Pulling off Action (Die Hard)
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Cinema has had a weird relationship with the action genre. On one hand, it is the best platform for not leaving the scenes at the mercy of the reader's reading pace and visualisation, but it also cannot put the viewers in the middle of the action scene (like video games can), putting cinema somewhere in the middle. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the highest grossing film franchise of all time, and is only contested by Star Wars, the other action series (both also owned by Disney, so no losers here except for the remaining entertainment industry). While I have witnessed decent action in both for the most part, it does not make them thrilling or engaging. When I watched Die Hard, I was feeling tense and worried for John McClane and was engaged for the entire ride, something I did not feel during Captain Marvel's hunt for the skrulls. The battle between T-800 and T-1000 was way more interesting than the Hulk fighting Abomination. Am I cherry picking the worst of marvel to drive home a point? Why, yes I am. There are a few essential techniques great visual directors use.
Planning, execution and improvisation
The first is the action triangle of planning, execution and improvisation. Although an action scene can start at any of these, all three are essential for a great scene. It is the process of deciding what the character wants to do, executing that idea, facing a failure and trying to salvage as much of the plan as they can or change their goal althogether. In each gun fight, John McClane plans an encounter, say deciding to ambush the first "terrorist". He executes his action and fails, jumping on the terrorist's back and having a duel, and ends up improvising the plan, killing the terrorist at the risk of starting a timer before the hunt for him begins. This is an example of the triangle being followed perfectly on screen, but this is NOT the only way to do it.
In my opinion, the best scene of the film was the team up of John and Hans. The movie shifted perspective from John to Hans, since we know who Hans is and absolutely plans to kill John. John hands him a pistol, which Hans uses to threaten John into handing him the detonator. We see John keeping his calm and letting Hans shoot the gun, which had no ammo. This not only satisfies the method of direction, but also the second (to be revealed in a while). The interesting thing is, that we do not see any planning phase in John's actions. We start at the execution of his plan, and end with it being cut short by the other terrorist's approach. This the the most effective way to get coherent and logical plot twists out of any medium. The fact is that there WAS a plan in John's mind involving testing the stranger, but we did not get to see it. The logic still followed, but not presented in order.
The second important factor relates to nearly every genre. A good movie ensures that the protagonist is a smart yet flawed character who uses his or her wits to beat the enemy. A GREAT film ensures that both sides do so. While Heat (1995) is the ultimate cinematic example of this, Die Hard also does a fantastic job at presenting that Hans is just as smart as John, also flawed and has different advantages and disadvantages. The scene mentioned earlier showed Hans' quick-thinking by tricking John, but also his flaw as he didn't check the pistol for any tricks. John also made a fatal mistake by gloating to Hans, causing him to lose his opportunity to do so. Neither of the sides should be perfect, neither should be skill-less.
The third and final requirement is of course related to cinema alone: Cinematography. This is an advantage cinema has over video games. You will spend 95% of an action game looking at the protagonist's back. Cinema can change the perspective to the most interesting view. It can be used for storytelling and characterisation as well. When John in under suppressive fire, the angle becomes tilted and claustrophobic. When John is (supposedly) beaten, he is shown how he really is now: battered, bleeding and against the light. This is incredible storytelling, what I love about cinema.
My favourite directors post-2000 are Edgar Wright, Sam Raimi and the Russo's, who are not just great storyteller, but also great action directors. The important thing about action is that it is not entirely separate from storytelling, just a medium for it. While there are exceptions, such as Zack Snyder, an amazing action director but a weak storyteller, and Christopher Nolan, a weak action director, but an amazing storyteller (which makes their friendship that much more interesting), but one thing coherent action must remember is not to take away the soul of the filmmaker.