Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Die Hard: following the increasingly improbable misadventures of street-wise police detective John McClane as he repeatedly crosses paths with dangerous super-criminals. The series has spanned five feature films from 1988 to 2013.
The Installment: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
John McClane is back on his home turf of New York City, once again estranged from his wife Holly. He’s also estranged from the NYPD, on suspension, when a terrorist calling himself Simon (as in “Simon says”) attacks the city and demands John by name. Simon wants John to perform a series of tasks/puzzles that put John’s own life in danger, otherwise Simon threatens to set off more bombs. When a Harlem shop owner named Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) comes to John’s rescue during such a task, Simon forces Zeus and John to become partners. Then it turns out that Simon is actually Hans Gruber’s brother, and like his brother, he’s out to steal some money. While the city’s police force is kept busy with a city-wide bomb scare, John and Zeus need to save the day by surfing on trucks and sorting out America’s race-relation woes through banter.
I’m hardly the first to say this, but Die Hard with a Vengeance is the sequel Die Hard should have gotten the first time around. Like Jason Lives, Die Hard 2 was essentially a parody of the original film, lovingly poking fun at and wallowing in the franchise’s conventions. Only difference is that Jason Lives was the sixth film in the Friday the 13th franchise. Plus, you know — it was a Friday the 13th film. Yes, Die Hard‘s concept and structure were iconic enough to be immediately absorbed into popular consciousness in a big way, but that doesn’t mean it had “conventions” yet. It is one goddamn movie! Die Hard 2 was entertaining enough because Renny Harlin knows how to make an entertaining film. But in franchise-building terms, all the “here we go again” jokes in Die Hard 2 were a miscalculation, not to mention a lame attempt to make a joke out of uninspired writing. Turning the first film into a series wasn’t an easy road, but despite all the surface-level indicators, the franchise needed to be built upon the character of John McClane, not his gimmicky Xmas-time circumstances. Die Hard with a Vengeance isn’t a great film, but its head is in the right place. And that allows it a lot of wiggle room for most of its run-time. At first glance Vengeance feels radically different than the first two films, leaving the confines of a fixed location. But it retains what is really the core appeal of the franchise: a regular cop fighting super-criminals. That is the angle we should have been taking from the get-go, not the “Die Hard in a ____” gimmick. And Vengeance still has vestiges of the franchise’s other hallmarks, if we think of New York City as a “fixed location.” We still have terrorists and hostages and a semi-real-time run-time.
In Die Hard 2 we saw the ramifications of John McClane being a minor celebrity. And those ramifications didn’t add up to jack shit. Having Simon seek out John McClane is an interesting, and logical, build on the existing mythology. Having fame be the reason that regular-slob John McClane keeps getting mixed up with super-criminals is far more plausible than him just continuing to blunder into unrelated heists and terrorist activity, as though he’d been ensnared by some kind of whimsical gypsy curse. Also, in the first two films we were seeing McClane off the job and as a fish out of water. Seeing him play a home game, so to speak, is a nice change of pace. It allows us to break free of the retarded-local-authorities conflict too. Not only is the NYPD quite competent in Vengeance, the Feds even prove to be decent guys. This actually helps to make Simon feel more all-powerful than Hans Gruber or Colonel Stuart, because no one is standing in McClane’s way. This isn’t a scenario where things could be solved a lot sooner if everyone would just listen to McClane. There is a reason the NYPD can’t help McClane after a certain point in the film and it is due to cleverness on our villain’s part. And that’s just good villain-writing right there.
