving the hostages and his wife.

Villains: Hans Gruber and his gang (chiefly Karl) who are holding the Nakatomi building hostage while robbing the vault.

Helpers: Argyle and Sgt Al Powell help McClane throughout the film with Powell offering advice over the radio communicator.

Princesses: Holly McClane (née Gennero), John McClane’s wife who is held hostage by the villains.

Donors: The businessman on the airplane at the beginning of the film who gives advice on what to do when he gets back on the ground (“make fists with your toes!”).

Dispatchers: Joe Takagi who invites John McClane to the party at Nakatomi Plaza and hires him a limo to bring him to the building complex.

False Heroes:  Harry Ellis, who tries to make a deal with the villains and is portrayed early on as a slimy individual, abusing chemical substances and trying to impress or win over Holly with his expensive tastes (“What, are you embarrassed? It’s a Rolex.”).

Propp noted that these characters are involved in a cause-effect chain and that usually the villain causes the disruption in Todorov’s theory of disequilibrium and the hero resolves it. As you can see, most of the character types are represented in Die Hard, therefore allowing the narrative to advance.

Genre and Narrative: Analysing Die Hard
Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.

Die Hard is an example of a linear cause-effect film as it centres on how McClane reacts to given events created by Gruber. Evidence of this is when Gruber realises McClane has no shoes on and orders his gang to shoot any glass they see making it near impossible for McClane to move around as freely as he was. Throughout the film, the roles are reversed and McClane becomes the instigator, e.g. when he kills the first terrorist and sends the body to Hans Gruber in the lift (“Now I have a machine gun! Ho ho ho!”). The effect of this is that the villain now knows there is a hero in the building capable of ruining his plans, so he must adapt. Another example is when McClane and Gruber meet face-to-face for the first time. Gruber uses his quick thinking to pretend to be one of the hostages and seemingly gains McClane’s trust, eventually receiving a gun to aid the two in their joint endeavour. Gruber then attempts to shoot McClane but realises the clip is empty and McClane has tricked him. The narrative is driven forward by the constant one-upmanship until McClane gets the definitive upper hand at the end of the film.

Die Hard contains a multitude of sub-plots that all neatly come to fruition at the end of the film. Martell summarises efficiently, writing:

“From Hans’ death, to the Nakatomi Bonds falling like snow, to Holly giving up her gold Rolex (and all the greed [it] symbolizes), to Argyle the limo driver’s smashing the getaway car in the underground garage, to the first face-to-face meeting of hero and sidekick (McClane and Powell), to Thornburg getting punched in the nose (for being too nosey), to Dpt. Chief Robinson’s officiousness being completely ignored, to Karl’s last ditch revenge for his brother’s death, to Sgt. Al Powell regaining his ability to shoot his gun, to Holly and McClane reuniting…” (Martell, movie-action.com)

Typical action sequences in films of this genre include car chases, close combat fighting, and myriad shootouts. Die Hard, ostensibly set in a single building, does not feature the former but the latter two are both present in Die Hard’s repertoire – including a grizzly and gruelling battle between McClane and Karl seeing John getting shot through the shoulder and Karl being hanged by a chain link.

In conclusion, I think it is clear that genre and narrative are very important concepts. Genres create expectations and allow the audience to guess what is going to unfold before them, something, according to Lacey, the audience looks forward to doing (2005; 46). Genres can, according to Lacey, be defined by what the narrative disruption is (2005; 52). For example, if in a film there are people fighting and shooting each other, it is more than likely an action film!

Narrative can also reveal important information about the social situation at the time. For example, if you look into Die Hard in enough detail you could demonstrate how the film confirms masculinity, emphasizes the economic power of America, and showcases the rise of Japanese businesses.

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