VHS Revival Revisits a familiar friend and an unfamiliar formula.
Die Hard with a Vengeance is something of a departure from the series, a sequel that would change the entire trajectory of the franchise.
In many ways, it is very much the same movie. Toying too heavily with characters we know and love is a surefire way to alienate yourself from fans of any franchise, and recognising what to retain is just as important as bringing something fresh to the fold. With Aliens and Terminator 2, sequel maestro James Cameron would keep those vital elements which gave the original movies their identity, and John McTiernan, here returning after passing the torch for the first sequel, knows exactly what makes McClane tick. After all, it was he who gave us the action genre’s most relatable hero.
In 1988, the original Die Hard revolutionised the genre with its fallible lead and breakneck pacing, plunging McClane into a claustrophobic environment and turning him into a one man army of an entirely different variety. Unlike the rest of Hollywood’s macho leads, McClane survived not as an invincible killing machine with biceps to spare, but through grit and determination and just a little bit of Christmas good fortune. This was a man we could relate to.
In 1990, the inevitable sequel gave us more of the same. Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2: Die Harder was exactly what it claimed to be. It was Die Hard with the volume turned up – inferior in the sense that it offered very little innovation, but made in the McTiernan mode, with high drama and astonishing action sequences that left Harlin breathlessly chasing his cast as if his camera were a rocket launcher. The director was able to disguise what was basically a carbon copy by using the character’s cynical charm to shrug off the familiarity of events, but the ‘lone soldier in confined spaces’ formula had run its course after two features. After all, how can the same shit happen to the same guy three times?
Zeus: What am I doing?
McClane: Cheer up. Things could be worse. I was working on a nice fat suspension. Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.
Die Hard with a Vengeance is not entirely different from its predecessors, but it is different enough to prove refreshing, and is absolutely the best sequel in a mostly consistent franchise. Once again it turns up the thrills and spills, and once again we are dealing with terrorists, but the confines of the Nakatomi Plaza is now the entirety of New York City, and McClane has found himself a full-time partner.
McTiernan’s masterstroke was to capitalise on Pulp Fiction‘s unprecedented popularity. Bruce Willis‘ star appeal had dwindled until Quentin Tarantino‘s inspired casting, and McTiernan would quickly reunite his most successful protagonist with co-star Samuel L. Jackson, transforming Jules’ philosophical gangster into a buttoned-down racist with a chip on his shoulder.
Another slick move from McTiernan was his decision to set the movie in The Big Apple. In the first two movies McClane had been out of his jurisdiction, dealing with bureaucratic suits who were unwilling to throw away the rulebook. We had heard all about McClane’s backlog of New York scumbags, but we had never witnessed him on home turf, and the director makes full use of the city, dragging our unlikely duo from Harlem to the Underground to Central Park as they flee from crisis to crisis, playing ‘Simon Says’ with a madman intent on blowing up the city.
Zeus – [tied with John to the liquid bomb on the freighter] What the hell’s all this got to do with killing McClane?
Simon – Life has its little bonuses.
When we first find McClane he is down on his luck, separated from Holly and serving a suspension that has left him drowning his sorrows. Here he is surrounded by the people who know him best – a supporting cast of delightfully acerbic colleagues who receive him with the same knowing fondness as the movie’s audience. McClane is still the same reluctant, wise-cracking hero with the proletarian wit and wry sarcasm, his tongue newly sharpened thanks to a superlative screenplay from Jonathan Hensleigh, whose back-and-forth buddy cop camaraderie is every bit as good as Shane Black‘s, in spite of a race narrative that is occasionally heavy-handed.
The series takes a leaf out of the Lethal Weapon handbook for its third instalment – and to its credit. McClane always had something of a buddy to fall back on during his darkest moments – limo driver Argyle, the ever consoling Al (Reginald VelJohnson), Airport attendant Barnes (Art Evans) – but they were always somewhat peripheral to our hero’s one-man show. In Die Hard with a Vengeance, Jackson’s Zeus is for the most part McClane’s equal.
John McClane – [running to get to the payphone in the park] You know this guy Simon we’re talking to?
Zeus – Yeah.
John McClane – I threw his little brother off the thirty-second floor of Nakatomi Towers out in L.A. I guess he’s a little pissed off about it.
Zeus – Wait a minute. You mean to tell me I’m in this shit ’cause some white cop threw some white asshole’s brother off a roof?
When Zeus first meets McClane he is standing on a street corner in Harlem at the request of ‘Simon’. Carrying a billboard daubed in flagrant racism, he is almost killed until Zeus steps in to save the day, a decision that will result in the single worst day of his life. Zeus claims to have helped McClane in order to curb police vengeance, and from there the two reluctant allies bond via a series of largely hilarious incidents that see one white businessman mistaking Zeus for a vagrant, while another, less tolerant individual demands a ride in his commandeered cab, getting much more than he bargained for.
Of course, Simon’s game is but a ruse for a much more elaborate plan, one given further credence by the fact that he is the brother of one Hans Gruber. Simon is played by Jeremy Irons, who plays the stereotypical sophisticate with an accomplished ease that his fictional brother would have been proud of. His performance as the faux-psycho with the imaginary stutter is utterly compelling, making fools of everyone until McClane proves as problematic to his plan as we have come to expect.
This is a fine sequel indeed; a relentless, smash-mouth affair that might have benefited from just a little more involvement from a painfully absent Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). So relentless is its pacing that you barely have time to breathe, which may seem like something of an odd criticism for a movie of this nature, but as with the scene in the original Die Hard when a down on his luck McClane is picking glass out of his feet, a little introspection can go a long way.
At the time of its release, Die Hard with a Vengeance gave us the kind of breathless violence that left you feeling desensitised, but the terrorist angle has lent proceedings a more ominous tone post-911, and it is hard to imagine a movie of this nature being made in today’s sensitive climate. I suppose the madness of Hollywood will never eclipse that of reality, no matter how far they push the boundaries.