Sunday, February 24, 2013

Once More Through the Meat Grinder: What Went Wrong With "A Good Day to Die Hard"

(Related article: 7 Screenwriters Reasons Why Die Hard 4 Failed)

In April, scribbler will celebrate its fifth anniversary. In recognition of this, I felt I would take you back to its origins. Back in 2008, I had one of my most painful experiences ever on DVD. The movie was the uncalled-for, unasked-for, fourth installment of the Die Hard “trilogy,” Live Free or Die Hard, a film so badly-plotted, badly-written, badly-everything that I felt I absolutely must articulate every way it had gone wrong. For eight pages. This analytical tirade became the very first scribbler article. Now five years later, with a brand new Die Hard in the theaters (aka “Hey, We Got a Generic Action Script, Let’s Put Bruce Willis in It and Call It Die Hard So It Will Make a Ton of Money”), I thought I would indulge my masochism and do a sequel of my own.

First of all, A Good Day to Die Hard turns out (to my surprise) to be not as bad as the previous installment. Mind you, it is still a bad movie. It is just not the cavalcade of errors that was Live Free. Good Day’s main problem (along with its lousy direction and inability to shoot a single stable close-up) is that most of the film does not make any sense. The story action is so vague as to what people are doing, why they feel motivated to do it, and why they (and WE) should give damn about it. The result is a murky, dreary sludge barely held together by action sequences. It is a complete “shut your mind off” movie, because if you did try to pay attention and follow the plot, you would not get anything to reward you for the effort. This state of sludge-ness not only makes Good Day difficult to enjoy, but also difficult to critique. Despite this, I am going to do my damnedest to break it down and dissect its errors below.

When an audience finds a story murky, confused, or unclear, it is usually because the storyteller has failed to provide the proper amount of information necessary to orientate the audience to understand the its basic elements. When this lack of clarity is found on the scale seen in Good Day, the culprit is always as poorly-constructed Story Spine. Yes, once again, like 90-98% of all script problems, everything comes back to that central principle of storytelling, the Story Spine. (If you are unfamiliar with the Story Spine as it is taught on this site, please read this article first so you may better understand what is to follow.) 
The main problem with A Good Day to Die Hard’s Story Spine is – it does not really have one. That is, if you consider John McClane to be the story’s protagonist. (The meaning of this odd statement will be made clear in a moment.) Here is a breakdown of what passes for John McClane’s spine:
  1. McClane’s Story Problem: John McClane has come to Moscow to find his son, John Junior. Junior is in some vague trouble with Russian authorities for some vague criminal activity. However, as it stands, this does not amount to much of a Story Problem. A problem is capable of launching a suitable Story Spine only when it introduces a situation that poses an immediate threat to the protagonist, a threat the protagonist must act upon right away, or else terrible consequences will occur. Because the audience has not been given enough information to fully understand the story’s premise, they have no way to know what threat, if any, Junior's situation poses to McClane himself. When the audience cannot fully understand the Story Problem, it is as bad as when there is no Story Problem at all.
  2. McClane’s Story Goal: ????? – It is never clear what McClane plans to do once he catches up with his son. He simply shows up and jumps into other people’s business without rhyme or reason. He has no ultimate objective in mind that will work give his actions focus and direction.
  3. McClane’s Path of Action: ????? – With no established Story Goal, it is impossible to define what actions McClane must take to achieve success. Instead of pursuing clearly defined objectives, objectives chosen to get McClane closer to an ultimate goal, McClane behaves like a rootless psychopath, throwing himself into one violent situation after another for no reason other than blind whim.
  4. McClane’s Main Conflict: ????? – Since McClane has no clear Story Goal or Path of Action, it is impossible to identify what singular force, if any, directly opposes his actions.
  5. McClane’s Stakes: ????? – This is the biggest problem. McClane has nothing recognizable to gain or lose from his situation. Why McClane should care about the events contained in this convoluted plot remain a mystery. Again, this behavior is psychotic. No sane person would willingly take on risk and danger unless that danger is outweighed by something to be won or lost.
Added together, it seems John McClane lacks a Story Spine, and therefore has nothing to structure his actions or allow the audience to understand his behavior.

At this point, some who have seen A Good Day may object. The movie definitely has a plot with some form of structure. What of all the action with the Russian villains? What about this “file” everyone is after? What about this vague government conspiracy everyone wishes to exploit? In truth, Good Day does in fact form its narrative around a Story Spine. Unfortunately, this Spine is attached to the wrong character. It turns out the plot's events have little to nothing to do with John McClane. They instead have everything to do with John Junior:
  1. Junior’s Story Problem: Junior is some sort of “super-spy” (again, the details are pretty vague) sent on a mission to retrieve a secret “file.” Unfortunately, the villains cause this mission to go awry.
  2. Junior’s Story Goal: Get the “file” before the villains do likewise.
  3. Junior’s Path of Action: To reach his goal, Junior must rescue the only man who can access this file and then protect him until the file is found.
  4. Junior’s Main Conflict: The villains are willing to destroy half of Moscow in order to kill Junior and get the file first.
  5. Junior’s Stakes: Junior can either succeed and accomplish his mission, or he can fail in shame.
Here is the big conclusion: A Good Day to Die Hard has misidentified its protagonist! This story does not belong to McClane, but John Junior! This is the main cause of the story's confusion. John McClane, the franchise’s supposed hero, is not in the story’s driver seat and is therefore turned into a secondary character! Instead of being the story's active force, McClane spends most of the film passive and reactionary, standing idly by while others make all the decisions. He is simply along for the ride, a tag-along with no good reason to be in the picture. 
Unfortunately, the script never makes up for this mistake by allowing John Junior to become the story’s central focus. (Not that this would have pleased fans either. Not only does the audience want and expect McClane to be the hero, John Junior has been given the charisma of a tree stump.) The result is a film where NO ONE IS DRIVING THE BUS! The "hero" is not allowed to be the story's leader, and the leader is not allowed to be the hero. With no central figure for the audience to attach their hearts and minds, the audience is left with no choice but remain emotionally detached from the action, and never feels a reason to become personally invested in the outcome of events. In short, crap may happen, but no one gives a damn.

