After watching the grim, ditchwater-dull Wrath of the Titans earlier this year, I had a much greater appreciation for how difficult blockbuster filmmaking is. Money can buy special effects, be they of the practical or computer-generated variety, but it can’t buy characters. Even when you already have characters that the audience ostensibly likes because you’re making a sequel to a successful film, you can’t buy a story that makes them take an equal amount of interest as with the first film. And even if you could buy all of the above-mentioned things, there’s no guarantee that a jumpy studio executive won’t get nervous and ruin a perfectly good film by intervening.
Enter Bruce Willis and the third entry in his series of John McClane movies, Die Hard With A Vengeance. McClane was an industry by that point: Die Hard was a well-received smash, and Die Hard 2: Die Harder an even bigger hit despite toxic reviews. So an idea of “Die Hard on the New York City subway” was conceived, it mutated into “John McClane versus mad bomber all through the city” inspired by the success of Speed, and there you go. The end result is quite entertaining: up until the last 20 minutes or so, it was my favorite Die Hard film by a wide margin.
Setting the film in New York City was a smart move. At some point during Die Hard 2 the unreality of it all kicked in: why is this guy fighting Special Forces commandos on top of a plane? Isn’t he supposed to be an NYPD detective? Actually having John McClane working on his home turf makes the movie feel very natural and easy. A great many directors like to say that the city in which they filmed is like a character in the movie, but this is one of the few films where it actually seems true.
Using New York also allows the issue of race to be brought into the discussion. Between the original Die Hard and this one, not only had the Rodney King riots taken place in Los Angeles, but the Crown Heights riots had occurred in Brooklyn as well. This was considered dangerous territory for movies to tread; Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing had been denounced by many critics for fear that it would incite violence (which never happened). The screenplay credited to Jonathan Hensleigh (Armageddon) isn’t perfect – among other things, its main position seems to be that black people are the only racists out there – but he deserves credit for at least trying to make race a part of the discussion in this major-studio action sequel.
Also, bringing race into the discussion allows for maximum awesomeness from Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson had already had his breakout roles in Jungle Fever and Pulp Fiction by the time this film came out, but this was the picture where he practically seized Hollywood by the lapels and demanded to be on the A-list. All of the “angry black man” aspects of his performance are on the page, but it’s the other stuff he adds that makes his work really great: the way that he demands McClane’s respect before he’ll work with him, the way that he starts to think he can be an action hero like McClane, the way that he hot-wires a car like John Shaft might do. He’s better than Willis in every scene, despite the fact that Willis had had two whole movies’ worth of practice with his character.
Most of this movie is crackerjack action filmmaking by John McTiernan, who returned for this film after directing Die Hard but stepping away from the first sequel. McTIernan (Predator, The Hunt For Red October) is a capable director of action scenes, delivering a superb car chase and a fight scene in an elevator which is one of my favorite action set-pieces in any movie. This film is a master class in shooting on location, as many of New York’s busiest attractions and intersections are captured in a way that can’t be faked on a soundstage.
The knock against the action in this film – one that would grow even stronger in the next sequel, Live Free or Die Hard – is that John McClane ought to be an everyman, but he had instead become a superman. That’s what made the first film work so well: Willis’ desire to stay out of the fighting, and the way he got hurt and tired as the movie went on. This movie has part of that, as McClane becomes gradually dirtier and bloodier over the course of the day, but there is an epidemic of impossible super-heroics going on here as well.
Just after the action shifts to a cargo boat for the climax, the movie starts to have problems. The boat sequences are choppy almost to the point of being nonsensical; it’s never completely clear how McClane wins his fight against a German villain played by Nick Wyman. The action set-pieces on the boat involve much of the aforementioned impossible superheroics on Willis’ part. There’s intrigue between the villains in the movie for apparently no reason – it doesn’t set up any plot point for the movie’s climax. The fact that head villain Jeremy Irons has a whole army at his disposal is clumsily glossed over at the end of the film. Plus, the conclusion of the film takes place in Canada! How can a movie where New York City is a character unto itself not even bother to have its big finale in the United States?
Studio interference seems the most likely culprit here. Although blockbuster films regularly exceed two hours these days, at the time Hollywood studios were loathe to do so; the theatrical cut of Die Hard With a Vengeance is 131 minutes, the likely cause of the choppy editing at the conclusion. The film’s Wikipedia page asserts that two different endings to the film were conceived, and one was actually shot with Willis and Irons, before being discarded in favor of the Canadian sequence. And with good reason, too. The ending that Irons and Willis shot would have been even worse than the one we received.
Such is the way it goes with blockbusters. It’s fairly difficult to get everything right with a film this big, because getting things right often involves taking chances, and studios are loathe to do that. Die Hard With A Vengeance deserves credit for all of the chances it does take, and gets right – I haven’t even mentioned how good the famed Native American actor Graham Greene is in a small role, one of the few roles he’s ever had where he wasn’t asked to play an Indian – such that even if it falls flat in the end, it makes for an entertaining ride.
Reviewed by Mark Young