One of the reasons the movie works so well is the Protagonist's arc.
In my current Create a Compelling Protagonist class, one of the topics we've been discussing is that a good story not only has a Physical Journey, whatever happens in the External World (Plotline), but also a Psychological Journey, the emotional ins and outs of characters in their Internal World (Themeline). The interplay of the two is where we see characters — and most notably — the Protagonist go through a transformation.
In Hollywood, development people often refer to this as a 'character's arc'. And while not all characters change or have to change, in the case of the Protagonist, I think it's fair to say that most do have an arc. Because Hollywood likes happy endings, typically that is a positive metamorphosis.
In my language system, the Protagonist begins in a state of Disunity — they are disconnected from, repressing, or denying some key aspects of their psyche — then over the course of the story, their Core Of Being, Authentic Nature, True Self, whatever you want to call it, emerges from the shadows into the light of consciousness, is embraced and becomes the foundation of the character's positive transformation — toward a state of Unity.
That is a bunch of verbiage, so what we have done in my class is analyze a number of movies and movie scripts to see this narrative dynamic play out in a myriad number of ways. And one of those movies is the paradigmatic action film of all time: Die Hard.
Now when we think of Die Hard, our mind probably first goes to images like these:
So yeah, lots of bombastic stuff going on in the Physical Journey. But there's also something going on in the Psychological domain, specifically with the story's Protagonist: John McClane. Here are some thoughts on that I wrote on the course site's message board:
There absolutely is a correlation between Plotline and Themeline / External and Internal World in Die Hard and frankly any movie that's any good. As I've been suggesting, the events of the plot must be tethered to the Protagonist's psychological transformation. In most mainstream movies, it is a positive arc what I describe as going from Disunity to Unity. Die Hard is no different.
McClane and his wife Holly are separated. Even geographically. That right there, signs of Disunity. They get together for a few moments at the office Christmas party, then have their big blowup argument incited by him angry she is using her maiden name (Gennaro) in her job. She gets called away. Then there is that moment where McClane castigates himself for being so stupid, getting into an argument. Before he can apologize…
EVERYBODY IS TAKEN HOSTAGE!!!
Except our Protagonist. So in the Plotline, you've got all the action going on. Boom! Rat-a-tat-a-tat! "Yippie-kay-yay-mo-fo!" Bad guys dying. Sleazy office dude shot. Bad Guys working to get safe unlocked. Fake negotiations with cops. All of that action stuff going on.
And in way, all of it is there to service the Themeline: McClane realizing he loves Holly, their relationship is more important than anything. Here is that exchange with Powell, the cop with whom McClane has been communicating via walkie talkie:
I'm here, John.
McClane tries walking on his foot. He winces in pain, clearly
at the end of his resources.
Look…I'm getting a bad feeling up
here…I'd like you to do something
for me. Look up my wife…don't ask
how, you'll know by then…and tell
her…tell her…I've been a jerk.
When things panned out for her, I
should've been behind her all the way
…We had something great going until
I screwed it up…She was the best
thing that ever happened to a bum
like me. She's heard me say I love
you a thousand times, but she never
got to hear this…honey…I'm sorry.
You get all that?
I got it. But you can tell her
yourself. Just watch your ass and
you'll make it.
I hope so. But that's up to the
So when he saves the day and he reunites with Holly, they're all hugs and kisses, and this:
The crowd eddys and surges…suddenly Powell is there, and
McClane knows it's him. They stare at each other, ten feet
apart, and then they're grinning, extending their hands. But
somehow a shake isn't enough, and they're embracing each other
like men who've lived through combat together…which, in fact,
is the truth.
Al. Man, you were my rock. I
couldn't have made it without you.
I'm serious. Hey, this is my wife…
(taking Powell's hand,
Hearing this, McClane grins, pulls her close.
She uses his last name, her married name, a small but significant symbolic sign the couple is back together: Unity.
This is an example of a scalable arc. It's not like a drama where we see a bunch of scenes in which the Protagonist goes Disunity to Unity step by visible step, but McClane — and Holly as well — go through a metamorphosis. Frankly it's their relationship which gives all the pyrotechnics meaning, why we care about these characters specifically and not just generic hostage victims.
It's not a huge arc, but McClane and, indeed, the couple goes through a transformation. As I said in my comments, it's scalable to the type of story you write. But be sure to look for it.