Saturday, 16 February 2013

Die Hard Series Retrospective Part 2: "Die Hard 2" (1990)

For better or worse, of all the Die Hard sequels, Die Hard 2 feels the most like a sequel to the original film, in terms of its tone, atmosphere, and returning characters. With this sequel we begin to see the problem, further highlighted by the next two installments, of making a sequel to Die Hard. Make a film too close to the formula of the original film, like Die Hard 2, and it makes the audience conscious of watching a sequel that's similar but not as great as the original. Make a sequel that's tonally and structurally different from the original, with Die Hard With a Vengeance and Live Free or Die Hard, and it feels like the series is departing too far from the original premise. All that being said, Die Hard 2, while sometimes feeling too conscious of being a sequel, and repeating several of the elements from the first film, manages to balance those formula elements while still feeling like its own film. It's as rock solid as a sequel can get and is one of the most entertaining action films of the 1990s.

The plot of the film revolves around General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), drug lord and dictator, who is being extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking charges. Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), of the US Army Special Forces, and his men take over Washington's airport systems from a church and demand that Esperanza's plane not be met by anyone and also demand a plane so they can all escape to another country. Of course, guess who's also at the airport. That's right- John McClane (Bruce Willis). It's Christmas Eve again and his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is on one of the planes that can't land wiithout landing lights and is running low on fuel. Once again McClane is "up to his ass in terrorists" and has to use his wits, and his gun, to save his wife and the other people up in the air as well.

This is where one of the problems of Die Hard 2 comes in. As I said earliier, the film is very conscious of being a sequel, particularly in McClane's reaction to the situtation. It's not a completely bad thing. We hear, in the confrontation between McClane and Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), captain of airport police, that McClane became famous for a while after the situation at Nakatomi. And Colonel Stuart tells McClane he thought he was out of his element while being interviewed on Nightline. These references give some nice texture to the Die Hard universe and grounds the film in reality- of course people would know who McClane was, even if they didn't respect him. On the other hand, when McClane says the line  Oh man, I can't fucking believe this. Another basement, another elevator. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" It feels like the screenplay is laying it on a little too thick, and being a little too meta. While the line suits the everyman quality McClane posseses, it lends itself too much to parody and plays up the absurdity of the situation that would best be left unsaid.

I think Die Hard 2 is the most unnerving and terrifying of the Die Hard films, which is largely due to the scene is which Stuart, in response to McClane interfering, makes a plane crash by talking to its pilots. It's a harrowing and devastating scene, particularly in how McClane tries to make it pull up but fails. It's actually surprising that this scene made it in to the film- and in our post 9/11 age, it's even more unsettling. It's also in this scene where we see how ruthless Stuart can be. Sadler is utterly convincing as the calculated Stuart. He makes you really hate him, and as an aspiring actor myself, I admire him not being afraid to play such an unlikable character. He also has one of the most memorable introductions I've ever seen for a villain (nakes ti-chi!). He's not as great a villain as Alan Rickman's Hans but he's very memorable.

This film has some pretty strong action scenes, such as the catwalk ambush and the snowmobile chase. I love the scene where McClane has to eject himself from a plane cockpit to escape the villains' grenades. It provides the most memorable shots from the film. Renny Harlin, the finnish director who almost directed Alien 3 and would go on to direct the Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger, handles the action pretty well for his first big budget action film.

An essential component of the first Die Hard was the claustrophic surrounding that also allowed enough movement to create thrilling action. I like how this feel generates claustrophobia for McClane by having his wife stuck in the air- an interesting twist on the situation from the first film. McClane can leave the airport but he still needs to see this adventure through to the end. He also has to clash with Lorenzo, who wants nothing more than to kick McClane out of his airport. Franz is perfect as the arrogant blowhard Lorenzo but the character is pretty monotonous. I do like that when McClane finally makes Lorenzo take him seriously- via the blanks the supposedly "good guys" led by Major Grant (John Amos) were using against Stuart (Grant and his men are in cahoots with Stuart)- Lorenzo simply says "It's time to kick ass." It's a nice and simple way to show Lorenzo finally trusting McClane as well as ready to show he's not just a bureuacrat.

The film isn't quite as soulful as the first film, which at its heart was about a guy trying to fix his marriage. That was the metpahor for the entire film. In this film, Holly and McClane's marriage is doing well so having Holly being on board one of the planes is more of a plot device-albeit a relatable and emotional one for McClane. The movie isn't entirely soulless- McClane not being able to save the plane shows how McClane isn't the perfect action hero who can save everyone- and the reunion between Holly and McClane is touching. I do wish Richard "Dick" Thornburg (William Atherton) went through an arch of redemption rather than just be the same slimy reporter he was in the first film but I'm glad Holly is portrayed as an assertive woman rather than a damsel in distress.

Die Hard 2 is a very entertaining and well paced action film that's very lean and brutal- as well as unpretentious about what it wants to be. It's also arguably the only Die Hard sequel that feels like a sequel to Die Hard. It doesn't match the greatness of the first film but it's still a damn good film. Next up, probably my favourite of the Die Hard sequels: Die Hard With a Vengeance.

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