Thursday, June 28, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)

If the original Die Hard is a film that I grow nostalgic towards each December, as Christmas rolls around, Die Hard With a Vengeance seems to cross my mind as the temperature rises in the summer time.  This second sequel in the franchise has a hot, steamy feel to it as John McClane battles his enemies in a sun-baked Manhattan.  Of course, the original Die Hard tried to be as realistic as it could and still succeeded in pure adrenaline and entertainment.  The second Die Hard, directed by shameless action hack Renny Harlin, was a brainless mess of bloodletting and noise for the most part.  Die Hard With a Vengeance, however, is a creative and fun entry into the franchise, reuniting the character with director John McTiernan who was in charge of the first picture. 

The film wastes little time getting to the action, as The Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City" is cut short by an explosion at a department store.  The explosion is a warning sent by Simon, the villain of the picture.  He will detonate another one unless Detective John McClane is brought in to participate in a sordid series of games.  The thing is, McClane is on suspension, and frequently drunk.  The mental state of John McClane is vital in the success of these films, in my opinion, but more on that later.  The chief rustles up a hungover McClane, who must wear a sandwich board in Harlem with an unfortunate racial slur written across it or else Simon will blow up another building.  Luckily, before the local riffraff can kill McClane he is rescued by Zeus, a reluctant shop owner played by Samuel L. Jackson.  Zeus is pulled into the game with McClane, as Simon begins sending them on tasks all over the city, leading them in different directions with riddles and clues.  Yet he always seems a step ahead, and he always appears to have a watchful eye on the two men.

This entire set up is, of course, a Rube Goldberg device used to pull off an elaborate heist.  Send them here, send them there, detonate a subway train, creating a hole in the ground to nab some gold, then set up a bomb in a school plotline to distract the police, and so on.  Simon, who is only heard over the phone for the first hour, is played with delightful European smarm by Jeremy Irons.  Turns out he is the brother of one Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman's character in the original Die Hard, and toying with an ultimately killing McClane is just a nice little addition to his heist.  The entire plot is put together seamlessly and is a lot of fun, despite the laughable moments like McClane surfing atop a dump truck in an aquaduct or the two men shimmying down a cable onto a moving freightliner.  It doesn't make things any less enjoyable.

There are no bad characters here.  Even the police trying to track down the school bomb, and the chief himself, are not annoying naysayers like the versions in the first two films.  And it was a clever move adding Jackson's character to go along with Bruce Willis.  John McClane is as easy as breathing for Willis at this point.  Naturally these two men start off on the wrong foot and have cultural boundaries to cross, but the way they begin to bond and focus on the task at hand feels natural and unforced.  And back to the McClane character, who in this film is down on his luck, separated from his wife, Holly, and basically a miserable drunk.  Think about John in the original film, on the outs with Holly again.  In the second film, however, they are back on and in love, and the film doesn't seem to work as well.  Then move forward to Live Free or Die Hard; they are divorced, but they have moved on from each other.  Things are stable at home, and again the film doesn't work.  I don't know if this is a coincidence, but the mental state of McClane lends itself to the success of these films.  Maybe I am reaching.

Die Hard With a Vengeance is an example of pure 90s action, when CGI had yet to dominate the screen and there was still time for face-to-face gunplay and set pieces.  And director John McTiernan understands the importance of making McClane vulnerable to gunfire, fists, and hard hits.  By the time the fourth film comes along, McClane seems indestructable, and this is all wrong.  Die Hard With a Vengeance doesn't stop, so it doesn't allow the audience time to question the preposterous nature of the events.  It is pure summer fun, and easily the second best film in the franchise.