The inimitable John McClane returns for his action golden age swansong
Die Hard with a Vengeance would prove something of a departure for a series that had stuck to a very particular formula. Back in 1988, the original Die Hard revolutionised the action genre with its fallible lead and breakneck pacing, plunging hero John McClane into a claustrophobic environment and turning him into a one-man army of an entirely different breed. Unlike your typical Hollywood macho lead, 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. The movie put character before brawn, forging a relatable hero whose witty one-liners were more than cheap, farewell puns for a gaggle of nondescript baddies.
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 little innovation but made very much in the McTiernan mode, with high drama, everyman irony, and the kind of astonishing action sequences that left Harlin breathlessly chasing his cast as if strapped to a rocket. Harlin was able to freshen his like-for-like formula by using McClane’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?
Bruce Willis was aware of this, and with a renewed swagger following the success of Quentin Tarantino’s career-salvaging Pulp Fiction, he was very precious about preserving the value of the part that made him, turning down several scripts that he felt were second-rate retreads of inferior action vehicles, the kind that were already derivative of the genre’s undisputed high-point. One proposed screenplay saw McClane taking on yet more terrorists on a cruise liner in a movie reminiscent of Seagal actioner Under Siege, a pitch that would eventually become the dubiously-premised Speed 2: Cruise Control, but Willis wasn’t about to sacrifice his most famous character for the kind of screenplay that would almost certainly inspire derision from critics who had lauded his comeback performance as the super cool boxer-turned-crook Butch Coolidge. Thanks to Pulp Fiction, Willis had salvaged a career that was almost made extinct thanks to commercial flops such as Hudson Hawk and Striking Distance, and he wasn’t about to be typecast into oblivion for a second time.
Die Hard with a Vengeance is not entirely different from its predecessors, but it’s different enough to shake up the series at a time when Willis’ stock had risen tenfold, and as a standalone movie it is arguably the best sequel in a mostly consistent franchise. Once again the series turns up the thrills and spills, and once again we’re 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. Laurence Fishburne was initially considered for that role, but who better than former Pulp Fiction co-star and soon-to-be cultural phenomenon Samuel L. Jackson, who though something of a big screen veteran by 1995 was yet to stumble upon his newfound superstar status.
Jackson, who would soon immortalise himself as bible-quoting gun-for-hire Jules Winnfield, would actually cite Die Hard With A Vengeance, released seven months after Pulp Fiction, as the movie that catapulted him to the Hollywood mainstream, something blockbuster regular Willis had foreshadowed as the two took a break from filming to attend the film’s award-winning Cannes debut in May ’94. “When I was doing Die Hard, Pulp Fiction came out,” Jackson would recall. “So Bruce and I flew from [New York] to Cannes to watch Pulp Fiction. And I was like ‘Damn! This movie is fuckin’ good. Look at this!’ And Bruce was [like], ‘Yeah, it’s good, but [Die Hard With A Vengeance is gonna make you a star.’ And I was like, ‘What you talkin’ about?’ He said, “Die Hard’s gonna be the highest-grossing movie in the world next year.”
Willis was right too. Though Die Hard With A Vengeance would ultimately fall by the wayside, becoming just another action vehicle at a time when the genre was in need of a little reinvention, it would become the year’s highest-grossing movie, even edging out Disney’s revolutionary Toy Story with a staggering worldwide gross of $366,101,666. Pulp Fiction, which would lead the indie revolution by becoming the first independent movie to gross more than $100,000,000, would cement Jackson’s legacy as the months and years rolled by, but the actor owes a great debt to the third instalment in the Die Hard series. It gave him name recognition at time when things were about to take off in a fashion nobody could have envisaged.
The Die Hard 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, accessories after the fact. In Die Hard with a Vengeance, Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus is for the most part McClane’s equal. He doesn’t assist the white hero from the shadows, hanging on his every instinct. In fact, he doesn’t want to be around McClane at all. And let’s be honest, who could blame him?
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.
While the likes of Al and Barnes offered our reluctant hero unconditional support and ultimately put him on a plateau of selfless heroism, Zeus proves much more resistant, and for a while McClane is as much an enemy as the no good gangbangers doing their utmost to drag his young family down to their level. In fact, he is worse: he’s white. Like Riggs and Murtaugh in the original Lethal Weapon, the two initially don’t feel as though they need each other, but unfortunate circumstances leave them with no other choice, and as with many of the best and most enduring friendships, fate intercedes and an unlikely bond is formed.
