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Simple Solutions to Complicated Movie Problems: Die Hard 2 Edition (Or, Why I Hate Die Hard 2)

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The Die Hard movies.  The series that created Bruce Willis, the movie star.

As a series, it’s 2-2.  The first one is an action classic, filled with memorable sequences, quotable lines, and a great protagonist in John McClane. The third, Die Hard with a Vengeance, is nearly on par with the original.  In the third movie, John McClane is fighting a memorable and complex villain, Jeremy Irons’s Simon Gruber, and through most of the movie McClane is losing that fight. That’s an essential element to the McClane character: he’s not invulnerable. Unlike most 80s actions stars, McClane was fallible. He got hurt — a lot.  He was aware of his mortality and afraid of it, but that fear never stopped him from fighting on. Die Hard with a Vengeance goes away from that a little, but it’s still there, which is why I think the movie works.

The other two?  Die Hard 2 sort of sucks (and I’ll explain why in a bit) and you should avoid Die Hard 4 like the plague. In fact, Die Hard 4 is so bad, I’m not even going to discuss it.  Let’s just all agree to never talk about Live Free or Die Hard again.

Yeah, I know it's not a current release, but it's been on TV lately so...

Before diving into my problems with Die Hard 2, let’s recap the basic plot and situation.  On Christmas Eve, during a massive blizzard, John McClane is visiting his in-laws somewhere in the DC area.  His wife is flying into Dulles airport from California to meet him there. At the same time, a man called General Esperanza is flying into DC to stand trial for drug trafficking.  While all that is happening, Colonel Stuart, who leads a group of highly skilled mercenaries, is plotting to rescue Gen. Esperanza from the evil clutches of the DOJ.  Stuart’s plan is simple: he’ll take control of the Dulles tower and prevent the incoming planes from landing there, which gives him effective control of the airport because if anyone tries to stop his nefarious plans he’ll crash planes, and that’s just plain inconvenient for an airport. After he has de facto control he’ll rescue Esperanza.

Stuart executes his plan and takes control of the airport.  Now, McClane’s wife is circling above DC in a plane that’s quickly using up fuel.  Unless McClane and the plucky, scratchy voiced engineer guy can come up with a plan, McClane’s wife will die.

On paper, it’s not a bad plot idea.  It has all the necessary elements for good story: lives in danger, a race against the clock, and a series of impossible challenges to solve.

Here’s why it’s fucking stupid.

First, the fuel idea.  Commercial aviation is not like driving to Vegas with your buddies after a night of drinking.  The pilots don’t get into the cockpit and say, “How much fuel we got?  Half a tank?  Eh, that should get us to Iceland.  We can stop there if we need to.”  The FAA requires enough fuel to 1) get to your destination, 2) to get to an alternate airport, and 3) to fly for 45 minutes after that.  Therefore, if for some reason the plane cannot land at its primary destination, the pilot can go to another airport.  The conversation might go something like this.

Tower: Hey, pilot, we’re having problems here.  You can’t land here.

Pilot: Well, no problem, we’ll contact another airport and en route traffic control and go to our alternate airport.

Tower: Very good, pilot.  Oh hey, while I got you on the line, I want you to quit sleeping with my wife.

Pilot: Crap.

My second problem with Die Hard 2 is that the villain’s scheme relies on a condition that he has no control over: the weather.

The movie establishes early on that a severe blizzard shut down the eastern seaboard of the US.  Airports are closing and diverting traffic to Dulles, which itself is slammed by the weather. According to the movie, Dulles cannot hand its traffic over to other airports due to the bad weather (never mind that this information is invalidated by subsequent dialog…but we’ll get to that). So, at this point in the movie, there is a severe weather problem and lots of planes that can only land at Dulles.  A perfect situation for Colonel Stuart.  He can take control of the tower and hold the planes hostage, forcing the Dulles airport to allow him to rescue Esperanza without interference.  Huzzah!  Evil and villainy win the day!

One problem though: what if there was no blizzard?

If there was no blizzard, then the other airports would be open.  Dulles could then send the planes to their alternate airports and everything would be great.  This foils Colonel Stuart’s plans since he’d have no leverage.  The conversation might go something like this:

Stuart: Dulles Tower?

Fred Thompson (F.T.): Yes, this is Dulles tower.

Stuart: Ah-ha!  I have taken over your flight operations.  You now have to do as I say or I’ll start crashing planes! You have five minutes to inform your planes to hold over the outer marker and not to land.

F.T.: That’s what you think, limp dick.  During those five minutes, I’ll tell them some lunatic took over our airport and they should go to their alternate airports.  Then you won’t have any planes. Sit and spin, tough guy.

Stuart: Well…then I won’t let you talk to them. Ha!

This guy could never be President. He couldn't even figure out that picking up a phone would beat William Sadler.

F.T.: Fine. Then I’ll go downstairs, go to a pay phone, call the FAA and tell them what’s happening here.  Then another control tower, probably National’s since it’s just down the street, will call the planes, tell them what’s happening, and then they’ll go to their alternate airport.  Then you won’t have any planes and then you can go sit and spin, tough guy.

Stuart: Crap.

