“But I thought this was a currency exchange!”
In kicking off my summer of 1995 retrospective I made the grave error of skipping a May 19th release that very likely is the movie of that summer, one that is widely loved (especially around here) but sometimes forgotten in the lists of great films of the ’90s. Of course I don’t have to remind you guys about DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, you know about it. But I neglected to remember that my reviews of the original DIE HARD trilogy were written 15 years ago when I was taking the first steps on my journey to cinematic enlightenment. In other words I was kind of a dummy. So I owe it to myself and to society to try again.
The main thing that makes WITH A VENGEANCE stand out from the other DIE HARD sequels is the strong filmatism of director John McTiernan at his peak. The opening two minutes is a perfect sample, like when the one guy in the coke deal lets the other guy dip his finger in and taste the product. We see the Brooklyn Bridge on a summer day. Then the words “DIE HARD” whoosh onto the screen. This is DIE HARD but it’s a new location, new time of year, new time of day. Then the words fly away and are replaced by a much larger” WITH A VENGEANCE,” slamming across the screen, then shooting right at us. This is a sequel that’s aware of the power of it’s title, so it’s unashamed to smash it into our eyes with a sound effect, to cockily fill the whole screen with it.
Then we get a beautiful montage of New York City set to “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. The sun glimmering on reflective buildings. Sidewalks filled with people walking to work. Cars and buses and delivery trucks. These look like real commuters. Documentary footage. An accurate representation of regular people starting their day. A nice day, too. But abruptly, mid-lyric, a department store explodes, sending clouds of dust and wreckage into the street, flipping over cars and trucks parked in front.
Of course watching this now it has 9-11 connotations. But that just shows how well McT captured the feel of a pleasant day when people go about their business unaware of the nightmare that some asshole has been planning. At least it seems like there might not have been anybody in there. Although if there was, obviously Superman is to blame for their deaths.
(All throughout the movie McTiernan will squeeze alot of tension of the situations by constantly having extras in the background not knowing they’re in danger. McClane will be messing with a bomb in the park while behind him some dude is innocently playing catch with his dog.)
So that’s the great opening, but it keeps getting better. From there we go right to the chaotic police headquarters where our boy John McClane has worked for so many years, even after Holly moved to L.A. to work with Ellis and all those guys. But McClane’s not there. It’s Inspector Walter Cobb (Larry Bryggman, who seems like a veteran character actor but only has 16 credits on IMDb) trying to field all the questions and send people in the right directions to deal with this crisis. But as there’s all this chaos around him in the office the camera lets his face drift slowly out of frame so that our attention shifts to a secretary in the background answering the phone and having an “oh shit” look on her face. Uh, hey Inspector. Mad bomber on the line. Cobb talks to this guy, who calls himself Simon, and finds out he wants McClane.
McClane’s not at work. He’s suspended. I don’t think we ever hear why, but I bet it’s not one of those bullshit “I was just doing my job” type of suspensions. More likely it’s for something more pathetic, like showing up to work drunk. This is one of the masterstrokes: after McClane saving so many lives at Nakatomi Plaza and Dulles International they coulda had him be some bigshot with a bunch of medals, a book deal and a TV movie. But we love him for being an underdog, a fuckup made good. So in the time since part 2 McClane’s let his self destructive tendencies and poor marital skills get the better of him. The cops have to find him at “whatever rock he’s under.” He’s hungover, blurry-eyed, unshaven, in his undershirt, popping aspirin, and later it’s mentioned that he smells like beer. When they give him the old cliche “Jesus John, you look like shit,” he’s earned it. This is very much the McClane, and the Bruce, that we love. A charismatic mess. A loser who, when pushed, is stubborn enough to become a winner.
And this is actually my favorite part of the movie because it’s the reverse of an iconic hero introduction like panning up the leg to show him standing there looking awesome. Before we see him we see a bunch of shots of Cobb and his colleagues Joe Lambert (Graham Greene, DANCES WITH WOLVES) and Connie Kowalski (Colleen Camp, GAME OF DEATH, SPEED 2) literally looking down at McClane, wincing in disgust. And the first shot of him he’s sitting on the floor, he’s got his hand against his forehead, reeling from a headache and not noticing someone’s trying to hand him coffee. His wedding ring is very visible, though we later learn he hasn’t talked to Holly in a year.
They ask him somewhat condescending questions, kind of worried, more disappointed. And as they’re talking you start to realize this is a moving van, so they must be headed somewhere to do something that we haven’t been told about. And he’s nervous as hell, but he’s gonna do it anyway. This is pure John McClane: I’m a piece of shit, but I’m gonna do what has to be done.
What has to be done of course turns out to be the famous scene where McClane is forced to walk around in Harlem wearing a sandwich board with a racist message on it. Clearly Simon has seen THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE:
Here again McTiernan knows the best way to tell the story visually, showing McClane walking around scared and embarrassed, and the reactions of an innocent old lady he walks past, before showing us what’s on the sign.
