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Film critique: Die Hard Essay

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Updated: Sep 16th, 2019


Film like all other forms of art employs the usage of different elements of narrative to tell a particular story. No two film plots are exactly the same and each director has his/her own way of ensuring that each piece of work he/she is involved in has unique features that link the final product to him/her.

This essay seeks to analyze the narrative structure, cinematography and the production elements of the film Die Hard, directed by Mark Tiernan. To this end, a well detailed analysis of the structure of the film shall be made while citing adequate examples of from the film.

Story telling and acting

The action film Die Hard follows the three act narrative structure. This basically means that it has a setup that introduces the viewer to a given element of conflict before a resolution is arrived at. In this particular film, McClane is on a mission to reconcile with his wife when he finds himself in what appears like a terrorist activity. This is the setup part of the narrative where we are introduced to the element of contention that will result in conflict much later in the film.

As the scenes unfold, it becomes clear that this is actually a robbery targeting $640million bonds held at the Nakatomi vault. Part of the setup aspect is the revelation that Gruber and his team of crooks have laid explosives around the building and they intend to use them to secure their exit. This helps the view understand why the police and McClane have to be patient in dealing with the criminals.

The conflict aspect of the narrative comes in when McClane has to constantly battle the Gruber and his men, while at the same time find a way to get the police to work alongside him. The non-cooperation from his officer Powell is also a challenge that McClane has to contend with. We see Powell hastily trying to gain access into the building and it takes the speedy intervention of McClane to get him to appreciate the weight of the situation.

The resolution gradually kicks in when McClane and the police manage to subdue the Gruber and his gang. After outwitting the criminals that are after him by pulling a number of stunts, sometimes ducking bullets by fractions of seconds, McClane secures the safety of the hostages and reconciles with his wife as with earlier plans. This brings the film to a settled conclusion whereby the viewers are not able to clearly understand why some characters in the film had to carry themselves in particular ways.

The film appears to conform to the model of the classical Hollywood cinema where it has two distinct lines of narrative development, with one element leading us to follow McClane as he finds himself on an impromptu mission to rescue hostages while having to deal with a police team that does not believe him, while at the same time avoiding any serious damage to the building. The other line follows the romantic relationship between McClane and his wife, and this develops in its own tempo but parallel to the main goal of the story.

The characters in the narrative generally fall in at least one of the seven spheres of action that have been fronted by the scholar Vladimir Propp (Thury and Devinney 520-521). These seven categories are hero, villain, helper, donor, princess, dispatcher and false hero (Thury and Devinney, 2005).

McClane is the accepted hero of the film owing to the fact that he manages to take down his enemies and safely get the hostages out of the situation with as few casualties as possible. The police who after realizing he is on their side are the dispatchers and they are also very instrumental in the development of the plot since without them the narrative would have taken a different direction.

The hostages are the princess and they do not do much in the story but wait for the hero to save and protect her from all the individuals that are out to harm her. Gruber and his gang are the villains and their main role in the film is to basically disrupt the sequence of events by constantly diverting the direction that the story is taking. Like in most Hollywood creations, the villains generally end up losing by the time the film ends.

The narrative of the film is generally omniscient in the sense that the viewer is able to see all the developments as they unfold (Chatman, 1980). The viewer is able to track the movement of the lead character, McClane, and at the same time follow the deliberations of the assailants as they craft ways to get to capture and kill him. This supreme overseer element sustains throughout the film as the narration smoothly transitions to connect the chaser and the chase in some form of explosive conflict.

The action in the story is motivated by the fact that like with any other well developed film, there are good and bad guys. The good guy (in this case McClane) is going on with his regular life until things change and he finds himself dealing with the bad guys (Gruber and his men). He has to find a way of get the bad guys to face justice while at the same time protect all the innocent individuals that he comes in contact with (the hostages).

The bad guys on the other hand have their own goals and they take all the necessary steps to ensure that they achieve what they have set to. Their efforts are however not fruitful as the story ends with the good guy having won the challenge and well on his way to his former quiet life. The end of the story however leaves the viewer in a lot of suspense as it is not easy to predict which way the lives of the surviving characters in the story will take.

Since the film is but a work of art, there is a general story and a plot to help develop the same story (Aumont,1992). The story is basically an outlining of the challenges that McClane has to go through in fulfilling his objective of securing the safety of hostages, one of them being his wife, without letting the situation turn into a killing spree.

The plot kicks in with the gradual revelation of what the package is through the various conflicts that happen in the story. The plot and the story are however intertwined in such a way that the viewer cannot distinctly tell them apart.

The story ends with the hostages having been released and the plot also reaches a genuine finality with the viewer realizing how much damage could have been caused had McClane not intervened. In general, all the characters from the story have goals and this is the main reason why they act in the ways they do. McClane, the lead character intends to protect the hostages and get on with his life while the hostages hope to get out of the mess that they have found themselves in safely.

The goal of the criminals is to intercept McClane before he gets them and that of the police who collaborate with him on a mission is to ensure that the safety of the hostages is maintained. The pursuit of the different goals help drive the story and the regular crossing of the paths of all the characters helps bring out the intended cinematic and dramatic effect.

Directing, cinematography, editing and music

The movie Diehard directed by John McTiernan, is one that had exceptional application of cinematographic techniques which gave the film an edge over other films of the time. With the greater part of the film based indoors, the lighting had to be well considered in order to make the film have a realistic feel of the internal surrounding of a plaza.

The lighting of the basement car park had to be different from the lighting of the helipad and the area surrounding the plaza where the police are located. The interchange of the camera angles in various scenes also end up enhancing the dramatic effect causing the viewers to appreciate the tension created even more.

