Thursday, June 8, 2017

No Apologies: Die Hard With a Vengeance

by Rob DiCristino
In which John McClane plays Simon Says.

Nothing beats Die Hard, and it’s very unlikely that anything ever will. It’s a stone-cold genius action premise paired with a lead performance that changed the very nature of the Hero Cop archetype forever. It is a perfect movie. It cannot be replicated. These are facts. However, since movie studios use money to buy things (and Bruce Willis presumably uses it to fill the ever-growing gap in his aching soul), the birth and relentless continuation of the Die Hard cinematic universe was a foregone conclusion. Each film pits Detective John McClane against an escalating series of insane tasks, gradually transforming him from “guy in the wrong place at the wrong time” all the way into “superhero who throws cars at helicopters.” Not a single one of the sequels works in its entirety (“Die Hard in a ____” variants like Speed usually have more success), but they almost always try something different. Grading on that scale — and again, with a heavy, heavy curve — the best of the sequels is easily 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, the entry that first took McClane out of hallways and air vents and into the open world.
While Die Hard 2 introduces a penitent and well-adjusted John McClane repairing his marriage and settling back into family life, Vengeance kicks him back to the curb and gives him possibly the best introduction of any hero short of Indiana Jones: hungover and blabbering in the back of a van. There’s a wonderful irony to McClane’s continued fuck-uppery, proof that one’s ability to get the bad guy doesn’t make one any less of a jackass. He may have saved hundreds of people at Nakatomi Plaza, but he didn’t learn anything about himself. And sure, the “call Holly” story thread is pretty half-baked, but it does tie together with the larger theme of unfinished business presented by Jeremy Irons’ villain, Simon Gruber. Vengeance also gives us an opportunity to see how John (mal)functions more directly with other cops — characters like The Chief (Larry Bryggman) and The Squad (Graham Greene, Colleen Camp) rag on him mercilessly. It’s cool to see McClane’s peers give him shit and refuse to cut him any slack. This broken and vulnerable version of the character is far more interesting than the detached Man of Steel he becomes later on.

Also interesting is Samuel L. Jackson as “Good Samaritan” Zeus, the Harlem shopkeeper who saves John from some hoods and becomes an unwilling participant in his game of Simon Says. Samuel L. is doing his Samuel L. thing, for sure, but a reputable and competent adult is a nice foil to John’s aforementioned tendency toward fuck-uppery. He’s a capable badass and a responsible uncle who teaches his nephews not to rely on anyone (to be little Die Hards, if you will), and to be wary of The Man. Zeus is hesitant to get involved in white problems (rightfully so; there’s an unintentionally horrifying scene in which a white cop pulls a gun on him just for yelling at a guy at a payphone), but his racially-charged banter with John (and their resulting cooperation) is a ‘90s-era (era) commentary on the issues of the day. Vengeance’s “New Yorkness” is an important element (you might say that New York is…ugh…a character in the film), and pairing together two metropolitan working stiffs from opposite sides of the tracks is a nice addition to the overall dynamic.
Speaking of which, the open sandbox nature of this particular Die Hard entry might be sacrilegious to those in the audience who prefer the one-man-against-one-hundred approach of the first two films. Knowing that the original spec script Simon Says was first converted into a Lethal Weapon sequel before being repurposed with Die Hard characters makes the whole thing feel even more cynical and impersonal, and some might argue that taking the buddy cop approach invalidates this as a Die Hard story entirely. That’s fair, and it’s true that Vengeance is more generally a good action movie than specifically a good Die Hard movie. But it’s a very good action movie, a tightly-paced and inventive story with legitimately interesting challenges for John McClane’s considerable skill set. After two films as an outsider relying solely on his wits, he’s finally able to romp around his home turf, using an ambulance to cut through traffic and leaping with reckless abandon into the Long Island Sound. Sure, there are some logical leaps (How did they get exactly two gallons of water? Why do they compare a random driver to Hillary Clinton?), but it all hangs together fairly well.

It’s not perfect, of course. McClane is on his back foot for far too much of the running time, reacting to events rather than influencing them. He’s not really a fly in Simon’s ointment until the last third of the film, and by then it doesn’t seem to matter. The bad guy is basically hoisted by his own petard through his reckless generosity with an aspirin bottle. It’s kind of lame, honestly. It’s also worth noting that Simon’s Heavy (Nick Wyman) warns him several times that setting up needlessly elaborate traps for McClane to fall into is actually a gigantic distraction from the real mission at hand. It’s supposed to read as a callback to the first film, in which Hans uses a righteous cause as a smokescreen for a simple robbery, but it’s hand-waved away so late in the game that it loses any resonance. He doesn’t even seem to care about getting revenge for his brother’s death, referring to it as a “bonus.” It begs the question: does anyone involved with the Die Hard series truly understand what made Hans Gruber such a great villain? It wasn’t just that he was charming and German. He was a mastermind.
So, no. Die Hard with a Vengeance is not necessarily a great movie. It’s a Saturday afternoon cable movie, something to pass time between commercials. It doesn’t hold a candle to the original and pretty much falls apart as it approaches the finish line. Some would consider that a failure. But risks were taken. Money was spent. Jeremy Irons eats a hard-boiled egg and somehow makes it erotic. Die Hard should never have had one sequel, let alone four (and counting), and that two of them are even halfway watchable is a considerable achievement. At the very least, Die Hard with a Vengeance deserves a better reputation than it currently enjoys because it’s the only one in which a dude gets sliced in half at the waist by a suspension cable. If you need more than that, I’m not sure I want to know you.

