Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1996)

7. Die Hard with a Vengeance

After a high-profile flop like “Last Action Hero,” John McTiernan retreated to the safety of a proven franchise. The director skipped the second chapter of the “Die Hard” series in favor of “The Hunt for Red October.” His reputation stinging from a costly disappointment, a third John McClane adventure was what he needed. “Die Hard with a Vengeance” continued the franchise’s popularity. Unexpectedly, it was also quite good. For a while, I even considered part three the best of the series, which is not an exactly uncommon opinion. I’ve softened a bit on the third chapter a little over the years but the film still dies hard.

In the heat of a NYC summer, John McClane is summoned by a villain. Hung-over and newly estranged from Holly, the cop is targeted by a new criminal mastermind. Calling himself “Simon,” the man has placed bombs all over the city and demands McClane play humiliating, deadly games. Paired with a Harlem pawn shop owner, John races to complete Simon’s tasks and save innocent lives. The vengeance comes in when John discovers that Simon is Hans Gruber’s brother. And using terrorist activity as a cover for bank heists is apparently a family tradition.

By 1996, the “Die Hard on an X” action troupe was well played out. You know the sub-genre was dead because the same year saw the release of “Skyscraper,” which was “Die Hard” starring Anna Nicole Smith. Anyway, “Die Hard with a Vengeance” smartly toys with the series’ formula. Johne McClane and the enemies he fight are no longer confined to a single location. Hero and villain alike are given a whole city to play in. John isn’t going it alone either, as he’s given a sidekick. Yet screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh knows what to keep. The bad guy is, once again, a thief posing as a terrorist. In order to avoid the blatant repetition of “Die Hard 2,” it’s personal between John and the bad guy this time. Starting life as an original script called “Simon Says” – which was also considered for a “Lethal Weapon” sequel – the film still feels like a “Die Hard” movie without blatantly copying the original.

Except, perhaps, in one aspect. At the end of “Die Harder,” John and Holly had patched their relationship up. The two were actively married again. At the start of “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” Mr. McClane has seen better days. He’s living alone again, back in New York, and has developed a drinking habit. Is that a betrayal of the character’s development or just proof that John and Holly simply couldn’t make it work? John’s humanity is also starting to fade, as he only gets the shit really beaten out of him once or twice. Either way, Bruce Willis remains entertaining in the part. He’s an expert at deploying one-liners and sarcastic asides. Like whispering corrections to the police chief, concerning his drinking problem. Or making chit-chat about Santa Claus before nailing some baddies. Even when hung-over, John McClane’s normal man charm is maintained.

Perhaps realizing the established series formula and Bruce Willis’ charms were not enough to further the franchise, “With a Vengeance” adds elements from another stalwart action sub-genre. Joining John on his adventure is Samuel L. Jackson as Zeus Carver. Since McClane is now an action hero, giving him a normal human sidekick was a smart decision. Zeus is frequently incredulous at the crazy circumstances he winds up in. Per the conventions of the buddy movie, the two hate it each other at first. John accuses Zeus of being racist against white people. Zeus takes every oppretunity to call his partner on his bullshit. By the end, they’re laughing and joking around. Samuel L. Jackson has a lot of fun as a comedic straight man, screaming profanity with a sweaty face.

You could boil the third film down to a catchy log line: “Die Hard in a City.” Unlike the same shit happening a second time in an airport, moving the action into the city totally changes the dynamic. Willis and Jackson have to navigate a crowded New York City. One sequence has the heroes delayed by a street choked with taxi cabs. This forces John to think his way out of crazier situations. The nature of the script also keeps the characters moving. John and Zeus are racing from one objective to the next, always against the clock and an unpredictable adversary. This keeps the tension up, the action continuously escalating, while forcing the cast to use their brains.

After taking a break in “Medicine Man” and “Last Action Hero,” John McTiernan’s directorial trademarks return along with John McClane. The filmmaker’s camera rarely sits still in “With a Vengeance.” While running through a subway car, the camera follows behind Bruce. During a car chase, the camera is attached to the whirling vehicles. Even during the slower moments, McTiernan keeps us moving, the camera prowling around corners or up buildings. Some times, the action is so frantic that things get a little shaky. Yet even when bouncing with energy, McTiernan’s direction remains focused and clear. The way “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is shot is engineered to keep the audience excited.

