DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE
Welcome, one and all! It’s part 3 of E.J.’s “Die Hard” retrospective and we’ll be taking a look at “Die Hard with a Vengeance.”
I was 11 years old and my dad was cool enough to take me to see this in theaters and let me tell you, I loved it from the start and it still holds up to this day! Director John McTiernan returns and it’s just so obvious that he understands what makes a good “Die Hard” movie because he succeeds in telling a different kind of story without losing the charm of the original. I get a genuine feeling he purposely doesn’t acknowledge the second movie and considers this a true first sequel to the first one. Why else wouldn’t it be called “Die Hard 3?” Well, I commented on how I thought at the title “Die Harder” was cheesy, but this was just a head scratcher. Never had I heard a sequel put its title in a sentence or phrase before. But to tell you the truth, it grew on me quickly. There’s just something about the phrase “With a vengeance” that screams, “back for a real sequel.”
Well, this movie actually started off as another script named “Simon Says” which was intended to be made into the third Lethal Weapon movie. It’s especially evident by the fact that this installment is more of a buddy comedy. Not to be confused for the movie “Simon Sez” starring Dennis Rodman. For some reason, it became some sort of tradition to make a “Die Hard” movie from a different source material. The first two being books and this one, a different script.
This film literally starts off with a bang. The only credits presented are the titles, then we have a small montage of New York City set to Lovin’ Spoonful. Then, boom! A department store blows up! It grabs our attention immediately! The police department is scrambling for damage control when Police Chief Walter Cobb gets a call from the mad bomber “Simon.” There’s a beautiful shot where we pan slowly around his head throughout Simon’s call and the suspense already starts to build!
John McClane is once again thrust into a situation he doesn’t want to be in. But in a great twist, this time he’s being held hostage as Simon specifically requested John McClane to start participating in a dangerous game of Simon Says and if he fails the tasks, Simon will detonate another bomb. When we first see John, he’s hung over, he’s become an alcoholic and he’s even on suspension. It’s mentioned that he’s once again separated from his wife, although she doesn’t technically appear this time around.
The first task John must carry out is wearing a sandwich board with a message that could get him killed. A humble electrician, Zeus Carver, played by Samuel L. Jackson confronts him and unwittingly gets himself involved in the game. John convinces Zeus to play along and the rest of the movie, they become joined at the hip. It’s a detour to give McClane a direct partner. In the first two movies, he’s usually working alone, but has help from at least one more person. Here, he relies on Zeus on multiple occasions and couldn’t possibly complete all of the tasks without him. What follows is a series of sequences where John and Zeus have to travel around New York City solving riddles and disarming bombs. It’s incredibly fun to watch. It’s just like a video game. It’s not unlike missions in open world games like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Saints Row” where you travel around the city completing tasks or else something bad happens. The riddles were shown in a way to challenge the audience too. I remember rumbling amongst the people in the audience, trying to figure out the answers.
The entire New York police force gets involved in containing the terrorist plot since there’s more than just McClane’s end. It’s great to see him not butting heads with authority as much this time around and you really get a sense of unity between the police officers. What’s funny is you get to see John interact with his old cop buddies and being in New York, everybody is a smart ass and bust each other’s balls all the time. It happens a lot without being overkill and you can really see how McClane developed such a sarcastic personality at his home base.
Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis’ chemistry is perhaps one of the best buddy-cop relationships ever. They play off of each other so well! Zeus is an “angry black man” character and is overly sensitive to everything McClane says like he’s implying something. Their bickering elevates this entry to be funniest of the series. It was just a blast to watch them argue. I remember the theater crowd going nuts. I don’t know how McTiernan does it, but in his “Die Hard” movies, the dialogue delivery seldom sound like actors giving performances. They’re always incredibly natural. It’s like a Howard Hawkes movie!
