Die Hard 2: Die Harder
(SPOILERS) There’s a bizarre view spouted by some adherents, who surely can’t have seen Die Hard 2: Die Harder in a long time, that the legacy of John McClane is only shat on by the arrival of the baldy Bruce version in 2007. Admittedly, A Good to Day to Die Hard is lousy, but I’d argue Live Free or 4.0 is actually a more satisfying movie than with a Vengeance (which goes great guns for about half its running time, then splutters and disintegrates). And the suggestion that Bruce isn’t playing McClane in Live Free is nonsense to the extent that he isn’t really playing McClane after the first movie. Exhibit A: the caricature McClane of Die Harder, riffing some near-self-reflexive dialogue that serves mainly to distance the viewer from any claim the picture otherwise has to drama and tension (most of it relating to the same shit happening to the same guy twice, rather than being inventively witty) and fearlessly racing around an airport with precious little sense of his ever having been an average New York cop out of his depth in a life or death situation. Now, crazy shit just happens to him, and he can deal with any and all of it. He has become all that his former self was a conscious reaction against.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the absurdity of Die Harder were properly capitalised on, but it’s largely an unarresting affair, with pedestrian villains and an awkward, ungainly plot that entirely fails to follow the (presumed) template of McClane in a claustrophobic, against-the-odds siege situation. It has been pointed out that the arena of conflict escalates in each successive Die Hard outing, and while the siege situation is part of what makes the first so tight and effective, the essential ingredient of the series is surely really the sustained tension of impossible odds; Die Harder almost entirely dispenses with this. It’s a flaccid movie full of start-stop action and McClane continually exiting perilous situations to return to the safety zone of unheedful airport authorities. It means it’s not only short on personal danger, since he isn’t out on a limb, but also that that the movie as a whole is lumpen and sloppy.
Renny Harlin’s no help in this, a C-director graduating from Elm Street movies (along with Stephen Hopkins, picked for Joel Silver’s Predator 2) whose main claim to fame is a penchant for engaging in chunky slow motion at the merest sniff of action. The picture is actually light on preamble, kicking into motion in the first few minutes, and McClane with it, but that’s a false dawn if you’re expecting a consistent follow through. There’s an early fight involving the baggage handling area, with conveyer belts (and slow-mo), and it’s utterly generic, right down to the autopilot Michael Kamen score. You shouldn’t be feeling same-old, same-old, particularly when there’s nothing common about the original; it’s an exceptional action movie.
Harlin doesn’t have story on his side, so it’s mostly his later resumé that confirms he wasn’t just unlucky (although he manages to instil a modicum of laughs and tension into Deep Blue Sea, so he can do it) The locale for Die Harder is simply too expansive, too ill-defined, cursed with vague geography that seems to fluctuate according to the requirements of a scene or plot progression.
As such, while some of the early moments are more in line with the brutal one-on-one antics of the original, albeit much sloppier in execution (the sequence where Bruce shoots the T-1000-to-be through a falling grill is no less clumsy for being in slow motion), it isn’t long before the movie is turning McClane into James Bond, as he leaps on a snow ski for an chase across a frozen lake and gets dropped onto the wing of a plane for the final fight. And, where the violence often had an infectiously grim sense of humour in the original, here it’s just about Harlin’s penchant for the grisly (a stalactite in a bad guy’s eye, the main villain being splatted in a plane’s propeller).
The Ejector seat scene is the sole inspired (set) piece of tension, with grenades plopping into the cockpit around McClane; it presents a great “Now get out of that conundrum”. The actual ejection may be patchy in terms of effects (it’s the series straying into the obviously composited, which was never evident in the first picture, and further underlines the Bond-ian way the series was going), but it’s still a satisfying pay-off.
Barnes: What are you going to do?
John McClane: Whatever I can.
John McClane: Whatever I can.
The other scene of note finds McClane revisiting his attempt to save a group of people from certain death at the hands of terrorists; in the original, he saved them from a mined roof. Here, he fails to attract the attention of an incoming plane piloted by Colm Meany (“We’re just like British Rail, love. We may be late, but we get you there” advised a stewardess: terrible last words) and the result is an early example of disaster porn, particularly since there’s no real impact to the passengers’ deaths, other than that Bruce’s ruse is unsuccessful and he feels bad about it. In theory, such a failure on the part of the hero is to the credit of the movie, but it comes wrapped in a strictly functional bow that denies it impact.
One thing I guess this does “successfully” in that sense, is continuing the reconfiguration of the ‘70s disaster movie. But where Die Hard worked with the tropes and infused them with freshness, the stodginess of Die Harder really is a throwback to two decades’ past. As such, while you might argue that the way it structurally isn’t replicating the first is a good thing, what it is doing simply isn’t any good; the goose chase of “Simon Says” and cross-country race of the third and fourth at least involve direction and drive.
