Dying Hard: Matt Revisits DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE

by     Posted 1 year, 251 days ago

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[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 on the respective links for my look back at Die Hard and Die Hard 2.]

I like to consider Die Hard with a Vengeance the true sequel to Die Hard.  It’s bigger, bolder, darker, but still retains the same sense of desperation, humor, and intensity of the first movie.  Unlike Die Hard 2, the purpose of Die Hard with a Vengeance isn’t to copy the plot elements of the first film, but to take the spirit of the original and paint it on a broader canvas.  Die Hard with a Vengeance takes what could have been a stolid, safe entry, and instead shakes up the formula to keep John McClane (Bruce Willis) alive and kicking, which is impressive for a guy who should have died many times over.

Die Hard with a Vengeance literally opens with a bang as a group of establishing shots in New York City set to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” gets interrupted by an explosion.  We then see the chaos of a police station and Major Crimes Unit Inspector Walter Cobb (Larry Bryggman) receiving a mysterious phone call from “Simon” (Jeremy Irons) who wants to send McClane on a series of sadistic tasks.  McClane is saved from Simon’s first mission in Harlem by reluctant Samaritan, Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), and then the two have to run around to Simon’s tune before trying to foil his plan while the rest of the NYPD is trying to find a bomb Simon planted in a school.

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One of the most important things to know about Die Hard with a Vengeance is that it didn’t start out as Die Hard movie.  It was a script called “Simon Says”, and you can see that it would probably be a fine movie without McClane.  It’s got good supporting roles, a strong duo at the lead, and a compelling antagonist.  But putting McClane in the lead lets With a Vengeance keep the best elements of Die Hard and then let them live in a new context.

Even though With a Vengeance has a large cast and environment, the film strips down McClane to the essentials of his personality.  We meet him in a very dark place: he’s lost his wife and kids, he’s on suspension, and he’s one step away from becoming a full-blown alcoholic.  It would almost be too distant from the original McClane if not for Willis’ performance.  He’s still the joker, the tired and reluctant hero who is forced into a criminal’s scheme.  This time the trap isn’t by accident, but by design.  Simon is out for revenge, and gives the movie a nice tie back to Die Hard, which nicely allows it to ignore Die Hard 2.  There’s not a single character in With a Vengeance who appeared in the previous movies except for McClane (the quick flashback shot of Hans falling to his death doesn’t count).  He’s alone again in the sense of family and friends, but this time he gets to share his desperation with others.

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Willis and Jackson are wonderful together.  Their banter is golden, and it’s not a cute relationship.  They’re two guys who are incredibly pissed off at their circumstances, they don’t like each other, and the film isn’t about them learning to work together as much as it’s about trying to survive together.  As Zeus tells McClane, “I ain’t your partner. I ain’t your neighbor, your brother, or your friend. I’m your total stranger.”  It’s this kind of odd bond that helps revitalize McClane since he has someone to share the pain, but still has enough room to do his own thing.

The film is paced perfectly as it knows when to focus on McClane and Zeus, when to separate the two, and when to go back to MCU members Cobb, Joe (Graham Greene), Connie (Colleen Camp), Ricky (Anthony Peck), and Charlie (Kevin Chamberlin).  With a Vengeance flips the script so that everyone is competent, and genuinely wants to do good (FBI Agent Andy Cross (Charles Dumas) puts aside jurisdictional nonsense to let the NYPD run the show), but they’re all misled by Simon.  In another masterful move by Jonathan Hensleigh‘s script, we don’t even see Simon until 45 minutes into the movie.  We just have Irons’ seductive voice, which is commanding enough to let us feel the character’s presence even though he’s off-camera for almost half the movie.

