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