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.
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.
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.