Unsurprisingly, a version of the screenplay almost became the fourth Lethal Weapon movie back when Lethal Weapon 4 wasn’t a thing. Originally entitled ‘Simon Says’, the proposed film was meant for budding action star Brandon Lee before tragedy saw him accidentally shot to death by a live round while filming innovative comic book adaptation The Crow, and when the Mel-Gibson led rewrite failed to make waves over at Warner Brothers, the script was sold to Fox and the rest is history.
This time, John McTiernan is back in the director’s chair, and it’s apparent from the offset that he knows exactly what makes McClane tick. McTiernan, the action maestro behind films such as Predator and The Hunt For the Red October, was arguably genre’s most skilled orchestrator during the late 80s and early 90s, and Die Hard With A Vengeance, delivered with the kind of breakneck aplomb that shatters your suspension of disbelief even during the film’s most overblown sequences, shows the filmmaker at the absolute top of his game. A quarter of a century on, some of those scenes are still absolutely awe-inducing.
McTiernan would slink into the shadows soon thereafter, assuming production duties and directing only two more movies before the decade’s end. The filmmaker would return with colossal commercial flop Rollerball in 2002, a production plagued by creative disagreements that would ultimately land him in some federal hot soup. On April 3, 2006, the filmmaker was charged with making a false statement regarding his supposed hiring of private investigator Anthony Pellicano to illegally wiretap Rollerball producer Charles Roven. McTiernan originally cut a deal that would result in a lenient sentence, but the FBI, convinced that he had wiretapped other acquaintances around the same time, pushed for a prison sentence and got it. Characterized by Federal District Judge, Dale S. Fischer as someone who believed they were “above the law”, McTiernan was fined $100,000 and sentenced to four months in jail.
Unwilling to lie down and take his medicine, McTiernan would remain on bail pending a hearing with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It didn’t go well for him. The case was ultimately reopened, further charges brought against him, including two counts of misleading the FBI and one count of committing perjury, but it wasn’t over by a long shot. In 2010, after entering another guilty plea in an attempt to dodge as many as five years of incarceration, McTiernan was sentenced to one year in prison, three years of supervised probation, and a fine of $100,000. This being Hollywood, the filmmaker was once again released on bail until finally, a whole six years after the trial began, he was forced to surrender to the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, South Dakota, a minimum security, white collar crime facility where he would serve the majority of a twelve-month sentence. He would never work again.
Die Hard With A Vengeance would prove to be McTiernan’s action blockbuster swansong, and it’s an admirable effort to go out on. Perhaps the movie’s biggest strength is its decision to have our washed-out hero’s third outing set in ‘The Big Apple’. In the first two films, McClane had been out of his jurisdiction, dealing with bureaucratic suits who were unwilling to throw away the rule book and bend to his East Coast ways. We had heard all about our hero’s backlog of New York scumbags, but we’d 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 a deadly game of ‘Simon Says’ with a madman intent on blowing up the city.
Unlike the first two movies, McClane isn’t merely a fly in the ointment. He’s a pawn in our super criminal’s game of citywide treachery, a heroic celebrity whose reputation precedes him. Despite the addition of a larger, more diverse location, New York City’s hugely populated grid system proves just as claustrophobic as the stifling Naktomi and the black, icy runways of Dulles International Airport, its giant buildings and unwavering structure caging our two protagonists as they desperately dash from one potential disaster to the next. Since announcing Simon’s planned acts of terrorism would lead to all-out panic, every citizen is both a potential victim and an obstacle. Whether it’s the necessity of reaching an occupied pay phone, commandeering a vehicle or simply convincing people that their lives are in danger, the odds are quickly stacked against McClane and his unwilling sidekick, a fact that Simon takes great pleasure in exploiting.
When we first find McClane, he has sunk to an all-time low, separated from Holly and nursing the bottom of a very deep bottle. Even though McClane managed to fix things with Holly, you always suspected we’d end up here, and the rest of the cast seem to share in our sentiments. In New York City, our ever-reluctant hero is surrounded by the people who know him best, a supporting cast of delightfully acerbic colleagues who receive him with the same knowing fondness we do. He may hang around like a bad smell, but McClane is still the wise-cracking hero with the proletarian wit and irresistible sense of 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 Lethal Weapon series for the most part, despite a race narrative that is occasionally heavy-handed.
