The most central character in Diehard is not John McClane, but in fact the Nakatomi plaza. Whilst fighting Hans Gruber and his men forms an important part of the plot’s function, it is the aesthetic of how McClane achieves this which is of greater importance; and to do so he needs the Nakatomi plaza. Much of the film’s attention comes through its representation of the Nakatomi architectural space and the way John McClane moves through it. Under threat and on the run he moves through this Los Angeles sky scraper through every conceivable way other than passing through its doors or hallways.
He manoeuvres through the plaza by means of elevator shafts and air ducts, shooting open the locks of rooftop doorways and shooting and crashing through widows from the outside-in. Throughout the course of the film he stops elevators between floors; rides elevators from the exterior of it’s roof; and on more than one occasion blows up large sections of the building; otherwise navigating the internal spaces of the plaza not envisaged for by the architects. He makes openings and corridors where there shouldn’t be. Therefore his notion through necessity is of an uninhibited progress within the structure of the building.
Diehard is a film that depicts through celluloid the meaning of changing space to specific navigational needs. This unorthodox exploration of architecture in turn provides the building’s narrative principle; Hans Gruber’s men are at the Nakatomi plaza to drill through an electronically sealed vault to steal millions worth of secure bonds. McClane’s role as the fly in the ointment means that, to not be seen and heard he must find alternative ways of moving through the building. Therefore if he needs to get from A to B he would have to shoot, carve, blast and climb his way there; wandering through the back corridors andhitchhiking rides on top of elevators…these are perfect plot devices for a cohesive action movie.
Yet these lessons in the inappropriate use of architecture, does not solely rest with McClane. The SWAT team who unsuccessfully raid the building, do so by trouncing along the landscaped rose garden of the buildings perimeter. Their movements in the tank are undoubtedly lateral. Still, it is McClane’s necessity to navigate himself around the building at specific moments unorthodoxly. This method is born out of the reason to remain undetected or in some occasions through emergency.
From the moment he hears gunshots and escapes via a fire escape; a nonconformist movement through space kicks in. After killing his first terrorist he puts the dead guy in the lift and sends it to the floor where the remaining terrorists are. While doing this he also uses the elevator but he is not on the inside but on the top. Secretly spying on the terrorists and taking notes of how many and who there are amongst them. There are also other cases through desperation and in trying to save his skin, that he embarks on unusual voyages through the building. On one occasion while being outnumbered in a shootout with Gruber’s men on the rooftop he shoots through a locked steel door in order for a quick getaway. Inside he still has to pass through a rotating fan so he blocks the blades with his gun to pass through.
Most of the unorthodox movements in space are set pieces designed to add suspense to the chosen scene. Therefore in one scene he precariously abseils down a vent with the use of the strap from his machine gun. The strap gives way and he nearly goes hurtling all the way down the dark vent but manages to grab onto a hollow window. There is also the scene where he is crawling through the ventilator shaft remarking that the experience being akin to a TV dinner. Gruber’s henchmen suspecting he is in the shaft begins prodding with the gun but McClane is saved as they get called away. Finally the star action set piece of the movie involves McClane jumping off of the rooftop of the Nakatomi plaza. In order to escape an exploding rooftop he has to make his way back into the building strapped to a fire hose then smash through a window. Of course the stairs that lead back into the building was at that moment unattainable.
Whether it is through necessity or emergency the Nakatomi architectural space has been distorted and bended through the entire course of Diehard. This may not seem like much within the wider context of the film but what you should acknowledge is that this factor contributes to the narrative, suspense and action of the film and also incorporates a dynamic that has become action movie cliché in any other film that has been made since.