This is where we meet Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson, THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY), a great addition to the DIE HARD franchise universe saga mythos. He seems kind of like the real Samuel L. when that poor nitwit interviewer confused him with Laurence Fishburne, a real serious sufferer of no fools. He’s very strict in the way he looks out for his nephews that he takes care of, making sure they make good decisions, and making difficult calls to protect the peace in his neighborhood. In this case that means standing up for what seems like a crazy racist.
Unfortunately I think this scene is a bit of a misstep. If a white dude really did this I believe he would get threatened, yelled at, pushed, maybe beat up. But I just don’t buy that a mob of Scary Black Guys (credited as “Gang Member”s #1-7) would appear and one of them would pull out a switchblade and throw it into his sign. They’re dressed very ’90s but they act like they should be wearing denim vests and studded collars. They’re subway muggers from an ’80s movie about how scary it is for white people to go to “the wrong part of town” at night. (Gang Member #3 Kent Faulcon’s previous role was “Low Life #3” in DREAM A LITTLE DREAM.) I’m not expecting a great drama about racial tension here but the outdated stereotype puts a knock in what so far had been a perfectly running engine.
Then again, I can’t pretend that Argyle from part 1 isn’t a bit of a stereotype, even if it’s an innocuous one. Zeus balances some of this out because he’s a black hero designed to make white people uncomfortable. He explains that he didn’t save McClane’s ass, he just “stopped a white cop from getting killed in Harlem. One white cop gets killed today, tomorrow we got a thousand white cops, all of ’em with itchy trigger fingers.” Later that reasoning is supported by the incident where he almost gets shot by one such cop, a young nervous transit officer (Scott Nicholson) who pulls a gun not even because of any dead cops, but because Zeus yelled at another guy to get the pay phone from him. (Of course he needs the pay phone to deal with Simon, and when the bomb goes off he pulls the officer out of the way.)
Zeus is exactly as cynical and no-bullshit as McClane, also just as angry and mean, but doesn’t hide it with humor as much. And when he hears about “that thing in L.A.” (what we at home would just refer to as “DIE HARD”), he’s not impressed.
Willis and Jackson have a good chemistry. (They had just filmed PULP FICTION before this, but it hadn’t come out yet when they were filming, so they made a reference to it without knowing what a cultural phenomenon it was gonna be.) I like that they seem genuinely mad at each other for a while. But I do think the McClane-Zeus sparring enables this common white people fear of Why don’t black people like me? I didn’t do anything! Or, as McClane puts it, “You got some fuckin problem with me ’cause I’m white, Zeus? Is that it, huh? Have I oppressed you, have I oppressed your people somehow? I’ll tell you what your problem is, you don’t like me ’cause you’re a racist! You’re a racist, you don’t like me because I’m white!”
Zeus gets him succinctly, though: “No, I hate you because you’re gonna get me killed!” And McClane’s outburst can’t help but put him in a category with a Wall Street guy later in the movie who gets in the cab that Zeus is driving and when he doesn’t want to drive him asks “Oh, you don’t like white people?” And this is clearly a character we’re supposed to think is a douche.
But take note of how McClane handles things after that. He’s not a baby about it. He doesn’t complain or use Zeus as evidence against black people. He just ignores the tension and proves himself with his actions, and they become friends.
But first they’re forced to work together solving these damn puzzles. Zeus is clearly better at this kind of stuff. Jonathan Hensleigh’s script started as an original non-DIE HARD spec script, but supposedly at one point Warner Brothers considered buying it to use as a LETHAL WEAPON sequel, and you can see how this could be Murtaugh and Riggs. Zeus offers the smarts, McClane comes up with the crazy ideas like beating the clock by driving through Central Park, nearly running over dozens of people in a well-shot scene that makes effective use of a pretty shaky camera. And I can imagine Riggs making the same corny mime joke he does. The movie has some fun by playing by emergency rules. If he was just a cop trying to catch a bad guy then he might seem like an above-the-law asshole doing all this stuff, but he has to stop some imminent bombings so he has license to steal cars and wreck them, drive around like a maniac through oncoming traffic, off of an overpass, making everybody swerve or jump out of the way.
Simon is an excellent DIE HARD villain. Since turns out to be Hans Grueber’s brother he has license to be a similar type of arrogant character, and Irons can obviously pull off that sense of being smarter than everybody and having contempt for them. As Hans had “Ode To Joy” as his theme, Simon has Symphony Number Such-and-such, the one used in DR. STRANGELOVE. He’s more of a soldier than Hans, though. The suit and tie is the disguise, he prefers showing off his skinny arms in a sleeveless shirt. He also gets some power by being only a phone voice for so long. We finally see him 47 minutes in, when it’s revealed that he’s watching Cobb and the others from a rooftop above. “They bought it,” he says. “We can begin.”
But mostly the plot unfolds similar to part 1, with the terrorists/thieves very professionally executing each step of their plan long before we know exactly what they’re up to. And as far as these movie heists go it’s a good one, an audacious plan that’s fun to watch (filling dump trucks with gold bars!) and has plenty of twists and turns (It’s all about revenge! It’s all about gold! It’s kind of still about revenge though! Wait, he’s ripping off some of his friends! But not all of them!)