Here, we have Bruce meet up with an old-timer (Tom Bower) in one of the endless service tunnels beneath the airport. He isn’t a fun character, and is yet another instance of McClane not finding himself up-against-it; he can just stop off for a natter whenever he feels like it. It saps any vitality from the proceedings. And then there’s the truly terrible, painfully slow scene involving the wonders of fax technology (even if it gives one of Bruce his few sterling lines; “Just the fax, ma’am. Just the fax”), which seems to be entirely there to give a shout out to Al Powell, backhanded as it is.
Grant: No, you were right. I’m just you’re kind of asshole.
The villains are a generic, cruddy bunch too. This time, they really are terrorists, and as mostly dull-witted as that suggests; there are twists and turns (mostly the allegiance of John Amos’ Major Grant) buy they highlight the slipshod plotting rather than flourish impressive sleight of hand (Franco Nero’s Esperanza is required to overpower his captives and land his plane for the plan to work, which isn’t much of a plan). William Sadler, so good as Death in the following year’s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, is introduced doing a spot of nude aerobics and has a decent snark at Bruce (“You seemed a bit out of your league on Nightline, I thought”) but apart from that fails to make much impression (undoubtedly why they went back to Brits in Vengeance).
There’s also Dennis Franz as the obstructive head of airport police, who eventually sees the light and gets to utter the immortal “It’s time to kick ass”, which in the trailers was abbreviated to be “ass”-less, kind of embodying how lame this whole thing would be in advance.
Dick Thornberg: See, you’re intrigued. That’s my gift.
Even though Bonnie Bedelia is relegated to imperilment on a plane, and thus gets none of the dramatic meat she did in the original, she makes the most of sitting next to a vicious old bat who tried a stun gun on her dog (are we supposed to think she’s a lovable dear?) And, of course, this is an instance of Chekov’s stun gun, since it having appeared five minutes in, we know it will be used on odious Dick Thornburg, who is coincidentally on the same flight, come the climax. Fair dues to Dick, though, he may be reprehensibly tabloid, but he is actually a decent investigative journalist: astute, deductive, and while it might be claimed his actions louse up an attempt to reach the escape plane, it could equally be said that it’s McClane’s actions that lead directly to the deaths of 230 passengers on the Windsor Air flight.
John McClane: Hey, Carmine, let me ask you something. What sets of the metal detectors first? The lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?
And Bruce? This is around the point when, having finally hit the big time in the movies, he was immediately experiencing the undesirable effect of ill-advised choices, such as Bonfire of the Vanities, and vanity project Hudson Hawk (well, no, not a bad choice, it’s a great movie, but his ego had been let loose). Die Hard 2 finds him going with the flow in a script he has since renounced (but he’d later okay Die Hard 5, so quality control has never been his forte). He’s basically left with no option but to run around caricaturing his persona from the original (“Oh, we are up to our ass again in terrorists, John”; “I’ve gotta quit smoking cigarettes”, “Yeah, story of my life”), or worse, reeling off dreadful lines like the above; it’s the sort of crap George Costanza would think was clever, despite all indications to the contrary.
It leads one to question just who came up with all the great dialogue in the original. Jeb Stuart (who’s absent?) or Steven De Souza (who co-writes with Doug Richardson)? Maybe it was DeSouza, since he also worked on Hawk, but there’s precious little evidence of his wit here. Or it comes down to Willis, who reportedly ad-libbed loads in the original – although, that doesn’t explain all the other characters’ dialogue – but maybe it had all gone to his head here. Alternatively, there (understandably) just wasn’t the same inspiration.
Holly McClane: They told me there were terrorists at the airport.
John McClane: Yeah, I heard that too.
As with the original, the picture ends with Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow! but that merely serves as a reminder of how we’ve just sat through a pale facsimile of the first picture (whereas, say, Extreme Ways reminded us of just how great Bourne always was, at least until the most recent one). Die Hard 2: Die Harder is bloated; too much continuity, too inelegant a plot, too ungainly a director. John McTiernan (who apparently had to pass on this due to The Hunt for Red October; it would be nice to think he simply thought the script was awful) would come back on board to invigorate a pared-down third instalment (in terms of revisited characters and elements), but by that point the actual point of the series had unravelled. The first half of Die Hard with a Vengeance has the right look, feel and pace, but just what is McClane’s purpose in these pictures anymore? He’s an identikit hero justified by some tenuous connection to the first (brother of the villain, his daughter, his son), and the emotional through line that was its beating heart is entirely absent. Die Hard should have been one-and-done. It doesn’t take anything away from the original that there are follow-ups, obviously, but it would still be nicer if it was divested of all that subsequent baggage.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.