Action Films

The conventions of action films have extreme impact on the viewer, many include: continuous high energy, truck loads of physical stunts and activity, extended chase scenes, races, rescues, battles, martial arts, mountains and mountaineering, destructive disasters, fights, escapes, non-stop motion, accurate rhythm and pacing, and courageous heroes – all which are designed for pure audience escapism placing the action sequences at the core of the film.

The 1988 ‘modern’ action film Die Hard is no exception to these conventions in which it is supported by the relation to Russian critic Tzvetan Todorov’s theory that all action films follow a narrative structure divided into three parts. In the film the hero John McClane also known as Bruce Willis comes to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife Holly at Nakatomi plaza and to spend Christmas with his children.

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Yet this state of equilibrium is disrupted when a group of Russian terrorists led by Hans Gruber played by Alan Rickman, hijack the building and disturb the peace. But in true American hero style John McClane is there to save the day and his wife Holly McClane played by Bonnie Bedelia, in the restoration to a new state of equilibrium. Other narrative patterns which Die hard follows is the theory of Vladimir Propp in which he describes eight basic characters which outline every story ever told.

The Villain, which is Hans Gruber the Russian terrorist; the Hero John McClane a New York cop; the Donor I imagine to be Sgt. Al Powell John’s friend talking him through his journey; the Helper is Argyle who aids John in the middle of the action; the princess is the modern day strong woman Holly McClane and John’s wife; Joseph Takagi is in one way the father of the princess as he looks at his employees as his children and takes a paternal role.

The Dispatcher is Hans Gruber and the FBI as they set John a task, as they give him obstacles whether they mean to or not, which only a hero such as John can overcome. In the movie to make the hero seem more of a powerful human they introduce false heroes such as the FBI which interfere with the terrorists and cause more hindrance than help; Harry Ellis the drug taking workaholic also interferes with the terrorists causing the terrorists to find out John’s real identity which puts John’s and Holly’s life in jeopardy.

Carl Jung’s theory of hero archetypes doesn’t follow a particular role for John McClane as he is layered with different features of each eight archetypal heroes. John is a chief as he is a dynamic leader and is always working against the terrorists in Nakatomi plaza but he is a lost soul and a best friend when talking to Al or his wife because he feels love or friendship for them.

The hero’s journey is one of excitement and underlies mythic structures in typical hero journeys, but John McClane’s journey is different, he doesn’t actually leave the building and so it is stereotyped as a mental journey throughout his escape from the terrorists, and a journey to his wife to save her. In action films, movie producer Joel Silver is known to have carried through his ‘Whammo’ theory, which according to Silver provide an adrenalin rush and gives the film a sense of forward motion.

Yet it is followed with the ‘Zinger’ theory, which are funny lines and ease the tension adding light heartedness to the script. In the film a certain sequence of action nicknamed the ‘Jump’ scene, is where John McClane jumps off the top of the roof at Nakatomi plaza to escape the false hero the FBI who think he is a terrorist when he starts shooting to encourage the hostages downstairs. The scene is set purposely at the top of the building in Los Angeles at nighttime; this has the effect of showing the height in a big city such as L.

A. and how dangerous it is for the hero. When John McClane jumps off the building in darkness it gives a feeling that he is jumping into the unknown. It is a vast difference from the surfaces of glass and metal at the top of the building, this brings about a modern world and a high tech civilisation from when he jumps and is in a fountain on a lower level of the building. The setting in the fountain is like a jungle to convey John is relying on basic survival from the civilisation, which is falling down around him.

In the fountain he is surrounded by all the elements, earth, wind, fire and water, yet they are all falling down around him, a reference to civilisation falling down around him. The costumes of the characters shows John as the individual, The FBI and Hans Gruber wear smart suits showing they are professional at what they do, whereas John is barefoot, topless, and just wearing pants with sweat, blood and dirt all over his body, it separates him as a hero as he is reduced to bare essentials and he is surviving which I don’t think Hans or the FBI would be able to do.

The man who plays John McClane is Bruce Willis, he has done a lot of action films and because people have stereotyped him as a hero it is easy to portray him as this in the movie. In this sequence props play a particularly important role, the FBI introduce the props by flying in a helicopter looking down on John and everyone to show that they are in charge and can kill John if needed, guns are used frequently in this sequence to assert power of the people shooting and to keep the audience entertained with ‘whammos’ regularly.

The most important prop however is the hose reel, it saves John ultimately but then his quick thinking of a good idea to use it as a rope to get down the building, quickly become a mistake. As the roof of the building is blown up the hose reel detaches and falls 30 stories while John has still got it around his waist, it tries to pull him to his death, showing not only the actors can threaten his life, but props as well. Camera techniques show aerial shots of the helicopter seen from above, below nd inside to show the authority and high tech world. A reaction shot from a bad guy brings John into the picture and is telling of the hero coming to save the day again. A high angle long shot pronounces John as small and an easy target. Sequence cuts are made between different locations, the helicopter, roof and Hans, it builds up suspense seeing different areas of the building as the audience know what to expect but the actors don’t.

After John jumps from the building the editing is sped up emphasising the urgency of what has just happened. Also the point of view shot puts the audience in John’s position as there is the possibility that he might fall. Finally an extreme long shot of the building as the roof explodes emphasises the spectacular quality of the explosion. All these things are typical conventions of an action film and are effective in that way of making it a modern action film.