We’ve had Norris, Lundgren, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger. Now it’s time for the REAL action star, Bruce Willis. Is the third Die Hard entry the most underrated?
Who made it?: John McTiernan (Director/Co-Producer), Jonathan Hensleigh (Writer), Michael Tadross (Producer), 20th Century Fox.
Who’s in it?: Bruce Willis, Jeremy Irons, Samuel L. Jackson, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, Larry Bryggman.
Tagline: “Think fast. Look alive. Die hard.”
IMDb rating: 7.5.10.
The first Die Hard instalment hit cinemas back in summer 1988. Produced by Joel Silver (whose name is also attached to the Lethal Weapon series and The Last Boy Scout, just to name a few), Die Hard set a new paradigm for action films. Gone was the indestructible hero capable of shooting his enemies with infallible precision while bullets magically skirted around him. In its place was an ordinary bloke who gets involuntarily entangled in circumstances that necessitate his heroics. Die Hard was also set in a claustrophobic location. This formula proved popular as it was soon applied to numerous other action films including Passenger 57, Under Siege (both 1992), Speed (1994), Air Force One (1997) and so on. Fox enjoyed the critical and commercial success of Die Hard, and within two years a sequel found its way into cinemas. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) was an abundantly entertaining action film undermined by its utter implausibility and the exasperating affinity to the original.
Die Hard: With a Vengeance is the third entry in series and there was a five-year gap between films. These five years facilitated numerous things. For starters, the clichéd formula was modified and given a substantial makeover. The creative team realised yet another Die Hard facsimile would produce a mediocre sequel. So they adapted, and the plot was expanded into a buddy cop movie similar to the Lethal Weapon series. John McTiernan, the man responsible for the original, was brought back onboard with star Bruce Willis in tow. This third film also opted to eliminate much of the nostalgia. The film’s plot may have relevance to the preceding films, but returning characters are kept to a minimum. Die Hard: With a Vengeance is consequently a radically different addition to the canon, but it’s a good different and a change for the better. The claustrophobic setting is replaced with the far more expansive location of the city of New York… John McClane’s home turf.
In the opening scenes of the movie, a bomb is detonated in downtown NY on a seemingly regular day. The mastermind behind this bombing identifies himself only as “Simon” (Jeremy Irons). He contacts the police and informs them of his intentions to set off another bomb. He explains that another big bang will occur unless Detective McClane (Willis) completes a number of set tasks. This instalment finds McClane on the booze, on suspension from the police force, and with his marriage in tatters. But he still dons his trademark vest, he’s still handy with a gun, and he’s still wholly vulnerable. Anyway, McClane’s first task takes him to Harlem where he meets black electrician Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson). After Zeus becomes involuntarily intertwined in the action, he’s forced to partner with McClane as Simon appoints them on missions that take them around the city. The remainder of the plot is a series of contrivances to propel the tireless twosome of McClane and Zeus from one end of New York to the other (stopping in Canada, of all places, for the climax).
Die Hard: With a Vengeance is more destructive, more exhilarating and far more intense than the previous instalments. Yet it’s still grounded in more reality than the second entry. With a wider space for plot gestation, there are a broader range of possibilities for stunts and action sequences. Generic action film elements are added such as car chases, interesting arenas for shootouts, and general vehicular mayhem. Entire streets are blown up in sequences that stretch credulity almost past the point of breaking.
It should probably be noted that this is the most graphic Die Hard film in terms of language, violence, gory deaths (one guy is sliced in half!), and even a brief sex scene. McTiernan is, of course, at ease with the screenplay. He also helmed Predator (1987) and Last Action Hero (1993). He knows his way around an action scene. Cinematographer Peter Menzies captures the stunts with consummate skill, making the action thrilling in its own right, imbuing proceedings with a great energy. The definitive layers were added in post-production: John Wright’s competent editing, Michael Kamen’s impeccable music, and the booming sound mix. Explosions and gunshots will give a speaker system one heck of a workout! And, of course, special effects are absolutely top-notch. As the digital age was slowly developing, there are a few CGI instances but they’re not too noticeable. For the most part, the special effects are quite seamless.
There’s also the interesting side-note that Vengeance is the only film in the cycle to be based on an original script. The first screenplay written by Jonathan Hensleigh wasn’t meant to be a Die Hard film from the outset. When it was discovered that his “Simon Says” could easily be moulded into the third Die Hard movie, re-writes commenced (although Hensleigh maintains that the first hour of the movie is his initial work word-for-word). Thankfully, there are plenty of wisecracks and amusing witticisms courtesy of McClane’s badass attitude. Willis plays the role with such ease that he improvised one-liners while the cameras rolled. The laughs are reasonably frequent and moderately droll.
