In hindsight, it’s clear that the deglorification of Die Hard began the moment it was greenlit for a sequel. In the almost thirty years since its release the public has been subjected to four sequels of varying quality, with plans now for a series of prequels focusing on a young John McClane played by an actor other than Bruce Willis. Die Hard 2: Die Harder started the ridiculous titling, but was just passable enough as an inoffensive rehash of the original. The fourth film in the franchise, Live Free Or Die Hard (known is Die Hard 4.0 in some markets) paired Willis with an entertaining sidekick in Justin Long’s nerdy hacker, but felt desperate and strangely rushed given its twelve year gestation period. Where those two films still managed to be entertaining in their blandness, the last outing in the franchise was a disgrace – a total desecration and a minute by minute tearing down of the first movie’s overwhelming legacy. A Good Day To Die Hard was a cartoony mess of a film that was so bad it almost retroactively ruined the love people had for the original.
Fans take this kind of thing personally. The South Park episode The China Probrem went to absurd lengths to demonstrate how filmmakers can ruin a beloved character with a scene showing George Lucas and Steven Spielberg literally raping Indiana Jones in reference to the fan reaction to the subpar Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, and while the continually diminishing returns of the Die Hard franchise aren’t to that level, they aren’t far off. It’s one thing to watch an icon in an attempt that just misses the mark, another thing entirely to sit through seeing our hero being dragged through cash grabbing mess after cash grabbing mess like the corpse in Weekend At Bernie’s. At what point does the studio simply become Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman parading the beaten carcass of McClane around for the sake of an epic party?
John McClane was an instantly classic character – flawed, emotional and seemingly always covered in his own blood. In an era of stoic and invincible heroes as robotic as they were ludicrously popular, McClane was the antithesis of the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the world. Willis played him with a desperation that seemed out of place for the time, but has since become the norm. He bleeds, cries, panics, and struggles from one scene to the next, culminating in his final showdown with Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, suited and suave and a complete contrast to the bloodied and beaten figure McClane has become by that stage of the story. McClane saves the day, obviously, but only just. Die Hard cast a shadow over action movies in general from then on, but most of all over his own franchise. The second movie was a tribute to all the great deeds he performed in the first, while the fourth and fifth felt like films trying to cater to an icon.
It isn’t all bad though. The third movie was the closest the sequels ever got to matching the rugged glory of the main character to a serviceable plot, owing in no small part to the return of John McTiernan in the director’s chair. With perhaps the funniest title of the series, Die Hard With A Vengeance feels like the only time since 1988 that the character of McClane didn’t feel like a caricature. With the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer In The City soundtracking shots of a New York city morning, the threequel drops into the action immediately with an explosion at a department store. It moves even faster from there – a chaotic New York police department interrupted by a phone call from the man responsible for the bombing, a grizzled McClane being dragged out of suspension to help, and the introduction of Samuel L. Jackson’s awesomely named Zeus Carver, who is quickly forced into a partnership with McClane. Jeremy Irons is Simon, the major villain of the piece and the antagonist putting McClane through hell with a series of destructive games and puzzles only he is allowed to solve. It’s a great set up and makes for the most exciting first act of the series.
Irons is decent as Simon, but anyone appearing as the bad guy in a Die Hard sequel will only ever suffer under the enormous shadow of Rickman’s Gruber, the greatest nemesis in movie history. Jackson is a welcome entry though, and his chemistry with Willis enlivens the excellent first half. It’s also the second best performance Willis has ever given as McClane, which you could argue might make it the second best performance of his career as a whole. McClane works best when he’s at his most beaten – the barefoot broken glass scene is the original’s most memorable – and here we see him ruined from the outset. Nursing a buzzing hangover, on suspension and struggling to hold onto his marriage, he’s at a point where his only option is to crawl himself out of the hole he finds himself in. He’s the underdog again, the reluctant hero crashing his way through every insane situation.
Unfortunately the potential of the first half of the film is never fully realized. The second half of the movie drags, stumbling through multiple endings each more unnecessary than the last. Tonally it veers closer to the over the top invincibility shown in the sequels that followed. It was here that the seeds were sown for the comical superheroics of the later movies – action set pieces only a notch or two from the utter ridiculousness of McClane attacking a helicopter with his car in Live Free Or Die Hard. It’s a clear middle point in the series, in more ways that just its numbering. The first half is everything we love about the character, a ringing endorsement of the genius of the first movie, while the second is the moment he turned towards Stallone-ish exaggeration, something avoided so perfectly when he first exploded into cinemas. Overall though, Die Hard With A Vengeance is almost a great movie, both a reminder of the series’ greatness and a warning of what was to come.