What do you watch at Christmas when you’ve already watched Die Hard?
Who made it?: Renny Harlin (Director), Steven E. de Souza, Doug Richardson (Co-Writers), Charles Gordon, Joel Silver, Lawrence Gordon (Producers), 20th Century Fox.
Who’s in it?: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, William Atherton, William Sadler, Franco Nero, John Amos, Dennis Franz, Reginald VelJohnson.
Tagline: “They say lightning never strikes twice… They were wrong.”
IMDb rating: 7.0/10.
With the immediate and well deserved success of Die Hard, it was only inevitable that a sequel would go into production. While sequels were numerous by 1990, few had ever lived up to the original (except for The Godfather: Part II and Aliens, perhaps). Filmmakers were still trying to decide what elements made a good follow-up. Do you give the audience a radically different take, or just more of the same with some new additions? Die Hard 2 went for the latter, sticking to the formula established by John McTiernan’s masterpiece almost to the letter. The setting might be different, but it’s still about terrorists placing unlucky cop John McClane in a sticky situation on Christmas Eve. It even has some of the same supporting characters. Die Hard 2 shouldn’t have worked, but it occupies a place on the list of cash-in sequels that keep you riveted even when you’re feeling a nagging sense of deja vu.
Like every film in the Die Hard series except A Good Day, the second was based on existing material, Walter Wagner’s novel 58 Minutes. It was a pleasant tale about terrorists blowing up signal towers and jamming communication between planes. Returning screenwriter Steven E. de Souza merely retooled this idea to fit Bruce Willis’ wise-cracking McClane and the film practically wrote itself. McTiernan wisely passed to helm that year’s The Hunt for Red October (later returning for the much more inspired Die Hard With a Vengeance), and the reigns were given to Finnish upstart Renny Harlin, who knew a thing or two about cookie-cutter sequels having directed A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988). He really perfected his technique on this one.
The film begins with McClane arriving at Washington’s Dulles International Airport to wait for his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), whose plane is due to land. However, his holiday plans are interrupted by pesky terrorists who take over the air traffic controls and hold not only the people on the ground hostage, but those in the air too. It’s up to McClane to not only deal with the terrorists and those standard-issue bureaucrats, but to save the hostages (and his wife, again) in the nick of time.
Die Hard 2 is an extremely solid sequel. But in my opinion, despite its many good points, it is possibly the weakest of the quadrilogy (fans seem to be split on either bad-mouthing this one or Live Free or Die Hard). It has all the ingredients of a great thriller – guns, explosions, last-minute escapes, suspense, a big helping of McClane doing what he does best, and a great roster of supporting characters. Despite all these elements, you can’t help but compare it to its predecessor; it’s the filmic equivalent of re-heating the Christmas dinner remains on boxing day. Before Die Hard fans start the bonfire and impale me on a stake, let me explain my conflicted opinion.
Let’s start with the characters. Die Hard 2 is strong on the protagonist side of things, with McClane, his wife, airport techie Leslie Barnes (Art Evans), and Reginald VelJohnson’s Al Powell returning for an all too brief cameo. They all bring memorable performances to the table, but I think Harlin failed on the villain front. The antagonists don’t quite cut the mustard compared to the likes of Alan Rickman, Alexander Godunov and Clarence Gilyard Jr. It isn’t that the great William Sadler does a bad job as Colonel Stuart, since he’s ruthless, calculated and intimidating at times, but the scenes you remember him for afterwards are far and few between. One of those being his bat-shit crazy introduction practising martial arts naked in front of the television. There’s not a single line of dialogue I can remember coming out of his mouth, and it doesn’t do him any favours that his comrades are thinly-sketched thugs (including a then unknown John Leguizamo). It’s only when you get to characters played by Dennis Franz, John Amos and cult legend Franco Nero (as secondary baddie General Esperanza) that you get anyone remotely challenging or complimenting Willis.
The star really came into his own here. While McClane is well on his way to becoming an unkillable superhero, dodging a truly ridiculous amount of bullets, Willis effortlessly recaptures the essence of his most famous character and powers the film from beginning to end. He also embraces the humour of the script and the small instances of character development, such as McClane’s utter bafflement at modern technology (a trait that would lead to the tech-centric fourth film). If it wasn’t for this most skilled of 80s action stars leading the way, Die Hard 2 might have collapsed under the sheer weight of expectations.
With that said, people watch these movies for the elaborate set pieces, and the film’s action sequences are thrilling and equal Die Hard without repeating scenarios from the first film. The chaos is extremely well executed by Harlin, who uses the natural surroundings to create thrills and tension at the same time, such as baggage machinery, a snow-covered landscape, a plane cockpit, airport walkways and even on the wing of a jumbo jet about to take off. In fact, it does things that Die Hard with a Vengeance and 4.0 do not – it keeps things simple and finds amazing ways of working the action around its limitations. Although Harlin does seize upon the opportunity to broaden the playing field, with a breathless chase across frozen water on snowmobiles, the action still has a claustrophobic edge. It ups the ante without turning the film into a cartoon. This is something that began to fade in part three, before they added ridiculous things such as jet fighters in number four.
There are also serious moments that you wouldn’t get in a film of its type today, such as the sequence where Colonel Stuart brings one of the planes crashing to the ground. In a post-9/11 world, the sight of hundreds of innocent people perishing in a terrorist attack is strong stuff, and a potent reminder that the once far-fetched Die Hard franchise is now scarily plausible.
Ultimately, the only real problem with Die Hard 2 is that it’s too much like Die Hard… if that can be considered a bad thing. There’s nothing unique about it, apart from the fact it’s at an airport and not Nakatomi Plaza. This is made all the worse by crowbarring past characters into the film, such as weasly journalist Dick Thornberg (William Atherton), who just so happens to be on Holly’s plane. It’s quite possibly a concidence too far in a film built on them, but when your lead character is self-aware enough to acknowledge the unlikelihood of being in the same situation twice, you just go with it. When told that he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, McClane dryly responds, “story of my life.” The film-makers knew exactly what kind of film they were making, and even when the story is lazy and the pay-offs obvious, the humour and action just about save it (not to mention a late plot twist that no one ever sees coming). Die Hard 2 gives you exactly what you want and goes through the motions admirably.
If only there were more sequels like it.
Long before an encounter with a fighter jet in part four, McClane has a fist-fight on the wing of an aeroplane ready for take-off. We like this scene more.
- General Esperanza is from “Valverde,” the fictitious Latin-American country used in Commando. (The first Die Hard was originally supposed to be the sequel to that movie).
- The scenes with McClane running through tunnels under the airport were filmed at a water treatment facility near Los Angeles. The facility has miles of underground tunnels, and was also used in Live Free or Die Hard, doubling as the Woodlawn Social Security Administration building.
- According to John Leguizamo in his autobiography, his role was intended to be much larger until the filmmakers realized how short he was. His part was cut down to one line which was dubbed by someone else.
- The only movie in the Die Hard series that contains neither a plot nor a subplot pertaining to the acquisition of money, gold, bearer bonds, or any form of currency by the bad guys.
- Willis has gone on record numerous times stating that Die Hard 2 is his least favourite in the series.