21 comments:

  1. "Knowing that the original spec script Simon Says was first converted into a Lethal Weapon sequel before being repurposed with Die Hard characters makes the whole thing feel even more cynical and impersonal, and some might argue that taking the buddy cop approach invalidates this as a Die Hard story entirely."

    My understanding is that of all the Die Hard sequels, the last one was the only one that started out actually being written as a Die Hard movie.

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    1. Yeah, I had a section on that, but I cut it because it seemed too much like a digression. I think my point here is that the introduction of the full-time partner changes the dynamic in a way some people have a problem with.

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  2. I have heavy nostalgia for this movie, being the first die hard I saw theatrically. It took me a long time to admit it had some problems, but I still say McTiernan directed the shit out of the whole thing and that Willis and Jackson have great chemistry that works in a completely different way in unbreakable

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  3. I know a lot of people are lukewarm on this film, but I actually think it's really good. I think it ticks all the boxes of a Die Hard movie (eurotrash villain, escalation of setting, cross-double cross-triple cross villain plot, etc) without feeling like a rehash of the first (as 2 does). Most of all, I like the characters. It's the only film where McClane isn't motivated by saving a hostage family member. Zues is an interesting (and at times tired) foil for John. Graham Greene and Colleen Camp are fun together. I even love Jerry the truck driver. It's not perfect (that's Die Hard, Die Hard is perfect), the direction is sloppy and the editing is worse. There is a few simple solutions to the water jug test, not that the movie let's you know.

    It's put DHWAV up against just about any other 90s action movie, and with few exceptions, I think it comes out on top. Great write-up Rob, keep ze bottle.

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  4. I like the movie too and have a great amount of nostalgia for this entry. I don't like a lot of the choices they make (the focus on racism which seems out of place, making McClane an alcoholic even though he's been heroic the past two movies) but I'm at the point now where the sum is a lot more important than its parts and I can forgive that the movie isn't perfect.

    Question for you...I think the line in the series where it goes from McClane being the regular guy to a superman is when there's the sewer flood. What say you, Rob?

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    1. Totally agree. I would argue that the bridge fall also pushes it, but I think it's fairly appropriate escalation from the first film. Both are part of the reason why I'd argue the film gets less imaginative and fairly clunky in its third act.

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  5. "Why do they compare a random driver to Hillary Clinton?" This. This part always drives me crazy because it's so forced. By being cut-off by a driver and saying "who do you think you are lady, Hilary Clinton?!" which no-one would say, ever, they then have the ridiculous nerve to have Zeus and John somehow now miraculously know how to look for the bomb in the school. It's really nitpicky but it makes me cringe every time I see it. Otherwise, I love DHWAV, it's definitely the best sequel in the franchise and Bruce's delivery is fantastic - "Nice. Rhymes." His frustration also adds greatly to the tension.

    Side note: DHWAV is the only movie that I saw a midnight showing for and then went back to the first showing the next morning.

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    1. The Clinton line makes sense because HAVE YOU SEEN THE RANDOM DRIVER'S EMAILS?

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    2. There's a Donald Trump reference, too. This movie is a misery twofer!

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    3. It's also the only movie i can think of that name drops Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. Is Die Hard with a Vengeance PSYCHIC? Also, "and I'm gonna marry Donald Trump" is the most ridiculous line in the whole franchise because it posits a world where marrying Donald Trump (or even being around him) is a desirable situation.

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  6. My only other gripe is not enough Coleen Camp!

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  7. My favorite Die Hard sequel is Sudden Death with Van Damme. haha In all seriousness, it's Die Harder, but I should revisit this one.

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  8. I was super confused when I read the title of this article because why would we apologize for Die Hard with a Vengeance?

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    1. Sorry about that! No Apologies is a series where I defend movies that I think should have a better reputation. I should be more clear about that.

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    2. Oh I got that. I just had no idea this one didn't have a good reputation haha. I apparently only surround myself with people who like this movie...I had no idea it needed defending! But thank you for fighting the good fight for movies!

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    3. I notice it doesn't have a great reputation with the contributors of this site (obviously other than Rob) but has a lot of fans elsewhere.

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    4. Oh! Sorry for the misunderstanding, Angela.

      Maybe it's just my personal experience, but I've always heard it referred to as the crappy one. Glad to hear that's not true everywhere!

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    5. Well, hopefully those people will read this and rethink a bit.

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  9. Really enjoyed reading this. I had never considered the difference between 1 and 3 that McClane is more reactive than proactive but it's certainly true (although the dude was hung over!).

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    1. Thanks! I think it's important to note because so much of what works about the first film is in the way McClane and Gruber bounce off of each other, each one having to reset and compensate for the adjustments of the other. This one barely has any of that, so it was a little disappointing.

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