The scene where McClane moves from the basement car park through the stairway to the hostage area features various camera angles suggesting the usage of multiple cameras during the filming. However, proper cinematographic direction has been used to ensure that the cameramen don’t appear in the final product or clash with the character in the picture. The various scenes reflecting McClane’s motion were shot cogently showing all the necessary moves to make them realistic by all means of measure.

The movie is has some fight scenes especially arising when McClane stealthily takes down Hans Gruber’s men one after the other. The various elements of cinematography which have been put into use to make such scenes interesting include clarity, precision, rhythm and amplification.

In order to achieve clarity, the set designers steered clear of earth tones and instead opted for bright colors which could easily be lit to the desired levels of sharpness. In this regard even the darker stairways appeared to dazzle. The shots are very stable and must have been captured with the cameras on tripod stands.

To make the shots even more precise, all the action was well choreographed and framed such that it does not appear like the cameraman was caught in the middle of an encounter between McClane and his opponents and decided to shoot the action randomly. All the gestures and elements of motion are crisp clean and do not give any hint of illegibility. A viewer can tell where a given action starts and where it ends.

For rhythm, the directors of the film had to ensure that the fight scenes were building from one point to the next. The pace of the characters’ motion had to be well synchronized with those of shooting with the distant shots being held for extended periods as compared to the closer ones.

The scale of the shots, the elements of composition and the speed of motion were equally considered when cutting the shots together to bring out the desired dramatic effect. The directors had to sense the pulse and tempo of the film to ensure that all the actions cut well with one another to avoid cutting away from one element of action to another before the former is completed.

The arc of movement in the scene where McClane throws the body of one of Gruber’s men several storeys down to Sergeant Al Powell’s car is stretched over various shots before coming to a point of rest. This helps create the suspense and tension necessary to bring out the dramatic effect intended for this particular scene.

Finally, the expressive qualities of various actions have been amplified in order to make the shots more appealing in order to capture the attention of the viewers even more. Emotional qualities were given to the characters in various scenes by the interchange of different camera angles depending on the emotion that the directors wanted brought out. For instance to show the fear in the eyes of Holly, McClane’s wife, in the scene where Gruber is hanging on the side of the building by her wrist watch, a mash up of close up and medium shots were used to help bring out the necessary tension.

From the exemplification presented above, it is easy to see that cinematography plays a major role in the final outcome of the film production process. The makers of the film Diehard clearly took time to consider the relevance of each and every shot and made sure that all sequences served to bring out all the desired cinematic and dramatic effects. In conclusion, it is worth noting that the film has evolved over time and most of these changes have been in the way images are captured and presented.

The usage of sequences of shots as opposed to holding individual shots while capturing certain scenes has come to receive appreciation as a unique way to give the film some mileage as well as making it more interesting to watch (Perisic, 2000). The selection of proper lights and set designs are but some of the few elements of cinematography and photography that have been given prominence in the discussion above and it is now easy to understand their importance in the production process.

The backbone of the film’s score was based on Beethoven’s ninth symphony and thematic variations of singing in the rain complemented it. Various other songs were used in the film depending on the act most notably being the hiphop song Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC.

Film criticism and analysis

Like with most other films, the story could easily have been told with the omission of a number of scenes but in order to give the film some mileage, the creators introduce an element of romance to act as some form of comic relief.

The romantic relationship between McClane and his wife, Holly has been put in the film ostensibly to give that part of the film a different slow-down to counter the rapid pace that the rest of the film has been hitherto taking. This, of course, also results in the final product getting a few extra minutes on the running time to reduce the element of the audience feeling “cheated”.

In the maintenance of continuity, the editors of the film have to a large extent employed the technique of cross-cutting whereby the viewer is moved from one scene to another spatially unrelated scene in a series of shots (Dancyger, 2007). This method puts the viewer is in a position to understand that the scenes in question are separate but the happenings are parallel and related to each other.

The match-on-action technique of continuity editing has also been used particularly in scenes that are heavy with action sequences. This is a technique that basically requires that a shot picks up immediately where the preceding shot had left (Bordwell, 1985). This technique has also been utilized in the shooting and fight scenes in order to weave the unfolding of evens as one piece of the story.

Social impact/reception

Die Hard was hailed as one of the best action films of its time. Its social impact was reflected on the attention it had from all sectors of society. It received very favorable reviews from some of the most respected film critics in the world. Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times described it as very well written and consciously designed to be a hit. Richard Corliss of Time magazine also gave the film a thumbs up declaring that it had towered over other films to ever emanate from Hollywood.

He went on to say that it is such films that will encourage the come-back of the theatre culture. Other critics who found the movie appealing included Owen Gleiberman and Peter Travers of the Entertainment weekly and Rolling Stone who both said that the film made individuals rediscover how enjoyable film watching can get.


Each film is an independent work of art and it will tend to have unique structure particularly in terms of the narrative element and this will primarily depend on the choices made by the creator.

This essay has analyzed the narrative structure of the film Diehard by providing an assessment of the general narrative, a review of the shot techniques and has also studied elements of characters and characterization that are applicable for this film. Various forms of literature have been used to provide the background for assessment of the movie particularly in explaining the theories behind film narrative structure.

Reference List

Aumont, Jacques. (1992). Aesthetics of film. Texas: Texas University Press.

Bordwell, David. (1985). Narration in the fiction film. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

Chatman, Seymour. (1980). Story and discourse: narrative structure in fiction and film. New York: Cornell University Press.

Dancyger, Ken.( 2007). The technique of film and video editing: history, theory, and practice. Massachusetts: Focal Press.

Perisic, Z. (2000). Visual effects cinematography. Boston, Massachusetts: Focal Press.

Thury, Eva and Margaret Devinney. (2005). Introduction to mythology: contemporary approaches to classical and world myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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