Thursday, February 10, 2011

Article - Die Hard Dud (The disaster that was Die Hard 2)

 Last week, we looked at one of the greatest action movies ever made, a little indie flick called “Die Hard,” and discussed the numerous solid screenwriting choices that made it great. Today, we’re doing…well…the opposite. We’re discussing Die Hard 2, one of the worst (at least as far as the 90s were concerned) action movies out there, and the screenwriting choices that made it so bad. So here are ten ingredients you should never add to your own scripts, as they’ll most certainly taint the quality of the dish.

One of the most shocking choices in Die Hard 2 is that the main character has no unresolved personal conflict in the story. There’s no conflict John McClane has to emotionally resolve, either within himself or outside of himself. Remember all that emotion you felt in the first film? How you so badly wanted McClane to save his wife? That was born out of the unresolved conflict in their marriage. We wanted to see them reconcile. Here, there’s no unresolved conflict with McClane whatsoever, making this a purely surface-level endeavor. And boy does it feel that way. There isn’t an ounce of emotion in Die Hard 2’s entire running time. Take a look at how Star Wars tackled this. Han Solo’s conflict in the first movie was his selfishness (an inner conflict). He always chose himself above others. That conflict was resolved when he came back and saved Luke. In the second film, Han needed something new to battle. So the writers shifted the conflict over to Han’s unresolved relationship with Leia. Are they or aren’t they going to get together? As a result, Han’s character was just as compelling. Needless to say, the reason Han was so forgettable in Return Of The Jedi was because there was no unresolved conflict left. Ditto for Die Hard 2.

Staying with McClane’s character, remember one of the main things that made him so compelling in the first film? He was the underdog. As I always say on this blog, EVERYBODY LOVES AN UNDERDOG. In Die Hard 2, McClane is a celebrity. He’s actually the opposite of an underdog. As a result, we’re not rooting for him nearly as much. We actually expect him to prevail, which is boring.

Part of the beauty of Die Hard is its simplicity. We understand the rules. We understand the players. Everything is clearly laid out. In contrast, Die Hard 2 goes plot-fucking-crazy with its story. There are way too many factions to keep track of (McClane, Airport security, Tower Control, the bad guys, the foreign military leader, the army, Dweeblezorp the Basement Guy) and way too many motivations within each of those factions to keep track of. Not only does this require a full 40 minutes of screenplay time to set up, but it prevents us from getting to know the key characters better so we can care about them. This is one of the principal fallouts of overplotting, is that it takes time away from character development. If we don’t develop our characters, nobody’s going to care about them. That little problem I had with McClane not having any unresolved conflict? I wonder if that’s because they didn’t think they had enough “time.” Of course, had they not overplotted their movie, they would’ve had plenty of time to explore the character.

One of the great things about contained thrillers is that your character is stuck. Him being stuck is a key piece that makes the drama work because it generates an exciting dramatic question: Will he make it out? In Die Hard 2, that element has been discarded and our main character has free reign to go anywhere he wants. Obviously, not every action movie has to be contained, but when we realize McClane can go anywhere (and he does go anywhere – at one point he’s driving around on a snowmobile for God’s sakes) it feels like a cheat and it confuses us. I think if they would’ve set this up as an uncontained film, we may have been more accepting of the decision. But the movie sneakily tries to play both sides of the fence, acting as if it’s a contained thriller, yet allowing characters to go wherever they want. So when you’re writing your own movie, make sure this is clear.

While Die Hard 2 tries desperately to make its far-flung terrorist plot believable, the reality is, it doesn’t make sense. Everything hinges on you believing that these planes will just continue to circle until they run out of fuel, made somewhat plausible by the fact that the fake controllers keep telling them they’ll be able to land soon. But the truth is, this isn’t realistic. There are dozens of airports within the Dulles area that the planes can land on with less than 20 minutes of fuel. And if a plane is nearing that critical level of low fuel, they’re going to find another runway. But even if you say, “Carson, who cares about that shit? It’s a fun action movie. Just go with it.” The problem with this extremely complicated plot is that the screenplay has to spend pages upon pages explaining and filling in all these logic holes so that you believe it. Had the plot been simpler and more believable, that time could’ve been spent on…oh I don’t know…character development!

