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Die Hard with a Vengeance

(SPOILERS) There was so much behind-the-scenes turmoil between the second and third Die Hards, it’s little wonder Die Hard with a Vengeance took five years to arrive. That it bears very little resemblance to a Die Hard instalment – something its sequel more commonly gets called out for – is mostly down to the “Die Hard in an/on a…” concept having been thoroughly milked in the meantime, most singularly by Under Siege. The result is half of a good movie (if not, particularly, a good Die Hard movie), which still makes it better overall than the limp, snow-sprinkled lettuce that is Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

The key to the first Die Hard was sustained tension. John couldn’t just reconvene with fellows or peers for a pep talk when it suited him. So, of course, the sequels drop this, with a resultant inevitable dissipation in the potency of the threat. That’s more acute in Die Hard 2, but spreading the canvas of John’s tribulations ever broader, from a tower block to an airport to NYC is bound to impact how these movies function. The compensation in the first half of Vengeance is the ticking clock, the Simon Says of Jonathan Hensleigh’s original screenplay.

That script was agreed upon after Joel Silver exited. Silver was set on a Caribbean cruise ship Die Hard 3 (with John and Holly on honeymoon), eventually abandoned due to the aforementioned Under Siege (“I also cook”) – ironically a screenplay Silver demurred from buying. Silver then fell out of the production altogether due to bad blood with Willis (specifically over Last Boy Scout and Hudson Hawk). There has also been a John Milius jungle script, one with the LA subways taken over by terrorists intent on robbing the Federal Reserve, and another where McClane’s daughter is mistakenly kidnapped (the latter sounds particularly hokey). Simon Says was originally intended to be a Brandon Lee vehicle (and Silver had been after it for Lethal Weapon 4).

Hensleigh’s screenplay initially had a female co-lead (Angela Bassett was in talks), and Larry Fishburne would turn it down before Willis was suggested Samuel L Jackson. The essential refit of the outline to incorporate Hans Gruber’s brother Simon (Jeremy Irons) is solid enough, along with terrorists masking common thieves being substituted by revenge-seeking sibling masking bank-robbing mercenaries working for Middle Eastern interests masking outright bank robbers. The distracting treasure hunt/puzzle solving mission McClane is tasked with successfully tackles the problem of the same shit happening to the same guy a third time, and at the outset, the issue of an unconfined locale is, as noted, ameliorated by the urgency of the puzzle solving.

Cobb: We’ll be back to pick you up in fifteen minutes.
McClane: Take your time. I expect to be dead in four.

The opening is particularly audacious, and it’s easy to see why Fox had cold feet about keeping it in; McClane is directed to stand in the middle of Harlem, in his undies, wearing a sandwich border announcing “I hate niggers” (absurdly, and hilariously, this was changed to “I hate everybody” on some TV broadcasts, which for plot coherence is just about the ultimate melonfarmer). It’s a palpably incendiary idea, although it does lead one to wonder; had McClane not survived, would Simon have picked on someone else to provide the necessary distraction?

Zeus: Who do we not want to help us?
Dexter & Raymond: (in unison) White people.

This also establishes another break with tradition; Die Hard becomes a buddy movie. While John has had his confidantes in the past (Sergeant Al Powell), his has been a decidedly one-man mission. Unfortunately, having introduced Jackson’s Zeus with reasonably-motivated antipathy towards McClane, the character’s constant grinding on at McClane’s perceived racism is one-note dead-horse flogging at its most tiresome; it quickly becomes clear this is all Hensleigh has for the character has to offer, to the extent it reaches almost Ali G levels by the time he asks, for about the fifth time, if it’s because he’s black (“Are you a fucking locksmith or not?”) Jackson’s good here as an average joe, and he and Willis have solid chemistry, but it’s representative of Hensleigh’s fundamental problem of craft that the picture lacks any direction with both character and (ultimately) plot.

Zeus: Are you aiming for these people?
McClane: No. Well, maybe that mime.

Which continues to exert a hold for the first seventy minutes or so. Simon’s riddles are standard ones but effective (although frankly, the water jugs needed more explicit explanation). The nine blocks in thirty minutes, achieved by haring through Central Park and tailing an ambulance, makes for great use of and justification of the cityscape, while the subway 3 Train explosion is the last place you’ll find this kind of practical effect before CGI takes over (see Skyfall).

The problems set in following the jugs solution, with John guessing the schools search is a distraction from the real event, stealing $140bn in gold from the Federal Reserve Bank on Wall Street; there’s simply too much slack (several hours) for the school bomb “threat” to be convincing, and once John is past the initial confrontation in the bank, the chain of cause and effect is all at sea, not helped any by McTiernan evidently being defeated by the logistical demands.

Simon Gruber: We blow the dam.

Indeed, there’s a realisation around this point that the director clearly is not the same precision-engineered action-meister he was in his first two hits. Last Action Hero defeated him, but you could possibly excuse that as tonal mismatch. Much of the work in the last hour of Die Hard with a Vengeance is plain bad. From John flying up in a water spout like something from Hudson Hawk – following some truck surfing – to the logistically ludicrous and appallingly composited tightrope crawl sequence (this from the guy who shot Gruber’s fall so iconically, it merits a flashback here). There’s stuff here that’s really poor, both coherently and visually, such that it borders on “jump the shark status” and makes Die Hard 2’s ejector seat seem like the height of plausibility.

McClane: I had no idea Canada would be this much fun.