Here, a post-Tarantino Jackson is transformed from a philosophical killer into a buttoned-down racist with a chip on his shoulder — the perfect foil for McClane’s liberal-minded everyman. When Zeus first meets McClane, he’s standing on a street corner in Harlem at the request of ‘Simon’. Carrying a billboard daubed in racist slurs, he is almost killed until Zeus intervenes, 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 on the black community, and from there the two reluctant allies bond via a series of largely hilarious incidents that sees one white businessman mistaking Zeus for a vagrant. Later, a big city schmuck demands a ride in his commandeered cab at the worst time imaginable, leading to the kind of comedy flourish that only SLJ can deliver.
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.
Few actors are able to project that kind of relatable cool, and even fewer are able to deliver lines in such a memorable and endlessly quotable way. It began with Tarantino, but soon enough writers were queuing up to utilise his particular set of skills, and rarely does he disappoint here. McClane’s underplayed New York wit proves the perfect accompaniment for Zeus’ slick-talking sense of injustice. Their relationship may lack the warmth of Riggs and Murtaugh, but these are different characters in a different situation, forced to adapt to one another’s less-than-agreeable personalities in the space of 24 hours, and their dynamic is just as effectively delivered.
Despite it formulaic ambitions, affairs are not quite so straightforward for our disinclined duo. It soon becomes apparent that Simon’s vindictive 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, the psychotic sophisticate who became the benchmark for action movie villainy back in 1988 after actor Alan Rickman left the thespian lights for a shot at Hollywood, and his fictional brother is cut from the same silken cloth.
Simon is played by Jeremy Irons, who delights in his role within a role, sending up the archetypal bad-guy-with-an-egomaniacal-twitch. His performance as the faux-headcase with the imaginary stutter is utterly compelling, though you feel much more could have been done to expand on a character whose dual intentions hint at a further level of depth, and in fact almost was. An alternative ending saw McClane fired from his job for failing to unravel his opponent’s military ruse, a plot development which saw our hero track Simon down in Hungary, the latter succumbing to a modified game of Russian roulette involving a small Chinese rocket launcher. The version was ultimately scrapped as it sullied the integrity of the McClane character to have him seek personal revenge, and though I agree with that call, producers also dumped the ending due to a lack of action, which brings me conveniently to my next point.
There is so much action on offer here you almost become numb to it, and scenes like the one in which McClane is shot out of a manhole threaten to push our distinctly mortal warrior into immortal territory. It’s not like his previous forays were any less sensational. I mean, how likely is it that a solitary cop could take on an entire gang of international terrorists barefoot? But as with the scene when a down-on-his-luck McClane is seen picking glass out of his feet in the original Die Hard, a little introspection can go a long way. The settled-upon ending would prove jarringly abrupt, a brief exchange between Zeus and John feeling just a little underdeveloped and tacked-on — a shame given such a memorable and fulfilling journey.
There are other notable flaws inherent in the last great Die Hard instalment. Simon’s sickle-wielding henchwoman, Katya (Sam Phillips), though startlingly vicious and somewhat memorable, could have been so much more, her role almost shoehorned in as a template necessity, and Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly remains painfully absent in a series which had previously put such a strong emphasis on family. The movie is too fast and furious to accommodate the love of McClane’s life beyond the promise of a phone call, and to the film’s detriment. The development of their relationship is plausible, but without Holly’s dependable glow McClane has no true purpose beyond sporadic acts of death-defying heroism. She’s part and parcel of what makes the character so endearing.
That’s the problem with excess, and the reason why the likes of Sylvester Stallone saw their blockbuster stock plummet during the late-90s, leading to a failed Bruce Willis style reinvention as the overweight star of the excellent Copland. By 1995, action’s golden age was finally running out of steam, turn-of-the-century efforts such as the Transporter series ramping the up the self-awareness and focusing more on elaborate fight sequences that paid homage to their overblown predecessors, injecting the genre with irony beyond irony. Though there were other notable entries before the decade was up, Die Hard With a Vengeance felt like the beginning of the end for action’s golden age, stylish, high-tech thrillers and an abundance of disaster movies soon flooding the market. It’s only fitting that John McClane, a character that was pivotal to the genre’s late-20th century boom, remained front and centre.