VHS Revival treads unfamiliar ground with a familiar friend
Die Hard with a Vengeance would prove something of a turning point in the series.
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 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.
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.
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 is arguably 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.
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, Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus is for the most part McClane’s equal.
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 movie, the two of them don’t feel they need each other, and they certainly don’t want each other, but an unfortunate circumstance 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.
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.
Unsurprisingly, a version of the screenplay almost became the fourth Lethal Weapon. 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 The Crow, and when the Mel-Gibson led rewrite failed to make waves at Warner Brothers, the script was sold to Fox and the rest is history.
This time, original director John McTiernan is back in the hot seat, and it is apparent from the offset that he knows exactly what makes McClane tick. Perhaps the movie’s biggest strength is its decision to have McClane’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. 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 ‘Simon Says’ with a madman intent on blowing up the city.
Unlike the first two movies, which were confined to a corporate skyscraper and international airport respectively, our hero is here given the freedom of a sprawling metropolis. This may seem like a departure on the surface of things, but the reality is, New York City’s hugely populated grid system proves just as claustrophobic, 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 obstacle. Whether it’s the necessity of reaching a pay phone that is currently in use, 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 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 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.
McTiernan’s second masterstroke was to capitalise on Pulp Fiction‘s unprecedented popularity. One of the most iconic movies of the entire decade, Tarantino’s cultural phenomenon was still fresh in the minds of moviegoers, and though Jackson and Willis were barely onscreen together, any reference to a movie of that magnitude was bound to put butts in seats, particularly since Tarantino’s trademark was the use of cultural references, nostalgia snippets that imbued his pictures with an air of cinematic cool.
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.
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 is standing on a street corner in Harlem at the request of ‘Simon’. Carrying a billboard daubed with 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 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, while a big city schmuck demands a ride in his commandeered cab at the worst time imaginable.
Few actors are able to project the kind of cool that Jackson does, and even fewer are able to deliver lines in such a memorable and endlessly quotable way. It began with Tarantino, sure, but soon enough writers were queuing up to utilise his particular set of skills, and rarely does he disappoint. 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. Simon is played by Jeremy Irons, who delights in his role as the psychotic sophisticate. 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 that you almost become numb to it, and scenes like the one in which McClane is shot out of a manhole threaten to push our mortal warrior into immortal territory. 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 seen picking glass out of his feet, a little introspection can go a long way, and Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly remains painfully absent in a series which puts such a strong emphasis on family.
Still, this is a very fine sequel indeed; 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 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, regardless of how far they push the boundaries.