[With A Good Day to Die Hard set to open this Thursday, we'll be taking a look back at the first four Die Hard movies. These reviews will contain spoilers since the movies have been out for years. Click here for my look back at the first Die Hard.]
There wasn’t a shred of doubt that after Die Hard became one of the biggest hits of 1988, a sequel wouldn’t be far behind. Two years later, Die Hard 2 (with the tagline “Die Harder”, although this is sometimes erroneously believed to be part of the title) opened and became one of the biggest hits of 1990. But the rush came with a lack of ingenuity, and Die Hard 2 is mostly a retread. Rather than focusing on John McClane (Bruce Willis) as the outsider, Die Hard 2 is about how he can’t catch a break. It has to be due to the chronological proximity to the first movie. However, while the sequel lacks originality, its biggest problem is misunderstanding the motives of McClane, and ignoring the conflict between his drive to do the right thing, and once again saving his wife.
From the opening scene, John McClane is having a rough day as his car gets towed by an asshole cop at Washington Dulles International Airport. McClane is there to pick up Holly, whose flight is scheduled to arrive that night. Her arrival and the arrival of all planes are delayed when the airport is taken over by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) in order to break drug lord General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero) out of custody. This time, the hostages are the planes, and it’s up to McClane to rush through the airport and shut down the bad guys.
As every Screenwriting 101 professor will tell you, the best way to get an audience’s attention is to have naked William Sadler doing tai chi. But perhaps it’s not the best idea for such a distracting visual to be playing out while the muddled exposition on Esperanza is delivered through TV reports. The film manages to survive the bumpy start until it comes to the end when we discover that an Army Special Forces team led by Major Grant (John Amos) was in on the plot the whole time, was going to stage a shootout with Stuart’s guys, and then everyone would escape with Esperanza. In terms of execution, it’s a shocking twist since Amos has fatherly warmth, and the mark of a good guy in this film is smacking around the incompetent and ineffective airport police Captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz). The first time I saw Die Hard 2, I was genuinely surprised when Grant slit the throat of the team member who wasn’t in on the plot. But in retrospect, it seems like a twist done for the sake of a surprise rather than solidifying the plot.
When it comes to action, director Renny Harlin seems constricted by having to recreate scenes from the first film. He has to send McClane into an elevator shaft, a ventilation system, a location that’s under construction, etc. When the director gets to branch out into new sequences, the results are mixed. McClane’s escape from grenades via an eject seat is a great sequence, but the snowmobile chase is bland because it’s more fun to ride a snowmobile than to actually watch them (it’s like a car chase except none of the vehicles can quickly maneuver). Harlin also seems to have a penchant for slow-mo bad guy deaths, which aren’t as rewarding as the director believes.
The occasional bursts of originality are welcome especially when the film is constantly forced to call back to the original. When McClane exclaims, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” we want to shout back, “Scared executives, shitty writing, or both!” Sending McClane back to the same situations on the same day (Christmas), feels lazy, especially when the script occasionally finds fun ways to raise the stakes. Stuart isn’t capturing a small group of people; he’s kidnapped entire planes, and when he crashes one, Die Hard 2 clicks together. Once again, we feel McClane’s desperation mixed with the futility of trying to save everyone.
But that’s the major problem of Die Hard 2: The best chance at saving all the passengers is to let Stuart simply get Esperanza. It doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world to let a single drug lord go free since we know that even if Esperanza was prosecuted, another drug lord will take his place. This isn’t like Die Hard where there’s a serious possibility that Hans could kill all of the hostages (which turns out to be part of his plan). Stuart can’t possibly crash all of the planes, and if the cost of one plane is too high, then why get in his way?
More importantly, Die Hard 2 doesn’t trap McClane. He’s not strictly “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He seeks out trouble. At the beginning, he sees something suspicious, and because he knows that the airport police won’t do anything about it, he goes into luggage sorting facility, and fights two bad guys. It triggers the chain of events where McClane is actively putting himself in the middle of the action, and continues to do so throughout the film.
Die Hard 2 is too much of a wide-appeal blockbuster film to explore the serious question of a guy who feels obligated to save everyone even if it risks the safety of his wife. The film wants him to have it both ways, and we know that none of the supporting characters will call him out on how his behavior is endangering the life of the woman he loves. Die Hard 2 paints the picture that if he can save all the planes, he can save Holly’s, but he could have saved all the planes by simply doing nothing. That makes for a boring film, but the lazy script has no way to force McClane into his situation. That’s why the story has to work harder to create the sense of desperation that ran throughout the first film.
It’s almost impossible for a sequel to recreate the impact of Die Hard, but there’s still the potential to recapture the elements that made the first film great. Sadly, most of Die Hard 2 never reaches what Die Hard accomplished even in the basic terms of comedy, pacing, and action. Willis is still fantastic, and the supporting cast is solid (I’ll watch Sadler in just about anything). Furthermore, Die Hard 2 gives Willis the room to continue establishing the character of John McClane, and makes sure he gets to stick with his catchphrase even though he’s also saddled with dialogue like, “What sets off the metal detectors first? The lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?” (I’m pretty sure metal detectors don’t pick up feces no matter where it may be in your body)
When I think of the greatest action movie of all time, I think of Die Hard. When I think of lackluster sequels, Die Hard 2 isn’t at the top of my list, but it would probably be in the top ten. It’s not a bad film, but it seems content to coast off the success of the first movie without ever considering any of the details that made Die Hard a classic. Thankfully, McClane’s next outing would not only retain what made the character special, but create a fresh adventure that still felt like a Die Hard movie.
[Next: Die Hard with a Vengeance]