When movie-goers come out of a movie reciting that old adage, “I could write something better than that,” they’ve usually just walked out of a Hollywood sequel. The reason sequels tend to be bad is because the writing period is rushed. It’s hard to write a fully fleshed out compelling story with original twists and turns in a matter of months. The Matrix had over 40 drafts. The Sixth Sense was in the mid-twenties. Look at what happened to those same screenwriters when they had half that time. Or – shudder – a fourth of that time (Ahem, Lady In The Water). The movies were more confusing, less interesting, and less original. That’s not coincidence. So take advantage of that one commodity you have that the big timers don’t – time – to craft the richest, most detailed, most cleverly plotted, most unique screenplay possible.

From the very first moment the villain in Die Hard 2 appears on screen, I knew the movie was screwed. Naked doing tai-chi in a hotel room?? Give me a break. These gimmicky introductions are usually an attempt to mask a lame thinly constructed villain. The only exception is if their actions teach us something about their character. This moment doesn’t teach us anything. It’s just a cheap setup for him using karate against McClane later on the plane’s wing. Readers see through gimmicks. They know when you’re compensating for a weakness. Do the extra homework and figure out who your villain is (what he wants, what he fears, what his weaknesses are, what pushed him to this point) and push yourself until each one of those choices is unique – not standard bad guy staples. You do that and you won’t need your villain doing naked thai-chi at the beginning of your movie.

There’s usually a moment in every action film where the villain will do something to make you hate him, to ensure that you’ll want to see him go down. Let’s compare that moment in the two Die Hards. In the first, Hans coldly kills Takagi, a man we’ve spent a little time with and have begun to like. As a result, his murder hits us on a personal level. Contrast that with Die Hard 2, where the villain (I still don’t remember Mr. Boring’s name) kills an entire plane full of passengers. Now to the inexperienced writer, this might seem like the better choice. More people dead = bad guy badder. But they would be wrong. Cause we didn’t know a single passenger on that plane. They were faceless nobodies and meant nothing to us. The much more personal killing of a single man hit us harder because we cared. Remember that for you next “bad guy moment.”

Every action scene should be a mini-story. There should be a setup, some conflict, and a resolution. Key here is the setup. You want the reader to understand the geography, the motivations, what’s at stake, and each character’s goal. Die Hard handles this masterfully, in part because its locations are always contained and therefore easy to understand. When McClane is up on the roof with all the hostages and realizes it’s about to blow up with an FBI helicopter sniper shooting at him because they thinks he’s a bad guy, it’s an exciting scene because we understand all the variables involved. We can participate in the problem as well as the solution (problem: people standing on huge bomb. Solution: get them out of there without getting killed yourself). In Die Hard 2, almost every time the good guys and bad guys meet, it’s an open area with no rules or clearly laid out motivations. The scenes quickly dissolve into a bunch of people shooting at each other as much as possible, which is why nearly all of the action scenes in Die Hard 2 are boring.

Probably the single biggest failure of this screenplay is that John McClane isn’t needed. The great thing about the first Die Hard is that they had no choice but to deal with McClane. That was the beauty of it. They were stuck with this two-bit wild card New York cop who they felt was doing more harm than good. But they couldn’t stop him because he was inside the building. Here, they don’t need McClane at all, yet he still finds his way into every major meeting and conversation. It’s totally convoluted, feels false, and defies all believability. Granted he does have a strong goal (save his wife), but nobody on the ground has any reason or motivation to deal with him. So if you’re going to write your hero into a scenario, make sure it makes sense!

Obviously you can’t make the same movie twice. And I respect them for trying something different and bigger with Die Hard 2. But bigger means more complicated. And unless you have the time to figure out and hone those additional complex story threads, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Or, more appropriately, running around a glass filled room without shoes on. Die Hard 2 is the perfect reminder that bigger and better rarely go hand in hand. And if you’re going to aim for the moon, make sure you’ve done enough research so that when launch day comes, you don’t blow yourself up.