I like Renny Harlin, but for this franchise we need someone like John McTiernan behind the wheel. Preferably John McTiernan himself. So lucky us that McTiernan had just taken two big dumps at the box office toilet with Medicine Man and Last Action Hero. He knew he needed something he could make a hit. Kudos to screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh here, but considering that the first two films shared a screenwriter (Steven E. de Souza), McTiernan’s touch is now undeniable. The detail is back, with tiny moments like the look an old woman gives John McClane while he’s wearing a racist sandwich board (which we haven’t gotten a look at yet). Or the way McTiernan stages the moment in which a group of African-American thugs first notice the sandwich board, with an out-of-focus thug chasing a basketball into the street in the background seen over Samuel L. Jackson’s shoulder; “What the fuck?!” And we’ve returned to character-based storytelling, with smart set-ups and a relaxed flow that belies all the madness actually going on. I love set-ups like the lottery — initially existing as a funny bit of color, showing that all NY cops play the lottery, with one of the detectives playing his badge number, and then paying off later when McClane realizes that one of the criminals is wearing his dead friend’s badge.
Samuel L. Jackson is great as Zeus Carver. Jackson and Willis don’t have Gibson and Glover chemistry, but the characters of Zeus and John McClane make a great duo. It feels weird at first to see loner McClane suddenly have a partner, but that’s part of what makes the pairing so much fun. It is the kind of fresh blood this franchise needed right now, without going down the stupid path of pairing McClane with a kid or something. I like that Zeus is smarter than McClane. It shows a lot of trust in the character of John McClane to allow him in that unflattering position, and it pays off. The character is de-glamorized in a lot of ways. He’s less sexy. But the presence of Zeus also allows McTiernan to rebuild McClane as a hero in the eyes of an observer. The film’s big subway crash is an action highlight, with the fantastic bit of Zeus trying to answer a ringing payphone while a nervous cop orders him to get on the ground, but the scene also features a character defining moment for McClane. After the dust has cleared, and a subway car has torn through a subway stop, Zeus looks on waiting to see if McClane emerges from the wreckage. And McClane does emerge from the turned-over car — laughing, like you might if you slipped in the mud. That pretty much sums up the character. Crazy shit happens, and McClane always comes out with a smirk.
Speaking of crazy shit, Vengeance has a lot of great set-pieces, both big-action and smaller moments of controlled tension. The entire sandwich board stunt, in which Simon forces McClane to walk through Harlem wearing a sign that reads “I Hate Niggers” is pretty phenomenal, both funny and incredibly tense and uncomfortable — not mention an amazing meet-cute for our duo. I especially like that McClane doesn’t get to run off at the end, he gets badly beaten and bloodied. Though the movie eventually gets preposterous and silly the farther we get into it, it is nice to begin things with a sense of real danger and consequence. And McTiernan balances the diverse action throughout the film. The science-class head-scratcher water jug puzzle. The elevator throwdown between McClane and three goons pretending to be good guys. The ‘oh shit’ shot of McClane realizing that the underground tunnel he’s in is filling up with raging water as he sees the lights rapidly wink out of existence in the distance. The scene in which McClane hooks a truck’s winch onto the ship Simon is escaping on, so he and Zeus can climb on board (while the truck slowly gets pulled off a bridge as the ship gets further away, of course). The entire sequence of the NYPD trying to evacuate an elementary school with a bomb inside. Vengeance also has a much better Mid-Act II crisis than Die Hard 2. In both Die Hard and Die Hard 2, the big mid-movie escalation came when reporter Richard Thornburg revealed something he shouldn’t have revealed on live TV. This worked in the first film, but was stupid and almost inconsequential in 2. In Vengeance the equivalent moment comes when Simon contacts a radio station to say that he’s hidden a bomb in a public school somewhere in the city, sending all of New York into a complete frenzy. Great escalation right there, as it not only alerts the public, but it prevents the otherwise helpful NYPD from being able to assist McClane anymore.
