This review contains spoilers
In Die Hard with a Vengeance Bruce Willis returned to the role that made him a star, this time reuniting with John Mctiernan Director of the original film. In the years since its release it has a amassed a somewhat mixed reputation, some viewers citing it as good as the original, whilst many critics were less favourable with a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in truth it falls somewhere in between. A flawed but enjoyable example of 1990’s action cinema it certainly has its strengths yet retains many of the weaknesses that marred its predecessors, whilst brining some of its own into play.
Die Hard with a Vengeance Largely ignores the formula of the previous instalments in the franchise relocating the action to New York City. Opening up the environment like this removes much of the suspense that made the first film so memorable (and the second film feel almost a re-tread) but gives Mctiernan room to stage a serious of increasingly exciting car chases and gunfights, it’s not subtle but it sure is entertaining.
Gone too are Bonnie Bedelia as McLane’s Annoying wife, and Reginald VelJohnson as Al Powell the faithful sidekick of the earlier films, in fact McLane himself is the only returning character, Five Years have passed since the last instalment and he is not quite the same man, we first meet him Hung-over in the back of a police truck, suffering from the breakup of his marriage (evidently the circumstances of the previous two films counted for nothing) and a recent suspension, he is older, balder and even more of a antihero than before yet still has the slightly arrogant charm of the earlier films, Willis certainly seems to be having fun in the role (he reportedly will be reprising his white vest for a fifth and sixth films in the franchise).
Following a catastrophic bombing of a department store the NYPD receive a strange phone call in the form of a Simon Says Question asking for Police Officer John McLane.
Knowing nothing about the man’s identity, other than the fact he seems extremely angry with McLane and speaks with a German accent, his superiors quickly reinstate him and Dump him in the middle of Harlem as per instructed by ‘Simon’. With a loaded revolver strapped to his back and a sign bearing the words ‘I hate all *******’ he nervously awaits the inevitable action to start, trying to shrug of his ‘massive ******* hangover’. It makes for tense but uncomfortable viewing, Die Hard has always been a franchise with its tongue placed firmly in cheek and when Hollywood’s obsession with race rears its ugly head it does the film no favours, still it’s a memorable opening.
Meanwhile Local Shopkeeper Zeus (Samuel L Jackson) a figurehead in the community and a man not overly friendly of Whites is offering some advice to his young nephews. Spotting McLane just before a local gang does he helps avoid a potential bloodbath but is injured in the process, escaping none too enthusiastically in a stolen taxi he is forced into Simons Game.
It’s a refreshing change from the previous films, in contrast to the rather wooden sidekicks of the previous films Jackson is present for almost the entire film, and (to start with at least) he is not too pleased to be there-‘That’s a White Man with White Problems. You deal with him…’ being his initial response to Simon’s message. Jackson is excellent in the supporting role, more than matching Willis in turns of charisma, and arguably outstripping him in acting ability, the two share a genuine chemistry (which was later repeated in M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable) arguing and joking, Zeus even offers Marriage advice!
Once past this largely expository opening the film quickly gets going sending the two on a violent and increasingly eventive journey across Manhattan, following a series of clues and puzzles left by Simon. It’s pacier than its predecessors (though perhaps 10 minutes overlong), and has no shortage of action but there are other flaws that detract from an otherwise enjoyable film.
Though Die Hard with a Vengeance retains only Willis from the earlier films, the franchise’s obsession with minor supporting characters is still present, Graham Greene and Larry Bryggman as Willis’s Colleague and Boss respectively give good performances but quickly outstay their welcome, burdened with clunky expository dialogue and rather clichéd roles in the plot, whilst a series of bit-parters and extras make their presence known in varying annoying ways. The scripts one-liners and attempts at humour seemingly only working when Willis is saying them (odd really, Willis has never come across as particularly funny in interviews).
On a more positive note it’s surprising how convincing Willis and his colleagues are as a department, the NYPD after all has been his home for more than 10 years, his actions in Los Angles and DC fitted around more mundane events in is home city, the actors and actresses portraying his co-workers whilst varying in talent do seem to fit in with McLane, in contrast to some of the other actors they share a convincing chemistry.
The script written by Jonathan Hensleigh is adequate, nothing more, logic and character motivation take a backseat, plot holes and consequences dot the film. Perhaps realising this Mctiernan keeps things moving so quickly most of these issues aren’t a problem…most of them.
After following several of Simon’s phonecalls Zeus and Willis end up in Central Park faced with a weighing scale, two containers of water and a active timer wired to a bomb. The solution proves extremely confusing not just for McLane, but for the audience as well, it’s one of the few times in the film the pace sags, it’s a strange feeling going into a Die Hard film needing a understanding of maths.
Luckily Mctiernan is on form, the man who Directed Predator, not the Last Action Hero is calling the shots, and proves a suitable choice, working with Cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr he brings an keen technical eye, employing kinetic camerawork and impressive special effects, even getting convincing performances out of the leads (not always essential to an action film). The action sequences themselves are bigger and better than ever before, within an hour Central Park, the Bank reserve and a subway train all feature (this last location very reminiscent of another 90’s Action film Speed), violently, whilst McLane’s handgun sees itself in extensive use, in this respect action fans won’t be disappointed, it certainly goes someway to explaining the budget.
It is almost half way into the film before we get a first look at the bad guy Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), by then revealed to be the Brother of the first films Villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), (explaining the title). Having the main villain only heard not seen for the first 45 minutes is an offbeat but ingenious Idea, McLanes increasing frustration being at Gruber’s mercy proves very entertaining, and Iron’s leering, tone of voice is to an extent unsettling, unfortunately the strong build-up doesn’t result in quite so brilliant a payoff.
In one of his first high profile roles Irons is quite impressive, creating an memorable (if camp) villain, a definite improvement over William Sadler’s rather bland Colonel Stuart from Die Hard 2, his experience in the RSC is evident adding a convincingly human element to an potentially one dimensional character. Despite his acting skills Irons can’t hide a clichéd screenplay, nor outrank the genuinely impressive action sequences. He is never as brilliant as he could be, the idea to make him Hans’s brother works against Iron’s favour, lesser screen time, and lesser experience means Irons unfortunately comes across as far less memorable than his ‘Little Brother’. He is assisted by a cadre of generic, easily forgettable minions whom McLane kills with relish
Die Hard with A Vengeance is a film with many flaws: extremely variable performances, a less than perfect script (which admittedly its core audience will probably overlook), and a lack of originality, but none the less it is an enjoyable film (made even more so in the present day, We’ve yet to See Jason Bourne or Bond base a film around payphones…), and proves a respectable addition to Willis’s filmography.