Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!
Yeah, that’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Die Hard. Well, either that, or a man jumping off an exploding skyscraper roof with a firehouse tied around his waist. Maybe it just depends on my mood. Released back in 1988, this film kicked arse at the box office, spawned
three four sequels, and as a result, has been ripped off more times than the white man at a Cherokee Nation casino:
- Speed (1994) — Die Hard on a bus.
- Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) — Die Hard on a boat.
- Under Siege (1992) — Die Hard on a boat.
- Executive Decision (1996) — Die Hard on a plane.
- Con Air (1997) — Die Hard on a plane.
- Air Force One (1997) — Die Hard on Air Force One.
- Toy Soldiers (1991) — Die Hard in a boarding school.
- Cliffhanger (1993)– Die Hard on a mountain.
- Night at the Museum (2006)– Die Hard in a museum.
- Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) — Die Hard in a mall.
Die Hard Screenplay: The History
Die Hard’s origins jump back to 1979. Based on the novel Nothing Last Forever by Roderick Thorp, it was intended as a sequel to The Detective, both a novel and a Frank Sinatra film of the same name. When Ol’ Blue Eyes turned down the film, this gem floated around a bit, nearly giving away its story to a potential Arnold Schwarzenegger Commando sequel.
In Nothing Last Forever, the protagonist, Joseph Leland, is a retired cop who flies to Los Angeles to visit his daughter, a career-minded young woman named Stephanie Gennaro. While at her employer’s Christmas party, Joseph must fight to save his daughter’s life when the building is taken over by a terrorist named Anton “Little Tony” Gruber. In Die Hard, screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E de Souza remained close to the source material with a few small repairs.
Die Hard Screenplay: The Theme
Die Hard operates on the theme, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” John McClane’s much more than a streetwise cop, he’s a self-contained anti-terrorism unit. Hans is not a political terrorist, he’s a skillful — strike that — he’s an “exceptional thief.” Holly is a savvy business woman kicking ass in a man’s world. And Officer Al Powell, he’s not a timid cop, he’s a hero’s hero.
The screenplay also explores the diametrically opposed values of greed and virtue. McClane is a blue collar guy. He rides in the front seat of the limo. He could give two shits about the gold Rolex bonus Holly received from Nakatomi. In contrast, Hans personifies all things material. He knows Takagi wears a John Phillips suit from London. Why? Because he owns two himself. He’s after $640 million in bearer bonds, so he can spend his remaining days on a beach earning twenty percent. Hans would blow the very roof his trusted comrade hunted McClane on if it meant a ripple in the execution of the master plan. Then there’s McClane helping clear innocent people off a roof he knew was minutes, if not seconds, from bursting into a ball of flames, even after he discovered his wife was just taken hostage. These men couldn’t be further apart. Hans taking Holly’s gold Rolex with him to the pavement says it best: their conflict was much more than it seems; it was a clash of ideologies.
Die Hard Screenplay: The Structure
Die Hard’s screenplay structure can throw you in the wrong direction. Upon first glance, it’s easy to interpret the first plot point as the takeover of the Nakatomi party, when it’s actually the middle beat of act one, marking the protagonist’s first step on the external line of action. In this case, McClane’s first action is to run, also going hand in hand with his internal goal of being selfish. The true first plot point is the murder of Nakatomi president, Joseph Takagi, and McClane’s decision to pull the fire alarm. The stakes are raised: This isn’t kidnapping or extortion; it’s life and death. It also echoes the midpoint, when McClane is more or less forced to throw a dead bad guy out the skyscraper’s window and shoot up Powell’s police car. Seemingly, this would be a victory for the protagonist, but it’s nothing more than a false-positive. Having the police escalate the situation was part of Hans’s plan all along. How can he fake his death without the police or FBI knowing of his operation to begin with? You steal $640 million and you’re looking over your shoulder your entire life…but not if they think you’re dead.
Coming in around minute 95 is the second plot point. McClane has Hans in his grasp. Though he’s unaware of the plan to blow the roof, he receives a useful piece of information: Hans needs those damn detonators. However, when the screenwriter gives something good to the protagonist, he gives something better to the antagonist (up until the climax, that is). Steven de Souza and/or Jeb Stuart chose to expose McClane’s greatest physical weakness — his bare feet. After all, it’s completely within Hans’s character to size up a man by the clothes he wears. It’s here where McClane, out of machine gun bullets, is forced to leave the detonators and run across broken glass to escape.