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When we finally do meet Simon Gruber face-to-face, Irons is as masterful and memorable as Alan Rickman.  The trick of their performances is that they let the movie come to them.  They know the force of their charisma, the characters’ intelligence, their detached attitude (although Simon is even more distant than Hans), and there’s no need to chew the scenery.  His colorful henchmen Targo (Nick Wyman) and Katya (Sam Phillips) are fine, but Irons is enough to drive the show even if he isn’t as much of a foil as Hans.  Simon is a plot device (steer McClane here) given life by the structure in the script and Irons’ performance.

With a Vengeance is about putting McClane through his paces, and watching him once again try to be in control while being out of control.  Die Hard‘s setting has a great sense of claustrophobia, but Die Hard with a Vengeance has the freedom to keep asking, “What if we put McClane here?  What if he was faced with a flooded aqueduct or an out of control train or being trapped in an elevator with four bad guys?”  With every challenge, we see the smirking John McClane outsmart and outshoot his enemies even if there’s an occasional copycat from the original movie like McClane’s fight with Targo harkening back to McClane slugging it out with Karl.  But McTiernan always makes sure to take his second Die Hard film further than his first both in terms of the scope and the violence.

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John McClane has always verged on the edge of superhuman, and I still have trouble believing he’s able to survive the jump from the bridge to the deck of Simon’s ship.  It takes three movies of a guy cheating death to even get us close to believing a person could live after that fall.  But we know it’s McClane, and this is his bloodiest outing by far (At the time of this posting, I don’t know how violent A Good Day to Die Hard gets).  McTiernan proves that Die Hard isn’t just the power of Willis’ performance; it’s about the strength of the direction, and understanding that the humor is just as important as the set pieces, and the action needs to be more than henchman dying in slow-motion.  It’s the style of letting your heist build up to the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and letting that echo the use of “Ode to Joy” in Die Hard.  McTiernan isn’t overt about his influence as much as he’s saying, “This is how you do it right.”

Die Hard with a Vengeance almost gets it perfect except for its anti-climatic ending.  We know that Simon has the gold, but he leaves behind an insultingly boneheaded clue (let me tell you exactly where I am), and then the big fight at the end feels rushed.  Simon is in a helicopter, and McClane manages to hit the exact right powerline at the exact right time, kaboom, “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker.”  Then the movie just ends with brief exchange between McClane and Zeus.  For a story that starts out with a personal vendetta between Simon and McClane, it closes with an impersonal finish.

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The ending becomes more frustrating when you watch the alternate version on the special edition DVD.  In the alternate ending, McClane tracks down Simon to a remote European village, and we figure out how Simon got the gold out of North America (it was melted down into statues of the Empire State Building), and learn that McClane was kicked off the force because the FBI thought he might have had something to do with the heist.  That plot point is kind of stupid, but what follows is the deserving showdown between McClane and Simon.  McClane brings a Chinese rocket launcher with the directional arrows removed, and then proceeds to ask Simon a series of riddles, and when Simon gets an answer wrong, he’s forced to pull the trigger.  Simon ends up sending a rocket into his own chest, and while it makes no sense to even have the riddles when we still don’t know which way the rocket will fire, it toys with Simon since McClane is wearing a flack jacket and therefore can’t lose (by the logic of the scene; I don’t know if a flack jacket would actually save someone in that situation).  According to Hensleigh, executives found McClane was “too cruel” in this scene, but I disagree.  McClane has always had a bit of mean streak (“Now I have a machine gun…”), and this is the better final scene for a man who has nothing left.  Yes, it’s a slightly darker ending, but it’s fitting for a movie that shook up the Die Hard series in the best way.

Rating: A-

[Tomorrow: Live Free or Die Hard and my review of A Good Day to Die Hard]

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  • Thomas

    Great article, and I completely agree. Especially the first hour of Die Hard: With A Vengeance is one of the best hours of action movie I’ve ever seen. Tightly plotted, very well shot and ridiculously entertaining.

    After that it gets a little bit messy (for instance: how did Simon know to plant the bomb at the school where Zeus’ kids go if Zeus enters the story by pure luck?) but it’s never not fun. I love McClane when he’s balding and hung-over, not as a shaven superhero.