The life of a bit-part character actor is generally an unrecognized one. So I want to give a shout out to Kevin Chamberlin who fucking nails it as Charlie Weiss, the NYPD bomb expert. Had Charlie been a larger character, he’d probably have been played by someone like George Dzundza. But with really only two true scenes in which to play, Chamberlin leaves a big impression. His excitement while describing and then demonstrating the power of the binary bomb (made up of two liquids that are harmless when separate and catastrophic when mixed) is exceedingly charming. And his big scene, trying to defuse the huge-ass bomb left in the elementary school, is the kind of scene I’m frankly surprised they’d give to a minor secondary character instead of McClane or Zeus. I mean, Weiss accepts his own certain death to try to save two kids! That’s a total hero moment! One of the best scenes in the whole film, with the spooky image of the binary liquid mixing inside two humungous clear plastic tanks. But this also goes back to what I said earlier about Vengeance making the NYPD heroes instead of annoying fuck-ups — as Colleen Camp and Graham Greene also get to play the hero elsewhere in this sequence.
What Doesn’t Work:
The film’s biggest issue is that it completely craps out in its final moments. Vengeance is a preposterous movie, in a fairly typical way — Simon’s plans don’t make much sense. What if McClane had died or been hospitalized during his Harlem mission? What was Simon’s back-up plan then? McClane barely succeeds at every point. And Simon’s the kind of omnipotent and omnipresent villain that makes me want to see a movie just about how he pulled off all this crazy shit. Did Simon put that giant bomb in that school because Zeus’ nephews were there? Cause that seems hard to pull off so quickly. These are small “problems,” and typical for this kind of film, but this sort of mindset of course informs the whole movie. This isn’t a movie that holds up to scrutiny. Simon’s plan could have gone wrong a million times in a million different ways. We can let it all slide while the movie is kicking ass, but once we get into the home stretch Vengeance just starts feeling stupider and stupider until things close out as a stupid movie. Even just on the surface level — why the hell is Zeus there for the final showdown? Doesn’t he want to go make sure his two nephews who almost died are okay? Did he really want to further endanger his life by traveling with McClane to Canada to hunt down Simon? What, just to see how shit turned out? Unlike his brother Han Gruber, the more time we spend with Simon Gruber the less interesting he becomes. And this hurts Act III of the film, once all the cards are on the table and the veil is pulled back. Die Hard had real meat at its center. Vengeance eventually proves that it was more of a magic trick, a bunch of (albeit great) scenes and set-pieces that ultimately don’t lead to a satisfying ending. Things just peter out and the movie is left with its dick in its hand. The film’s boring ending was actually a reshoot, replacing a much darker ending in which McClane tracks Simon to Europe and murders him in cold blood while playing his own game of Simon Says. This is pretty out of character for McClane, but at least it is kind of interesting. I’m glad they replaced it, but it would have been nice if they’d replaced it with something better.
On the topic of Simon Gruber… I like Jeremy Irons. But I don’t like him much in this film. Part of the problem is his lame accent. Alan Rickman’s German accent wasn’t great either, but he has such a weird voice that it got absorbed into his speech pattern effectively. Irons’ just sounds like an actor doing a crappy acting voice. Also, somewhat related, but wouldn’t Hans Gruber be the first thing McClane would think of when hearing a German accent? Jumping to the conclusion that he’s dealing with a Gruber family member would be weird, yes, but if you were McClane, when a German-accented terrorist asks for you by name wouldn’t kinda wonder, “Hmm, I wonder if this has anything to do with that German guy I killed in LA who used to belong to a bunch of different terrorist organizations?”