His henchmen are simple but enjoyable characters. There’s some comic relief when one of them worries that “a kid could find” their suitcase bomb if they leave it somewhere, just like Zeus worried in an earlier scene. And I like how one who’s disguised as a security guard reverses the term “raining cats and dogs” and says “lift” instead of elevator. I think it helps tip McClane off that he’s an impostor, but the movie doesn’t point it out to you.
The most memorable henchperson is Simon’s girlfriend Katya (Sam Phillips). I don’t think she has any lines, but she knows how to dangle a cigarette and slice up a guy with knives. She reminds me of a blond Carrie Anne-Moss and she’s so convincing as a cold-hearted German warrior woman that I was surprised to look her up just now and find out she’s a former Contemporary Christian singer who is married to T-Bone Burnett and scored the TV shows Gilmore Girls and Bunheads.
Simon never really planned to blow up a school as he threatened, saying that he’s not a monster. But of course they’re willing to kill whoever’s in their way, so he’s not exactly humanitarian of the year either. Still, I like the little non-evil, more human moments with him. Like the part where they’ve seemingly gotten away with their gold heist and the whole crew celebrates with a rowdy champagne toast “to fallen comrades.” Or when he captures McClane and they kind of talk like guys who really are just playing a game. Simon can’t deny it when McClane calls his brother an asshole. They share a laugh together.
You know what’s another great piece of McT filmatism is when some dumb kid stealing a Butterfinger causes McClane to figure out that this revenge plot is actually cover for a heist. The camera dramatically rotates around his head as his mouth is agape.
Willis does alot of good intense expressions when the shit goes down, and gets lots of blood and dirt on him. Once again he goes through the ringer. Unfortunately things get both more outlandish and more convenient as we get to the last third or so of the movie. He’ll just walk up to construction workers and they’ll give him all the exposition he needs, like on a cop show. Or after a big scene where he’s in a flooded tunnel and he gets geysered out of a manhole Zeus coincidentally is driving right next to where he comes out. And then they both do a fall onto a boat that seems like it should’ve permanently crippled them both, and they get up.
The very end is maybe the most ridiculous thing in the movie. Simon has escaped, but McClane suddenly realizes he has a clue to where he’s going, so McClane and Zeus go after him in a helicopter. Okay, maybe I can accept that after all this McClane is going to want to go after this guy personally, not just let the other police take care of it. But why would Zeus go with him, or be allowed to go with him? And why would the police really let them take a helicopter and its pilot without backup? It seems so much less sensible than the rest of the movie.
Of course we learned years later that this is because that ending was not the original plan, it came together in reshoots. The originally scripted ending, included on DVDs and blu-rays of the movie, is better in my opinion. In that version some months have passed since Simon got away with the gold, and McClane’s life has been further damaged by this whole incident, so he’s ready to really die hard with a vengeance. Using his detective skills he tracks Simon to his secluded life in Europe, outsmarts him, scares him, kills him. I can see why they might’ve decided it left McClane in too dark of a place, or that Zeus shouldn’t disappear for the last scene. But I like how unexpected it is, and I think it makes more sense than the ending they used. It feels more like the natural ending.
Not that I completely hate the other one. I like the old school way the credits play over a slow pan out from McClane calling Holly on a payphone and the helicopter burning as the police arrive. And Zeus gets a great last line. McClane asks “Should we call a firetruck?” And Zeus says:
“Nah, fuck ’em. Let ’em cook.”
I’m much easier on LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD than many people. I enjoy it. Can’t say the same for A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, but at least I appreciate how McClane gets to reconnect with each of his children across these two movies. But maybe the best place to depart this series is with that VENGEANCE credits sequence. Simon Grueber, what’s left of “that L.A. thing,” is cooking on the sidewalk, and McClane is swallowing his pride to call Holly and see if she’ll talk to him. And we can hope for the best without having to see what happens.
McTiernan’s subsequent directorial works include THE 13TH WARRIOR and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, both pretty decent. His last movie, BASIC, was in 2003. These days he’s trying to get another movie off the ground which would be his comeback both from a career-derailing jail stint for lying to the FBI and, maybe moreso, from 2002’s ROLLERBALL.
Screenwriter Hensleigh, whose previous credits were A FAR OFF PLACE and five episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, had a bit of a run as kind of a cheesy studio movie guy, getting credits on JUMANJI, THE SAINT, ARMAGEDDON and later NEXT. But I prefer him as the writer-director who has so far done THE PUNISHER, WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE and KILL THE IRISHMAN.
The way this sequel broke the DIE HARD series away from limited locations into a wider canvas was obviously very influential on the next two sequels, though they don’t do it as well. The plot also was clearly the inspiration for 12 ROUNDS (directed by DIE HARD 2’s director Renny Harlin) and its sequel. You could maybe make an argument for the SAW series, also, with its know-it-all villain forcing people to play games, but I tend to think he’s more based on Vincent Price avenging villain type characters.
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE went on to be the highest grossing movie of 1995, above even the beloved classic TOY STORY. So there was a time when an action movie could be R-rated and still make 366 million dollars.