  • Kay

    C+

  • A-Man

    What the hell is wrong with you??

    Why did you no mention the EGGGgggggggg!

  • Bruce LeeRoy Die Hard Fan!

    Out of all The Die Hard movies this is the stand out. You point that the ending was sub par but look at the movie Drive! All that tension lead to them stabbing each other, kinda dry for an ending but consider the fact of all the crazy shit they showed maybe the director wanted end on lighter note and the hero wins. That’s why I like Die Hard it takes you on that ride and keeps you woundering if he will make it out alive and how it ends is with the smart villin slips and Maclane is there too catch him in the end(except for Die Hard 1 when Hal saved his ass)! Still One the best action films and star Bruce Wills!

  • dana

    great article. when this movie was in production i was stoked. and when i saw it this was one of the fewest movies to match my expectations. and that is unusual for part 3′s. and your right that ending scene always felt off to me. primarily because of the time it took to get from NY to Canada. all the other die hards (except for Live free) occurred within a time limit of 7 hrs.

  • Mark

    I, too, prefer to watch this one as if the second one never existed. This one feels like a true sequel. And the events of the second movie are not missed.

  • Bert

    This was the last great action movie of its era. It’s a shame Fox & Willis can’t figure out how to recapture lightning in a bottle.

  • Miguel

    The LAME ending ALWAYS bugged me. Whereas Die Hard 2 stuck the landing on an inferior jump, this one BLOWS the landing on a better jump. I’ll take the former. To each his own I guess.

  • Ric_Hard

    Andrew J. Vajna’s production signature on WITH A VENGEANCE won’t ever compare to that of LawrenceGordon/Joel Silver/John Davis’ DIE HARD and DIE HARD 2. That’s why the predecesors feel bolder and better made. The only edge we get in this second sequel is the (almost) assured direction of John McTiernan, back in the series after two financial disasters (MEDICINE MAN and LAST ACTION HERO). Kudos to Willis, who really *sells* the movie with his everlasting carisma. I really enjoyed part 3, due to its pacing and the dinamic of McClane with Zeus. But it shows that the script was originally conceived for a LETHAL WEAPON follow-up.

  • WAM

    Here’s how you “recapture Die Hard lightning in a bottle” …..put McClane back into a confined
    area and let him battle the bad guys,…..a cruise ship, another building, an island, something where
    he has to use his smarts as well as brawn. What made the first one so great was partly the claustrophobic sense of battling the bad guys, while being confined to a certain space….DIEHARD
    needs that again.

  • James Freud

    I was waiting for this recap to come up, and you still haven’t convinced me. Die Hard 2 was and always will be superior to anything in the series that came after it for the pure fact that the subsequent films strayed away from the ‘Die Hard Formula’, an important aspect being that it’s set in a confined space, ie. a building, or an airport. Hell, Under Siege 2 is more of a Die Hard film than ‘Vengeance’, or even the latest Die Hard film.

    • WAM

      Agree.

    • Northern Star

      Whilst an unashamed fan and apologist for the fantastic (and still very underrated) ‘Die Hard 2′, I think you’re being a little harsh on ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ there, James dude, to each his own and all that, but I thought ‘…Vengeance’ was a great third film to a matchless action trilogy that both played with the formula whilst cementing what made it’s two predecessors so great. And I too wish they’d kept the original ending to ‘…Vengeance’, it would have been a gutsy, bold, and out-of-the-box way to end both that particular ‘Die Hard’ movie and the series as a whole the only way it should have; McClane taking it to the bad guy… where HE lives rather than the other way around, a final two-finger salute capping off McClane’s take-no-prisoners attitude perfectly…

  • West

    Obviously none of the sequels lived up to the original, but With a Vengeance is easily the worst. That said, the new one looks to take its place. McClane should have rode into the sunset in 88.

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