Despite what seems like common sense, apparently none of the producers or executives walked away from Die Hard 2 thinking that they needed to get Bruce Willis out of a building for the third installment. In fact, they were very much looking to mire John McClane deeper into his narrow schtick. Fortunately for everyone, it was now 1995. Since Die Hard 2, the world had OD’d on Die Hard knock-offs of varying quality, like Under Siege, Passenger 57, Sudden Death, and Speed. Hollywood was running low on places for a lone hero to get trapped with terrorists. And once again the producers were searching for an existing property instead of just crafting one of their own. Vengeance was originally a spec script by Jonathan Hensleigh called Simon Says (which was also circled by the Lethal Weapon franchise at one point). As we saw with the Hellraiser series, using scripts that weren’t originally written to be part of a franchise tends to leave things feeling a little off…
Overall Simon Says works as Die Hard 3. But in order to make things fit, we’ve been left with some slightly awkward mythology expansion. In Die Hard 2 we learned that McClane had moved to LA. It was a cute follow-up to the conflict in the first film that let us know how things ultimately turned out between John and Holly. Now McClane is back in New York, and he has apparently been back long enough to have been suspended? Vengeance seems to ignore the fact that McClane had ever even moved to LA. Bonnie Bedelia isn’t in the film at all. I’m glad she didn’t get held hostage yet again, but her sudden absence (along with Reginald VelJohnson’s and even William Atherton’s) only adds an unnecessary sense of separation between this film and the previous two films. Of lesser importance, but still something I thought about while watching the film — you’d think that someone as smart and capable as McClane himself proved to be in the first two films, and someone who had become such a public figure (surely ten times as famous after the second film), would have been promoted beyond lieutenant. There are a lot of politics involved in promotions, and becoming a celebrity is definitely the kind of shit that gets you moved up the ladder. McClane being a police chief maybe wouldn’t have worked for Simon Says, but all of these are the things that some screenwriter would surely have addressed if tasked with creating an original Die Hard 3 script. It is much harder to do when constrained by the drawing inside the lines of an existing, and previously unrelated, script. And there are some easy-fix details I’m surprised weren’t put in there. For example, John McClane doesn’t seem like a guy who made the national news twice in just a few years. I get why the filmmakers didn’t want to make him a full-on celebrity for the purposes of the story, but having everyone wonder why Simon asked for McClane by name without anyone saying, “I guess you are kinda famous,” just felt odd to me. Having a would-be super-criminal want to test their mettle against McClane is natural.
I wouldn’t say this necessarily detracts from the quality of the film, but Vengeance has an almost embarrassing amount of dated (even in 1995) racial humor. Overall it works well because of Samuel L. Jackson’s confident delivery, and some of the jokes are definitely funny, but all the “white people” comments and general racial humor start to add up fast. This is a Die Hard movie, not D.C. Cab.
For all that I have said against Die Hard 2 (which I do genuinely mean), there is a stupid emotional sub-brain part of me – the same part that loves the “bold” monotony of the Friday the 13th franchise, for example – that kind of wishes this franchise had gone the way we all thought it would after Die Hard 2…
The part of me that likes good cinema doesn’t wish this. But the part of me that likes good absurdity like Con Air definitely would have liked to see McClane’s Christmas ruined several more times in increasingly preposterous settings. Maybe I’m just thinking like a horror fan, but you know eventually he would have gone into outer space. But, on an academic side, this is what happens when you double down on a gimmick for the first sequel. It makes it feel weird when you decide to drop the gimmick afterwards.
Overall Body Count: 19 (though this is presuming that the men the terrorists drug are being killed, not subdued)
McClane Kills: 11
Best Villain Dispatching: The goon who is cut in half by the wire of a truck winch after it is pulled off the bridge.
McClane and Zeus are speeding through Central Park in a car.
Zeus: Are you aiming for these people?
McClane: No. Well, maybe that mime.
Zeus: So what’s up with this L.A. thing? You famous or something?
McClane: Yeah, for about five minutes.
Zeus: Don’t tell me. Rodney King, right?
McClane’s Most Preposterous Feat: Surfing on top of a truck (seen below) as the truck is pushed through a tunnel by rushing water, and then being launched out of the tunnel through a small tube in a geyser of more water.
“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” Context: Once again said to no one, this time after he has already blown up the villain at the end.
Should There Be a Sequel: Sure. I’m not optimistic, but McClane just got his groove back. Might as well see where he can go. *cough cough* Outer space.
Up Next: Live Free or Die Hard
previous franchises battled
Back to the Future
Planet of the Apes