The “Vengeance” part of the title comes from when McClane finds out that Simon is actually Simon Gruber, Hans Gruber’s brother. It was such a fun twist to find out because it I already loved the movie and it actually had the balls to connect itself with the first one without being cheesy. Simon is played by Jeremy Irons and let me tell you, he gives Alan Rickman a run for his money. He’s just as good and what makes him so charismatic is his confidence. He walks everywhere like he owns the world and makes great quips himself. He’s like an evil James Bond! The great thing is he actually has a personality similar to Hans but has his own personal flare so you believe they WERE brothers instead of being a rehash. The motif of the bad guys in this movie is the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” just like “Ode to Joy” was in the first one. Whenever I watch this movie, I can’t help but whistle along to this song. Their plot is similar to the first where they pose as terrorists to deviate from their real heist plot, but here, it feels fresh and exciting. Never did it feel forced nor copied.
McClane and Zeus run all over New York playing Simon’s game until John finally gets a lead. Then, it becomes a detective story, which is McClane’s thing. The beauty of the first and third movie is he relies on his wits. It shows he’s really got street smarts. When it becomes a detective movie, it finally unleashes McClane on everyone. There are few gunfights in this movie, but when they take place, they really get brutal. There is one particularly over the top scene where John is stuck in a flooding tunnel and he surfs on the truck he was driving, but it doesn’t hurt the movie and I can forgive its silliness.
The last third of the movie sees McClane and Zeus climbing aboard a tanker that the terrorists have loaded with their loot. Here, we’re brought into familiar territory as it separates the two protagonists and we have McClane sneaking around another enclosed location trying to find Simon. It’s brief, but a great throwback to the first movie. Bruce Willis can just sell sneaking around and being alert. The ending of the movie is what kind of hurts it. It’s a sequence that seems to pop up out of nowhere and feels a bit tacked on. But this is for good reason, because this was a reshot ending. The original ending, which can be viewed on the DVD set and youtube shows McClane catching up to Simon months later in a German bar. McClane was fired from the NYPD and he’s been driven angry and bitter by Simon’s whole ordeal. There’s practically no action in it. It’s just John and Simon talking. With that and its darker tone, it kind of resembles a Tarantino movie. What happens is John gets out a rocket launcher and institutes his own riddle game, “McClane Says.” This is an interesting ending. I probably prefer the theatrical one more even though it’s a by the numbers action scene. The alternate ending shows McClane being a bit too dark. He’s crazier because he looks so obsessed with killing Simon. In the theatrical ending, it may be a typical action scene, but at least he still has his sanity and John feels more like a cop than a killer here. Overall, this is without a doubt a close second in the whole franchise.
THREE AND HALF STARS OUT OF FOUR.
One more review to go, then it’s “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
Well, the newest “Die Hard” movie is about to be released on DVD and Bluray, and if you know me, you know that I pretty much grew up loving the first three films. So, I thought I’d do a retrospective over the whole series, offer my review and my personal thoughts since the movies have been such an influence on me.
This will be the first of four reviews, so buckle up; this is E.J.’s “Die Hard” Retrospective!
The first movie is actually based on the novel, “Nothing Lasts Forever” by Roderick Thorp. In that novel, the character who would eventually become John McClane is actually an older character, a detective named Joe Leland. He’s invited to his daughter’s Christmas party rather than his wife’s. And the terrorists are actually political radicals rather than thieves. The book has a darker tone and more complex themes, but a lot of it is surprisingly faithfully adapted on film. “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a sequel to Thorp’s book, “The Detective” which actually was adapted into a film starring Frank Sinatra as Joe Leland. So, if you’re so inclined, you can consider this Frank Sinatra movie to be a prequel to “Die Hard.”
The first thing people rave about this movie is how much of a breath of fresh air it was. Considering it was an action movie in the era where Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger ruled the cinemas, Bruce Willis’ John McClane was a different type of action hero. His physique isn’t that of a bodybuilder and he doesn’t plow through a sea of bad guys all at once without getting injured. It’s ironic because before being adapted into “Die Hard,” this movie was supposed to be a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando,” and if you’ve seen how ridiculously over the top that movie was, I can only imagine how this one would’ve turned out.