Die Hard does get its boat scene in the third act, then, but it simply isn’t very good. And it comes complete with an over-obvious call back to the original as John fights a big brute (clearly the victim of MPAA dictated cuts to forestall the originally earned NC-17 rating). There’s further scrappy garbage to follow, as John races off in a helicopter to take out Simon; you can practically hear everyone thinking “Do we care? Let’s just get to the credits”. Frankly, the original ending was even worse (John, fired, tracks down Hans and has him play “Russian Roulette” with a rocket launcher).

Hensleigh says it was dropped because it makes John too dark, as well as faulting its action spectacle, but it’s more fundamental than that: it breaks the action from what is supposed to be a compressed, claustrophobic timeframe (something the movie does at least otherwise have in common with its predecessors). Plus, it’s just rather silly, not clever.

But the “dark” aspect leads to another issue; Die Hard with a Vengeances sees the McClane saga turn sour. While Willis is identifiably McClane-ish, extending the franchise to this point undermines the whole reconciliation theme at the heart of the original. By the time of the fourth outing, John and Holly are divorced, and with this disconnect, the hollowness of the material begins to overwhelm the positives (that said, I like the fourth movie well enough as an action movie).

Die Hard’s protagonist needs something to live for, and his offspring (especially the son) just don’t cut it. Still, this is close to the end of fun-Bruce on screen (The Fifth Element, I’ll grant you), and you can see his occasional-quipster side in what is, by necessity of the arrangement of conflict, more of a combative, less humorous McClane. His “No, I did not know that, Jerry”, on being given a tour of the aqueduct is nice. Elsewhere there’s some pattern Willis/McClane macho homophobia on display (“Put on a dress and fuck me?”; “Cross dressing? What?”) Generally, the character suffers from being made washed up and also from being coaxed towards half-hearted rapprochement.

Simon Gruber: I think he’s dead, my dear.

Of the rest of the cast, bleach-blonde Irons is fine but no Alan Rickman, while most of the supporting faces (Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, Larry Bryggman) fail to make much impact. Sam Phillips goes where John Wick Chapter 2 later would, with a silent female killer, while Nick Wyman’s Mathias is given the curious twist of apparently being the only member of Simon’s crew unaware that the plan to scatter the bullion across the bottom of the sound is a ruse. How does that work? Aside from aggressively evidencing the problems with the screenplay.

The villains are portrayed as going in for freelance terrorism – including “Working for the Iranians” – but also their own interests, for which their weekday activities provide a cover (“There are some Gentlemen in the Middle East who seem to think that they’ll make a great deal of money”). Gruber claims, of the school bomb being a dummy, “I’m a soldier, not a monster. Even though I sometimes work for monsters”, yet the subway train explosion seemed to be planned (“He wanted it to go off”). If John’s right, what if there’d been children on the train? There’s also the suspicious department store bomb of the opening, going off next to a sign saying “School Bus”.

As per Die Hard, the villain’s motivations provide a fairly neat swap-in for the Elite’s. The villain, under the guise of terrorism (or revenge terrorism) blows shit up and causes widespread panic and namechecks the Middle East as the instigators, but this is a ruse in aid of financial gain. To this end, it is in their interests to exacerbate racial tensions and stage false flag psyops at schools (not that they’d have any qualms about doing the real thing, mind).

Notably, the Oklahoma Bombing took place a month before the movie’s release, but Fox opted to go ahead with the picture on schedule. Willis said he wouldn’t trivialise a real-world tragedy by comparing it to a fictional movie, but crediting the event as false-flag psyop (and/or 9/11 rehearsal) would make such a statement somewhat ironic (Timothy McVeigh, or rather his handlers, were evidently fans of Brazil, so at least there was a sense of humour involved; one of his surnames was Tuttle, mistaken for Buttle. Robert De Niro’s character is terrorist Harry Tuttle, mistaken for Buttle). Of course, unlike the Elite, Simon doesn’t want control, but his mechanism of deceit in order to engineer a result is a common denominator. I liked the "I'm, uh, with another agency" from those present during John's initial pep talk.

Zeus: That’s it, Hillary Clinton. The 42nd President.
McClane: No, she’d be the 43rd President.

Other takeaways: as per the original, psychiatrists are to be ridiculed. There are several references to real-world figures: “Don’t tell me, Rodney King, right?” asks Zeus of the trouble John caused in LA. And in a foreshadowing of The Adventures of Pluto Nash foreshadowing the 2016 election race, both Hillary and Donald receive mentions in respect of hypothetical situations; “And I’m gonna marry Donald Trump!” says Wanda of the police switchboard’s capacity to receive all diverted calls. “Who do you think you are, lady? Hillary Clinton?” asks John of a lady driver, this leading to identifying the 21st President and the location of the school with a bomb in it, along with her presidential aspirations (she’d be neither the 44th nor, most ruefully for her, the 45th).

Die Hard with a Vengeance – the biggest movie of 1995 worldwide – is generally rated the second-best of the series. But let’s face it, it’s a pretty wide gulf between first and second whichever entry you place there. Looking back, what’s noticeable about mid-’90s terrorism fare (and prior) is how laissez-faire the studios were about such depictions; perhaps the real programming here is making incidents a fact of fiction and a fiction of real life (in the extent to which such events are psyops). Certainly, there’s a pre- and post-9/11 in terms of that movie landscape. Ah, more innocent times.

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