Die Hard Screenplay: The Beats
Inciting Incident (internal) — minute 10 — In Nakatomi’s lobby, McClane discovers Holly’s using Gennaro as a last for business and it pisses him off. After all, he’s an old fashioned guy. He’s also too wrapped up in himself to understand she works for a Japanese-owned corporation, where her new last name gets her further in both sales and the politics of business.
Inciting Incident (external) — minute 11 — McClane walks into the party, a complete fish out of water. Mr. NYPD’s even kissed by man.
Strong Movement Forward — minute 24 — Hans Gruber and his merry band of criminals crash the party.
Note: this is McClane’s first real action on the external line. He knows, to save these people (and most importantly, himself), he must escape quick and without notice.
Plot Point #1 — minute 32 — McClane witnesses Takagi’s murder at the hands of Hans Gruber.
Decision — minute 35 — McClane pulls the fire alarm to alert the authorities.
Note: the first plot point and decision in the screenplay come at page 30 and 33.
First Trial / First Casualty — minute 38 — In McClane’s first real trial, he fights Tony and good ol’ Tony breaks his neck when the two men wrestle down a flight of stairs.
Combat — minute 46 — McClane must have known there would be hell to pay when he killed Tony. This is the first real battle with the man out for blood, Tony’s brother, Karl. Don’t ever believe, for even a second, a ballet dancer can’t kill you. Those guys are really fucking strong…and flexible.
Midpoint — minute 58 — After a few missteps, McClane finally gets the attention of the police. All it took was him hurling a dead body out a window and nearly getting his future best friend killed. As stated before, police involvement seems like a good thing, but it’s really a false-positive. Hans needs the police to blow the roof and fake his death.
Assumption of Power — minute 77 — McClane uses the C4 he stole from one of the dead bad guys to kill a couple more.
Plot Point #2 — minute 95 — McClane gives the man he believes an escaped hostage his gun. When that man reveals himself as Hans Gruber, McClane isn’t necessarily surprised, he’s got those NYC street smarts after all, but not enough to stop Hans from noticing his bare feet.
Decision — minute 98 — Out of machine gun bullets with shattered glass all around his bare feet, McClane tosses everything he doesn’t need and makes a mad dash for the closest exit, leaving the detonators behind.
Point of No Return (internal) — minute 107 — Up until this point, McClane’s been playing his role as the cop: protect and serve. Here McClane crosses the “point of no return” on his internal line of action, where he admits to Powell his narcissism destroyed his marriage to Holly.
Point of No Return (external) — minute 115 — Life or death. McClane knows the roof is minutes, if not seconds, away from being blown and he fights his way up to save his wife and the hostages. Even when he knows his wife has been kidnapped, he still helps clear the roof until the FBI, mistaking him for a terrorist, rain bullets over his head. This beat attaches one of my favorite point of no return moments in cinema history: a man jumping off an exploding skyscraper roof with a firehouse tied around his waist. It doesn’t get much better.
Climax — minute 123 — McClane’s outnumbered, damn near out of bullets, and running on empty. Great place for a climax, huh? He has just two bullets in his gun. The bad guys are still armed and dangerous, and they have his wife as a hostage. It’s this moment that brings together both the external and internal lines of action. McClane must save his wife and overcome the selfishness that defined him in their marriage. He must know, in that instance, he’s gonna take a bullet and possibly die. I mean, he’s survived this far…how lucky can one guy be? He’s just gotta get off enough shots to allow Holly to escape and he does it with flying colors.
Die Hard Screenplay: The Analysis
I’ve provided full screenplay analysis available for download, which breaks down the protagonist’s characterization, misbehaviors, internal and external goals, theme, central dramatic question, story engines, plus a complete beat breakdown with all the setups and payoffs a great film can provide. All of this is based on Daniel P. Calvisi’s Story Maps method. Dan is a story analyst, screenplay consultant, author and screenwriter. If you’re serious about the craft of screenwriting, I highly recommend checking out Dan’s site, Act Four Screenplays, and his e-book, Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay. You can purchase Dan’s e-book from Amazon.com or the iTunes Store.