Treading unfamiliar ground with a familiar friend as Die Hard cadges a ride on the Pulp Fiction freight train
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 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. McClane is an emotional train wreck, which is presumably why he throws himself in front of so many of them, 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 is different enough to shake up the series at a time when Willis’ stock had risen, 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 newfound cultural phenomenon Samuel L. Jackson, who though something of a big screen veteran by 1995 had only just stumbled upon his newfound superstar status.
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. 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 leaves 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 back when Lethal Weapon 4 wasn’t a thing. Originally entitled ‘Simon Says’, the proposed movie was meant for budding action star Brandon Lee before tragedy saw him accidentally shot 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. 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 movies, 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 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 a deadly, yet patronising 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, but 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, despite a race narrative that is occasionally heavy-handed.
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.
McTiernan’s second masterstroke was his decision to capitalise on Pulp Fiction‘s unprecedented popularity. Here, 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 see 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. 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, and their dynamic is just as effectively delivered.
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 it 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 a bar in Germany. 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, and Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly remains painfully absent in a series which had previously put such a strong emphasis on family. The settled-upon ending is also a little 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. It all seems just a little incomplete.
It’s still a fine sequel; a relentless, smash-mouth affair that succeeds in rejuvenating the series before it had a chance to grow stale. At the time of its release, Die Hard with a Vengeance gave us a plot immersed very much in the sensational, but the terrorist angle has lent proceedings a more ominous tone post-911, and it’s hard to imagine a movie of this nature in today’s sensitive climate. I suppose the madness of Hollywood will never eclipse that of reality, regardless of how far they push the boundaries.