Yet, even if Good Day had avoided this problem, it would have still failed due to a number of equally pressing secondary problems. First, the premise is ludicrous. Are we supposed to honestly believe that John McClane’s son, a character we have never seen or heard anything about other than a few seconds of him as a little boy in the original Die Hard, could now without explanation be some sort of Jason Bourne super-spy? And McClane himself would know nothing about this? Good Day makes no attempt to provide any background information to make this contrivance believable. (Note: There is also the side-problem of creating a supporting character who drastically outshines the protagonist in heroic ability. McClane is still just a New York cop. “Super-spy” trumps cop a thousand times over. Don’t upstage your protagonist.) I realize in my previous article on Die Hard 4, I suggested that many of that story’s problems could have been solved by making the supporting character (Justin Long, aka “The Mac Computer Guy”) McClane’s son. But while this would have been plausible in Die Hard 4, it is completely ridiculous here. The backstory between McClane and his son also lacks all orientation. The script’s attempts to create “father-son moments” all seem arbitrary and inauthentic. They seem to reference previously-established facts that are simply NOT THERE due to a lack of proper setup and orientation.

Secondly, the film (the first two-thirds, at least) suffers from a practically anonymous antagonist. Who is this guy? What is his deal? Why is he doing all of this? I don’t even remember if he has a name. Once again, no orientation. With no information given to the audience, the villain cannot possibly be considered as anything other than some random asshole doing random shit. I guess like in Die Hard 4 the audience is supposed to hate the guy just because he is good-looking. There is one odd attempt to give the guy some personality somewhere past the 40-minute mark where he eats a carrot (?) and does a little soft-shoe dance (??). But guess what? This is way too little, way too late. Characterization does not equal character. A carrot and a couple confusing lines of dialogue cannot make up for forty minutes of anonymity. But I guess the writers thought there was no point to developing an antagonist they were not going to even stick with until the end of the film. [SPOILER: The film pulls another structural boner when it kills off its supposed antagonist at the end of the second act. This basically renders the character and all he has done up to this point meaningless. The writers may have thought it dramatic to pull a villain switcheroo, but this move does nothing but throw a monkey wrench into the story's already damaged Story Spine. Dumping one antagonist for another is among the rankest of amateur mistakes. Changing horses in midstream will only confuse and frustrate the audience. Don’t spend half the film telling the audience that something is important, and then unceremoniously dump it in the trash.]

Third, Good Day revolves around an extremely weak macguffin. (“Macguffin” is a Hitchcockian term for the person or object everyone in the story is chasing after.) We are told that all the plot’s events; all the explosions, all the shootouts, all the infrastructure-destroying car chases; occur because everyone is after a “file.” Evidently, this “file” is important because it has some dirt on a powerful muckity-muck in the Russian government. Well... who gives a crap? Why does the American government care, why do McClane or John Junior care, and most importantly, why should the audience care about some minor political flap on the other side of the planet? What does it mean to them? How is this file important enough to justify all the violence and destruction the characters must commit to get it? Later, we are told this file contains evidence as to who was really responsible for the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Again... who gives a crap? Why take all this urgent action for the sake of something that has been over and done with for twenty-seven years? What does that mean TO US? If the macguffin does not pose an immediate threat to all involved parties, no one (including the audience) has a reason to care. 

This is the biggest problem with Good Day. There are NO REAL STAKES! There is no reason for either the characters or the audience to care about what will happen! What is the worst thing that could happen if the heroes to not get this file? Not much. What is the best thing that can happen if they do? Not much either. [SPOILER: I’ll avoid discussing the further BS on how the macguffin turns out to be a pointless red herring, contrived just as an excuse to get the characters to Chernobyl for the big final action sequence. Setting up something as so damn important and then suddenly dropping it like it never existed is more than poor storytelling. It is like giving your audience the finger.]

Errors in screencraft aside, the failure of both Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard can be summed up as same cause for failure seen in almost every completed trilogy that has been recently dug up for another unnecessary go-around. The franchise has lost sight of what it is all about in the first place. What made the original Die Hard great (and to a lesser extent its first two sequels), was that it was a film about an average joe who unwittingly finds himself trapped in extraordinary circumstances. He has to take on extreme risk and face incredible danger, not because he wants to (he doesn’t!), but because he must. Someone or something he cares about more than anything in the world is in immediate danger. Only it turns out that no one can help but himself. Because of this, the average joe must push himself above and beyond his perceived limits, finding the strength, ingenuity, and passion he never knew he had. Watching this story, the audience learns that every one of them is capable of greatness, even when things are at their worst, if they are simply willing to stand up and fight rather than lay down and die. This is what “Die Hard” means. Live Free and Good Day do not do this. They are not Die Hard films. They are simply movies that happen to feature a guy named John McClane.

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