Monday, 18 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 3: "Die Hard With a Vengeance" (1995)

While rewatching Die Hard 2 I found myself liking the film more than I had before. Still, Die Hard With a Vengeance has a special place in my heart as my favourite of the Die Hard sequels- mostly because it gives itself more breathing room than Die Hard 2 did to be its own film. While Die Hard 2 is its own film, sometimes it does feel a little too sel-conscious of the original film, especially with its meta references to the "same shit happening to the same guy twice." Die Hard With A Vengeance definitely feels like the first Die Hard sequel that could've gotten by as another Bruce Willis action film (It was based off an original script that almost became Lethal Weapon 3) but this is what actually makes the film feel a lot fresher and inventive than most third installments. I think it's the funniest of the Die Hard films and also an interesting experiment in playing with audiences' franchise expectations.

The film begins with The Lovin' Spoonfuls' "Summer in the City" playing over images of a New York City day. This intro automatically sets the first apart from the Christmas settings of the first two films and also establishes that we're finally going to see John McClane (Bruce Willis) in his usual stomping grounds, whereas he was a fish out of water in the previou films. I love when the song is cut off by a store exploding- setting up the relentless pacing of this film. A man calling himself Simon (Jeremy Irons) calls Inspector Walter Cobb and tells him that he'll strike again unless the suspended McClane stands in the streets of Harlem with a sandwich board that says "I hate N-----s." McClane is spotted by a shop owner named Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), who saves him from a gang. Simon then makes Zeus part of his game as he makes him and McClane solve riddles in order to stop more bombings.

The beginning of this film plays mostly like a psychological thriller and the film itself is psychologically playing with the audience's expectations of what a Die Hard film is like. We know ths franchise is a lot more than John McClane solving riddles- so we wonder what Simon and the film's endgame is, as well as how the scope scale of this film will expand. Of course, before long, McClane is jumping on the top of subway train that has a bomb in it. It's eventually revealed that Simon is Hans Gruber's (Alan Rickman) brother, which in itself is also a red herring. We begin to think that Simon wants revenge against McClane but a big joke near the end is that Simon didn't really like his brother. Of course, as Simon says, "There's a difference between not liking your brother and not caring when some Irish flatfoot throws him off a building." The whole riddle nonsense, the supposed bomb at an elementary school, the idea that Simon wants revenge on McClane- it's all a cover for Simon to steal gold from the New York federal reserve.  While a big criticism of this film could be that it has too much bait-and-switch going on, I think it's this quality that makes it such a fascinating action film- as well as sequel. For the first time, it really feels like the villain gets the better of John McClane. In the first two films, McClane took th bad guys by surprise- this time the tables are turned.

While much of the film is a ruse, what I think will keep me coming back to the film is the throughline of McClane and Zeus' relationship. Zeus is somewhat of a racist- something that's both played for laughs but it also disquieting in its own way. Zeus' arc through the film involves get past his prejudices and learn to work with McClane. He's a fascinating character and I think this stands as one of Jackson's most vivid performances. The chemistry between him and Willis is sharp and funny- I love when McClane calls him "Jesus" because he thinks that what the gang was calling him. "They weren't saying 'Jesus,' they were saying "Hey, Zeus," Zeus tells him. "Father of Apollo. Don't fuck with me or I'll shove a lightning bolt up your ass." It's one of thos great details that's always brought this franchise to life. While a lot of people seem to hate the water jug riddle scene, I like how it brings to head the tensions between McClane and Zeus, with McClane finally calling him out as a rascist.

Who's awesome enough to play Alan Rickman's brother? Jeremy Irons of course. Just hearing his voice over the phone in the first act of this film gives me pleasure. It's fascinating how our impression of Simon changes over the course of the film- from a smart but random psychopath to a vengeful brother- to something else entirely. Like his brother Hans and Colonel Stuart from Die Hard 2, he's an extremely smart villain- one who we know is a formidable foe for McClane.

Admittedly, I don't like the action in this film as much as I do the the second film, but having John McTiernan, who directed the first film, back behind the camera is great. He brings a ruthless intensity to the staging of the action. I love the elevator fight between McClane and Simon's men who are pretending to be police officers- especially that final shot, the close-up of McClane as he fires his gun and blood sprays all over his face. The race to get to the subway- with McClane and Zeus driving a cab through Central Park is also pretty fun. The ending of the film does feel a little abrupt and not quite as memorable as the first two- the alternate ending is more interesting- but tonally I remember it not fitting with the rest of the film.

 Die Hard With a Vengeance stands for me as one of the better third installments in cinema. While it's not as lean as its prequels, it's a consistently entertaining, very funny and structurally interesting take on the Die Hard franchise. And as an end to the original "trilogy," it's a good capper. Of course, while it would take 12 years, this wouldn't be the end of the Die Hard franchise, not by a long shot. Next up: Live Free or Die Hard.

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