Monday, 16 July 2018

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis Die Hard with a Vengeance

Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Bruce Willis (John McClane), Jeremy Irons (Simon Gruber), Samuel L Jackson (Zeus Carver), Graham Greene (Detective Joe Lambert), Colleen Camp (Detective Connie Kowalski), Larry Bryggman (Inspector Walter Cobb), Anthony Peck (Detective Ricky Walsh), Nick Wyman (Mathias Targo), Sam Phillips (Katya)

The Die Hard franchise has spawned multiple imitators, all with the signature format of a hero taking on villains in a confined space: everything from a boat, to a train, to a plane to a bus. Of course the franchise itself had already started to head away from this in Die Hard 2, which takes place across an entire airport. Die Hard with a Vengeance pumps it up even further by setting the action in an entire city. Sure it loses some of the magic claustrophobia of the original, but then it’s got to do something different right? 

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is on suspension, with his marriage in ruins and his life on the skids. No change there then. But he’s dragged out of retirement when terrorist Simon (Jeremy Irons) detonates a bomb in New York and makes it clear he’ll keep doing so until McClane agrees to take on a series of games and challenges across New York – each with deadly penalties. In the first of these, with McClane wearing a very unfortunate sign in the middle of Harlem, he is saved by Zeus (Samuel L Jackson), a shop owner with his own problems with white people, who is forced to join McClane on Simon’s deadly game. After a bomb detonates in Wall Street, McClane starts to wonder: does Simon have an ulterior motive?

Die Hard with a Vengeance is probably most people’s second favourite Die Hard film, and it’s easy to see why. It’s got scale, bangs, loads of action and jokes. It largely takes the best things from the two previous movies and tries to replicate them: so we’ve got the bigger scale and stakes of Die Hard 2, matched with the battle of wits that powered Die Hard. At the same time, it avoids Die Hard 2’s habit of squeezing in as many references and characters from the first film as possible, and tries to make something fresher.

But yet, as I get older, I’m actually getting less keen on it. Guiltily, I think I prefer both entries 2 and 4. I just feel there is something a bit mean about Die Hard 3, something a bit brutal and vicious. Now I am no shrinking violet, but there is a lot (and I mean a lot) of angry swearing in Die Hard 3 – which actually makes it feel rather dated. Everything is “f this” and “f that”. But it’s symptomatic of a particularly 1990s action vibe about the film.Anyway it's all angry - everyone in the film is angry most of the time. I mean sure they are stressed, but McClane was stressed in the last two films but it didn't just project itself through fury.

McClane himself, in the first two films, may be hard as nails but he’s also a regular guy doing his best to save lives. But in this film he’s just extremely angry – probably because the character is hungover – and feels less like a police officer interested in preserving life than a vigilante acting above the law. Twice in this movie he executes people (one of whom is trying to surrender (in German)!) with no real warning. The blood and guts count seems a lot higher. The camera lingers on corpses and spurting blood. The character just feels harder to relate to. 

It’s no great surprise that the original intention of the script was for McClane to become actually more and more unhinged by events. It gets lost at the end, when the film settles for a more generic and triumphant ending rather than the unsettling, low-key one originally filmed (which feels like a much better thematic fit for the film you’ve just watched). It would have been interesting to make a film where the hero becomes as damaged and ruthless as the villain – but the studio didn’t want that, so we don’t get it.

McTiernan’s attempt to recapture the vibe of the first Die Hard film also doesn’t quite click. Simon is an odd character, who utilises brute force one minute and then inexplicably spares lives the next. His eventual heist on Wall Street is partly blood-free, partly a brutal slaughter of any resistance. McTiernan is obviously aiming for a battle of wits, but the original concept of Simon setting McClane a series of children’s riddles to solve gets lost half way through the film. Like Die Hard there is an attempt to get a sense of gleeful enjoyment from Simon’s actions, but Jeremy Iron’s character (despite his best efforts) isn’t devilishly charming enough for this to work.

But then things in the film do work. The chemistry between Willis and Jackson is very good, and Jackson really nails a character who is part cocksure, angry radical and half squeamishly out of his depth. The film’s at its most involving when it gets wrapped up in cat-and-mouse games. The first half of the film, which focuses on this, is by far the most interesting and offers the best twist on the action – from riddles about the man going to St Ives, to having to cross New York in a fraction of the time needed, or trying to defuse a bomb by putting four gallons into a five-gallon jug. The more these riddles die away in the second half and the film goes for more generic shooting and killing, the less interesting it becomes.

Not that this sort of stuff isn’t good fun. Although McClane seems more bad tempered and ruthless – and the baddies are mostly faceless goons rather than people – it’s still fun to see him take on the odds so successfully, and to see him being underestimated by the villains (the character is always smarter than he appears). McTiernan, with a huge budget, throws everything at the screen from bombs to fist fights to car chases. He doesn’t manage to create the magic sense of heroism that the first film has in such abundance, or that sense of one man doing what he must to save others, but the film still broadly works.

There is something very 1990s about this film, from its swearing to its violence to its general atmosphere of gritty comic book thrills. It is fun to hear jokes about Hillary Clinton (jokingly named as the next President – oops) and Donald Trump. But it’s that lack of moral purpose to McClane that proves the biggest problem – he’s motivated less by saving lives than by revenge. It’s a crueller film, sharper and meaner, which means for all the enjoyment it can bring, I can’t love it like I do the first film. It takes McClane to dark places, and presents a bad tempered hero it would be hard to like without the first two films. He’s already starting to feel less like a regular put-upon guy and more like an angry maverick dealer in violence. There is less to build on in this film, and perhaps that’s why we had to wait a while until nostalgia made John McClane a character we wanted to see again.

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