Thursday, September 07, 2006

Die Hard Part 3: Dialogue & Character

Three things set "Die Hard" apart from the general run of action films that immediately preceded it.

First was the brutally simple premise: lone cop is trapped in a skyscraper with a large team of well-armed terrorists and must defeat them using brains and guts. The premise was so compelling and easy to understand at a glance that it spawned its own mini-genre of imitators, commonly referred to as "'Die Hard' On A ______""

  • "Under Siege" ("Die Hard" On A Battleship)
  • "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" ("Die Hard" On A Train)
  • "The Rock" ("Die Hard" on Alcatraz)
  • "Speed" ("Die Hard" On A Bus)
  • "Speed 2: Cruise Control" ("Die Hard" On A Cruise Ship)
  • "Passenger 57" ("Die Hard" On An Airplane)
  • "Air Force One" ("Die Hard" On A Really Famous Airplane)
  • "Con Air" ("Die Hard" On Yet Another Airplane)
  • "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" ("Die Hard" In An Airport Full of Airplanes)
The movement reached its nadir with the novel Vertical Run by Joseph R. Garber, which was "Die Hard" In A Skyscraper!

Second, and where most of its imitators fell down on the job, was the complex storytelling structure (as discussed last time) it used to tell such a seemingly simple story.

Third, and the real subject of this post, was the attention given to creating memorable characters and quotable dialogue, something notably missing from the book.

Take the opening scene as an example: A jet touches down on a runway. Inside the plane, a passenger is gripping the armrest fearfully. His seatmate, an experienced business traveler, notices his fellow passenger's distress and tells him the secret to beating jet lag is to take off your shoes and walk on a thick carpet "making fists with your toes." Then the nervous seatmate gets up to leave and is revealed to be carrying a gun. "It's okay," he says, "I'm a cop." Then he pulls a giant teddy bear out of the overhead compartment. And thus we are introduced to John McClane.

It's a brilliant opening. In less than a minute and a half, we are introduced to the main character in a way that highlights his human flaws, and that hints at the two big (and conflicting) pillars of his life, police work and family. And even though the seatmate is seemingly a throwaway character (he never appears again), he gives us a memorable line of dialogue ("fists with your toes") that sets up one of McClane's big handicaps during the film (McClane, practicing the businessman's advice, is forced to flee without his shoes when the villains strike) and serves as a sort of reverse foreshadowing of the rest of the film (the business executive in his element, taking the nervous cop under his wing).

And the rest of the film only builds on this. We get a string of memorable characters: Argyle the hip chauffeur, Ellis the vapid salesman, Al Powell the cop, Dwayne T. Robinson the officious deputy chief, Johnson & Johnson (no relation) the FBI agents, not to mention the terrorists.

And line after line of sparkling dialogue:

"Sir, this channel is reserved for emergency use only."
"No fuckin' shit, lady! Do I sound like I'm ordering a pizza?"

"Who's driving this squad car, Stevie Wonder?"

"Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except the four assholes coming in the rear in standard two-by-two cover formation."

"Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast. I think I can handle this Eurotrash."

"You ask for a miracle, Theo. I give you the F-B-I."

"You're nothing but a common thief."
"I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I'm moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite."

The characters may be cartoonish, but between the wittier dialogue and the excellent performances by the ensemble cast, they have a lot more heart than the cynical, vicious bastards moping their way through Thorp's novel. And even the throwaway parts get memorable bits, like Al Leong's terrorist stealing a candy bar while he waits to ambush the SWAT team, or the pompous anchorman who tries to show off his erudition by placing Helsinki in Finland.

Next up: Conclusion and lessons learned.

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