Considering both previous films featured explosive action, the third “Die Hard” movie has a high bar to clear. Luckily, the sequel is up to the task. McClane running through the subway train car, grabbing the bomb, is a suspenseful scene that concludes with a big ass explosion. A combination car chase/shoot out works really well, featuring shattering glass and twisting fenders. It too ends fantastically, with John and Zeus’ car flipping through the air. A similar moment has the duo climbing across a cord above a moving boat. Sticking with series’ expectations, John still narrowly avoids a massive explosion, this time leaping into the Hudson River from the booming ship.

My favorite action beat involves an underground tunnel filling with water. A wave races towards the cop, the truck he’s driving slowly being consumed by the liquid. A daring escape involves a well-place grate and a tunnel. The conclusion includes a big ol’ explosion too. That’s cool stuff but the smaller scale moments in “With a Vengeance” works a little better for me. Such as John struggling in an elevator, reaching for a gun while surrounded by attackers. Keeping a tradition that started with Karl the Kraut alive, the hero also gets a close-quarters fight scene with the bad guy’s main henchman. It’s the only time John really gets beaten in this one, tossed around and whipped with chains. I appreciate the film including that.

By moving the “Die Hard” franchise into the buddy cop genre, the third entry in the series features more humor than either of its predecessors. Much of it comes from the interaction between Zeus and McClane. Their first scene together, of John surviving Simon’s racist prank in Harlem, provides some jittery laughs. Later, the two have to reach a pay phone. A fat woman stands in their way. That moment concludes with both leaping away from a reportedly booby trapped trash can, which is another cruel prank from Simon. The movie makes great use of Samuel L. Jackson’s comedic abilities. His repeated insistence that John is racist, accusing him of stereotypical behavior, pays off nicely. Such as a discussion about hot-wiring a car or picking a lock. The two play off each well, when forced to measure out gallons of water. Considering the story is quite tense, the humor balances the tone out.

The biggest way “Die Hard 2” trailed behind the original was in the villain category. Perhaps aware of this, the second sequel introduces a new member of the Gruber family. Simon Gruber is nearly as awesome a bad guy as his brother. He’s equally cruel, joyously playing games of chances with other people’s lives. Both brothers are master manipulators, toying with an entire city as part of his ploy. Simon spends most of the film as a voice on over the phone, mocking his enemy with evil glee. The seal on Simon’s status as a worthy opponent was the decision to cast an actor nearly as awesome as Alan Rickman. Jeremy Irons digs into each line he’s given with calculated delight. His best moment occurs when McClane and Gruber discuss how big of an asshole Hans was. Irons is a worthy successor to the mantle of “Die Hard” villain, making the third film a memorable experience.

If “Die Hard with a Vengeance” has any obvious flaw, it’s that the script maybe spreads itself too thin. The movie frequently cuts away from John and Zeus’ adventure. We see Gruber and his men sneak into the Federal Reserve, cutting down the guards in their way. Many scenes are focused on the NYPD attempting to protect Gruber’s potential victims. While the scenes outside Nakatomi Plaza in the original were directly involved with John’s adventures, these scenes in “With a Vengeance” feel a little too disconnected from the hero and villain’s conflict. The supporting cast, which includes solid actors like Graham Greene and Collen Camp, are fine. It’s not really a flaw but, with these sequences cut down, “Die Hard 3” would’ve been an even tighter machine.

It’s not really fair to say “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is better than the original “Die Hard.” It’s not as clever, fresh, or visceral as that first movie. However, it’s still an extremely exciting sequel. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jeremy Irons all work excellently together. McTiernan’s direction remains sharp. The action is big, bold and exciting. A fourth film wouldn’t come along for many years, meaning fans long assumed “Die Hard with a Vengeance” was the final John McClane adventure. It wouldn’t have been a bad note to end the series on, not at all. [Grade: B+]

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