Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Recent Watches: Die Hard 2 (1990)

A movie as successful and well received as “Die Hard” was always likely to spawn a sequel. 20th Century Fox seemingly planned the film as a franchise-launcher from the get-go. The box office receipts from the first film mustn’t have cooled too long. Production on the sequel rolled along quickly. Not quite two years later, “Die Hard 2” exploded into theaters. Director Renny Harlin had previously helmed flashy, low budget genre fare like “Prison” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4.” Harlin’s abilities to deliver the goods on-time and under budget, without sacrificing the crowd-pleasing theatrics, surely made him an attractive filmmaker to the studio. Released with a tagline that most assumed to be a pitch perfect subtitle, “Die Harder” was actually a bigger hit than the original. John McClane would die hard for years to come.

A year after the Nakatomi Tower incident, John McClane finds himself traveling to the east coast during Christmas time. Holly, their romance renewed, have plans to meet at an airport near the nation’s capital. Once again, John McClane is in the wrong place at the wrong time. A plot by rogue soldiers to intercept a flight carrying a Central American warlord unfolds inside the airport. The terrorists strand the planes in the sky above the landing strip, holding them hostage until the government ensures the banana dictator’s freedom. McClane is the monkey in the wrench a second time, doing what he can to foil the villains’ plot.

“Die Hard 2” is boldly derivative of the first movie. Two years in a row, John McClane is trapped in an isolated location beset by a terrorist faction. Holly is held hostage, imperiled by the bad guys. It’s even Christmas again. What are the odds that he’d wind up in more-or-less the same situation twice in his life? John even comments on the absurdity of history repeating itself. “Die Hard’s” own sequel is as shameless about ripping off the original as the countless rip-offs were. For as closely as part two copies the first, the script is nowhere near as smooth. The original “Die Hard” had a plot hole or logic gap or two. The sequel hinges on the ridiculous assumption that an airplane would circle in the sky around the airport until it ran out of fuel, crashing and burning. Wouldn’t an emergency landing be performed, even in treacherous weather or without a clear landing pad? Better yet, why didn’t the plane just fly to any of the other near-by airports? Nitpicking logic in an action sequel is a dog’s errand but “Die Harder” can’t help but ring the audience’s bell, drawing attention to its own flaws.

Something that defined the original “Die Hard” was how much damn punishment Bruce Willis suffered. “Die Harder” is less willing to bloody McClane’s body. He doesn’t even bleed until the very end. He’s hardly superhuman though. Both films begin by contemplating McClane’s humanity. In one, he’s airsick on a plane. In two, the first scene shows his car getting towed. John has plenty of close calls. In one scene, he’s pinned beneath a falling awning, reaching for a gun slowly approaching on an escalator. A little later, he pokes his head out on a runway, the wheels of an airplane nearly touching down atop his head. John is still flying by the seat of his pants, frequently improvising an escape or a way to dispatch an enemy. More importantly, Bruce Willis is still great in the part. When flirting with a desk secretary or chatting with Al over the phone, he still shows incredible charm. His way with a one-liner might have actually improved, such as bits about a lack of chlorine or a perfectly deployed yippee-ka-yay. The plot may be blatantly imitative but watching Bruce do his thing still offers plenty of entertainment value.

Renny Harlin is not as good a filmmaker as John McTiernan. McTiernan’s fast-paced camera work is traded out for melodramatic slow motion. Renny really likes guys falling backwards through things, flipping through their death throes. While “Die Hard” alternated between explosive action and down-to-Earth beatings, “Die Harder” focuses exclusively on shit blowing up. I’m not complaining, necessarily. The first action beat, inside the baggage claims back room, makes good use of tight corners and mangled machinery. A shoot-out among scaffolding is well executed, with some John Woo-esque diving, shooting, and flailing bodies. The biggest set piece involves Bruce riding an injector seat out of a plane as it explodes beneath him. No doubt that’s fun, generating some okay tension. A snow mobile chase also nicely shows how McClane improvises his way out of trouble, involving a slushy lake and some more booms. It’s all solidly amusing. However, one sequence, where a plane full of innocents crashes and burns, is far too mean spirited. There’s a big difference between one or two bystanders dying and an entire plane of passengers bursting into flames. Kind of brings the mood down.

“Die Hard 2” trails behind the original in another way too. The sequel doesn’t even attempt to create a villain as cool as Hans Gruber. William Sadler and Franco Nero aren’t push overs. I mean, one’s the Grim Reaper and the other’s Django. Sadler is scary as psychotically committed mercenary. Nero, meanwhile, coolly executes those that get in his way, operating like a serious villain. Neither have the style, humor, or personality of Gruber though. Truthfully, the script’s disinterest in defining them any more makes them slightly boring. A twist involving another group’s loyalties is easy to guess. There’s still some fun to be had in the supporting parts. Dennis Franz is delightfully obnoxious, playing off his established image, as the man that inconveniences John’s quest. William Atherton returns as Richard “Dick” Thornburg, who is even more of a delightful asshole. Bonnie Bedelia certainly gets more to do as Holly, this time.

If “Die Hard 2” was a stand alone action flick, it would easily hit the spot. It was even conceived that way, starting out as an adaptation of the unrelated novel, “58 Minutes.” The sequel has a cool hero, some entertaining set pieces, plenty of humor, and moves at a nice clip. As a sequel to one of best action movies of all time, it can’t help but pale in contrast. It’s not as taunt, exciting, fun, or clever as the first. Hewing so closely to the original’s formula was a mistake as well, making comparisons unavoidable. Yet you can’t judge a film for what it’s not. Try not to think about “Die Hard 1” too much and the sequel will certainly amuse. [7/10]

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