The searing chemistry of Willis and Samuel L. Jackson is off the chart. Their volatile attitudes generate very interesting scenarios. It encompasses sufficient character development mixed with satisfying amounts of pure adrenaline-charged action: bombings, subway crashes, car chases, and helicopter pursuits altogether creating one of Hollywood’s best roller-coaster rides. While this description would usually fit any generic Van Damme or Seagal action vehicle, Die Hard: With a Vengeance is a cut above the pack. The intelligence of the first movie has made a welcome return. There are great, unpredictable plot twists and clever set-ups. For an action movie, it’s fairly subversive.
Also, Willis gives further weight to the argument that no-one can portray an action hero better than he can. The reason why we love John McClane so much is due to his attitude towards the situations he finds himself entangled in. Here’s an interesting fact: the part of McClane was originally offered to all the conventional 80s action stars. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Seagal – they all had a shot. The beauty of casting Willis is that it avoids the clichés. Had it been one of these above names, Die Hard would have been a clichéd action ride that fell dead in the water after the first instalment. But they strayed away from conventions, and Willis immersed himself into the role perfectly.
Jackson is the ideal companion for McClane. He is a scene-stealer and rises above the material. Willis was reportedly unhappy about sharing the spotlight with Jackson. It’s also been reported that Willis disliked the focus shift from lone ranger to buddy flick (which doesn’t explain the presence of Justin Long in Live Free or Die Hard or Jai Courtney in A Good Day to Die Hard). Only Willis purists seem to side with the actor.
Jeremy Irons is evil and sadistic and above all memorable as the villain. When it comes to this series, a memorable villain is essential. His crisp European accent and interesting screen persona elevates him above the one-dimensional villain present in Die Hard 2. Even so, Alan Rickman remains unthreatened.
This time, the cast is accompanied by such names as Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, Larry Bryggman, Anthony Peck, Nick Wyman, Sam Phillips and Kevin Chamberlin. These precise performances keep us engaged from the remarkable first frame to the last.
Die Hard: With a Vengeance opened a short time following a bombing in Oklahoma City. Needless to say, both critics and audiences were still shaken up, and the film (although scripted, filmed and edited before the bombings took place) was treading on sensitive territory. It would be justified to state that viewers were unfairly harsh while watching the film for two reasons. Firstly, the Oklahoma City bombings affected them greatly. Secondly, this was a radically different Die Hard movie, exercising a different formula and a new batch of characters. Personally, I think it is damn close to equalling the original. It only falls short due to it’s mildly sluggish pace at times. From time to time, logic is also the film’s enemy (falling about twenty feet onto metal without a broken bone? I don’t think so). Nevertheless, this is excellent entertainment and a worthy film to sit under the Die Hard banner. It provides the rush of adrenalin, the witty one-liners, the exhilarating action, and the outlandish stunt-work. It’s an endearing, thrilling ride guaranteed to keep an audience on the edge of their seat.
Riggs and Murtaugh had it easy compared to these two.
Also, you may be surprised by how much was cut or edited by the BBFC for the original UK DVD release. The cuts were eventually waived in 2008. Here’s a handy guide to the differences.
- When the bomb goes off in the department store, there is an “Atlantic Courier” truck parked in front of the store that gets flipped over. In Die Hard, Hans Gruber and the other terrorists arrive at Nakatomi Plaza in a “Pacific Courier” truck.
- The sandwich board that Bruce Willis wore while filming in Harlem said “I hate every body” rather than the more racist version that appears in the film. The sign was changed with CGI in post-production to read “I Hate Niggers”, though the “I hate every body” version is used for some television broadcasts of the film.
- Laurence Fishburne was the original choice to play Zeus Carver, but turned down the part. When he reconsidered the decision, Samuel L. Jackson was already cast.
- The line spoken by McClane “Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo” is taken from a song called “Flowers on the Wall” by The Statler Brothers, which also appears in Pulp Fiction (1994), also featuring Willis and Jackson. Willis is singing along to this song on the radio when he runs into Marcellus Wallace.
- Writer Jonathan Hensleigh was actually detained by the FBI after completing the script for the film because he knew extensive information about the Federal Gold Reserve in Downtown Manhattan. Hensleigh stated that he got all the information from an article written in the New York Times.
- The 2003 R1 DVD version includes the original ending showing McClane and Simon playing a game of “chicken” (below).