However, that plot hole is not my main problem with Die Hard 2.  My main problem with Die Hard 2 is that it follows certain physical rules but then it ignores those rules completely. To recap, in Die Hard 2, John McClane has to beat the villain before his wife’s plane runs out of fuel.  McClane’s main motivation — saving his wife — is driven by three physical rules: 1) that planes need fuel to fly, 2) the longer that planes are in the air, the more fuel they consume, and 3) planes without fuel crash.  Those rules are a good plot device.  There’s nothing quite like the immutable laws of physics to create jeopardy for the lead character to deal with. Of course, the fact that this scenario is completely implausible ruins it, but ignoring how commercial aviation works this could be good plot device.  Could be. Then, in a stupid attempt to deal with the fuel issue plot-hole discussed above, we have a random air traffic controller guy say this line:

“The planes with enough fuel have already been diverted to Atlanta, Nashville and National.”

Which means, as the scratchy-voice engineer says, there are 13 planes left in the air that cannot reach Atlanta, Nashville, or National airport.  This statement, taken at face value, destroys the airplane plot device completely.

For those of you who don’t know the geography out east, Dulles and National airports are about 40 miles away from each other.  Now, assuming that a plane circling above Dulles is going about 150 mph (established by Colm Meany in the movie), that plane travels 2.5 miles per minute (150 / 60).  At that rate, the plane will travel 40 miles in 16 minutes (40/2.5). Still with me?  Good.

The random air traffic controller establishes that the 13 planes above Dulles do not have enough fuel to go 40 miles down the road.  Therefore, according to the rules of physics and rules the screenwriters are using, those planes will be on the ground in less than 16 minutes. On the ground and big fiery wrecks.

Of course, this doesn’t happen.  The movie goes on for almost another hour and no planes fall out of the sky.That irritates me to no end.

I don’t necessarily care if movies and stories aren’t completely realistic.  I’m not worried about that.  However, what bothers me and insults my intelligence, are stories that violate the rules that were already agreed upon.  In Die Hard 2’s case, it’s just a case of lazy writing.  The screenwriters (or someone) added what they thought was a throwaway line to deal with the alternate airpot plot-hole, but which destroyed their larger scenario when confronted with physical reality.

This guy aint exactly Sun Tzu

And yes, I know this is only a summer blockbuster.  I’m supposed to turn my mind off and just enjoy the ride.  But you know what?  I can’t.  I can’t just turn my brain off. Unfortunately, I demand a little more from the professional screenwriters that brought us this film.  Like I wrote above, the basic conceit of the movie is a decent one: John McClane has to beat the villain before his wife’s plane goes down.  That works.  It forces him into action in a situation where the correct decision would be to let the professionals handle it.  However, the larger scenario falls apart once any scrutiny is applied.  The fuel issue is ham-fisted into reality and that bugs me. Especially when you consider there are better ways to achieve the same scenario.

For instance, what if Stuart and his men got a few bombs on some random planes heading to Dulles?  Not many; let’s just say five. That’s 1250 people in jeopardy (assuming 250 on each flight, which I don’t think is unreasonable), one of which would be McClane’s wife.  The tower doesn’t know which ones, and there’s not a lot of time to search for the bombs. Stuart can still monitor communications, and if the Tower tries to inform the planes about what’s going on, Stuart blows  up a plane.

My fan fic wank aside, I think that it is far more plausible (especially pre-9/11) that an elite commando unit could pick five planes and hide bombs on them at their origin airports.  At least it asks the audience for a reasonable suspension of disbelief rather than asking them to believe a pilot wouldn’t try landing at another airport when there’s trouble.  Especially if that pilot has enough fuel to circle DC for 2 hours or so.

Anyway, enough with my crankiness. How does this create a simple solution?  Easy.  Without the planes, Colonel Stuart has no leverage.  He cannot coerce compliance with his demands with threats of crashing planes if the planes have already crashed.  So, in about 14 minutes, all of his hostages will be dead, and he’ll have nothing to threaten anyone with anymore. Problem solved.

Alternatively, someone could call over to National’s air tower and tell the planes what’s going on.  In the movie, Colonel Stuart cuts off Dulles Tower’s ability to communicate with their planes.  Then he mimics the tower and crashes Colm Meaney’s plane.  According to Scratchy Voice Engineer Guy, there is no way for the planes to determine if Stuart is actually speaking from the tower or not.  That’s a problem, and the good guys spend a lot of time trying to solve it.  So here’s what you do.

Pick up a damn phone and call the FAA and National airport.  One of those two bodies will have the ability to communicate with the planes.  In fact, the conversation will go something like this:

This guy needs to gargle with salt water.

Scratchy Voice Engineer Guy (SVEG): Hey, FAA, how’s it going?

FAA: Going well.  Hey…what’s wrong with your voice?

SVEG: I blew it out at a Lynyrd Skynyrd show.  But never mind that shit.  We need you to contact the planes circling above Dulles and tell them a maniac has hijacked our equipment.

FAA:  Wow.  That’s a problem.  We’ll get right on it.

SVEG: Thanks. And hey, while you’re doing that, would you mind calling National and tell them about the planes?  Maybe they could land them at National, since it’s only 40 miles down the road.

FAA: Sure.  Okay… But why can’t you call National?

SVEG: Oh hey…now that’s a great idea.  In fact, it’s a rather simple solution to this whole mess. Tell you what, you notify the planes and I’ll call National.  With a little hard work, we could have this whole mess wrapped up in half an hour.

FAA: This is a horrible situation, but it’s taught me a valuable lesson about teamwork.

SVEG: Fuck teamwork, this taught me a valuable lesson about using the goddamn phone.

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Written by B. Michael Krol

March 10, 2011 at 1:13 pm

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