I feel the brilliance of the movie is in the pacing. A lot of people seem to think “Die Hard” is all about the action, and while I agree that the movie certainly features mind-blowing sequences, it’s actually more of a thriller and the suspense plays more of a key role than the action. Imagine if someone took an Alfred Hitchcock movie and inserted a bit of John Woo into it. There’s a good chunk of time before the terrorists show up where it almost seems like a different genre of movie. We meet John McClane as he first gets to L.A. He’s thrusted into a minor case of cultural mergence being he’s from New York and California just seems too out there for him. He sits up front in a limo, LA’s technology is trendy and he gets kissed by a drunk guy. So, wait does that never happen in New York on New Years Eve? John finally meets up with his wife at her new job in the Nakatomi Towers. It’s a somber occasion. The mood is awkward and they’re obviously still at odds with each other after she accepted the job relocation and John stayed in New York without the family. Right off the bat, John is proven to be stubborn and doesn’t waste any time arguing with his wife.
The terrorists finally show up and take control of the building while John is relaxing with his shoes off in an office bathroom. The phones are cut and John hears gunfire which springs him into action. He manages to sneak away, thus leaving John alone and is literally the hostages’ only hope for survival.
When the terrorists arrive, the movie basically becomes a “heist gone wrong” movie. Although, instead of following the thieves like most heist movies, we’re following the guy who becomes the factor that the thieves don’t anticipate. Here, we see immediately what separates John from other action heroes. He runs away, he gets scared, he doubts himself and most notably, he’s trying to pawn the situation off on someone else to handle. He goes the whole movie without shoes too which makes him so vulnerable to the action.
Every tactic John uses to get word on the outside that the Nakatomi building has been seized gives away his position. In response, the terrorists realize there’s a rogue person in the building and keep trying to rectify the situation. The cat and mouse game is really this movie’s charm and instead of normal action movies where bad guys fight the good guys in a chance meeting, the action scenes serve the story and everything in the script is based on action-reaction. John gives authorities information that exposes him, so he risks bad guys coming after him.
The main villain is Hans Gruber, played perfectly by Alan Rickman. This was his first major movie role and it’s no wonder why he became such a great character actor after this. Hans is such a charismatic individual, he’s a hard villain to hate. In interviews, Alan Rickman has even said he played the character, not as a villain, but as a man on a mission. It’s just that he’s willing to go as far as killing everyone to accomplish that mission. Despite his sociopathic nature, he’s the reason the whole villain plot becomes more fun as well as menacing. The rest of the terrorists mostly have distinctive characterizations which elevates them from being more than just a body count. And what makes this movie such an effective action-comedy is McClane’s attitude through it all. He’s such a New Yorker at heart that even in the face of danger, he can’t resist being a smart ass to the bad guy. This goes well beyond having one-liners for the sake of puns. Hans’ reactions to McClane’s attitude is just so funny!
When the police finally arrive and surround the building, they are very little help to John and even become another reason for McClane to maintain control. His only real ally is Sgt. Al Powell played by Reginald Vel Johnson of “Family Matters” fame. The dynamic is interesting here because they only communicate by CB radio which is monitored by the villains so they actually listen in on the entire genesis of their friendship. The police officer who is running the show on the outside is a quintessential 80’s asshole who is in great doubt of McClane’s status. Then, there’s the blood-thirsty news reporter who tries to exploit the situation and one of the hostages is a typical 80’s yuppie prick who tries to give McClane up and has a crush on his wife. I mean, have you ever seen an action movie with THIS MUCH characterization? Even if they’re a one-dimensional figure, they’re explored to their mass potential!
The movie was advertised and received in 1988 as a wall-to-wall action movie that’ll blow you to the back wall of the theater, but by today’s standards, the action doesn’t really ratchet up until the last half of the movie when there’s no more messing around. They just use brute force to solve all their problems!
Bottom line, I just can’t recommend this movie enough. I feel as though the sequels have cheapened its image, like the sequels have done for “Jaws” and “Rocky,” but if you ever see just one movie out of the entire series, make sure it’s this one.
FOUR OUT OF FOUR STARS.
Tune in next time where we look at its sequel “Die Hard 2.”
E.J. is just a simple man who loves movies. Don't judge.