We like our action heroes to come in many different flavors because, as with ice cream, you can’t have the same kind every day. In this stellar analogy, we have the vanilla hero: the Superman type, who flutters about town picking up bad guys in mid-heist and sharply scolding them for their misdeeds. Then you have the dark chocolate: devil’s food if you will, which includes the conflicted demon-fighters who beat up criminals because they look like their fathers. Punisher, Batman, and The Mariachi from Desperado all fit in here. Whatever mood you might be in, there’s a peanut-butter cup Schwarzenegger or a mint-chip Rambo there for you. As we who adore the films have long known: Bruce Willis, particularly as his alter-ego NYC cop John McClane, is our Rocky Road; a bastard son of other ice creams that has become, with reason, a fan favorite. Just look at the man, all chocolate skid-marks and marshmallow bruises, and you can tell: he’s no Superman.
Unlike other, more foreign action heroes, McClane uses not just fists and guns to kick ass, but also his words. Since he lacks any fear-producing glands, he can calmly witticize in a manner on par with Oscar Wilde and Chaucer while participating in a violent gun battle or deadly cat-and-mouse game. In the third of his adventures, Die Hard With a Vengeance, it is his underrated intellect that is exercised most. In this one, he is pitted against the terrorist brother of Hans Gruber, the man who was ceremoniously dropped off the top of Nakatomi Towers in the first Die Hard. Brother Simon (Jeremy Irons) wants his revenge, but like a Bond villain, wants to put his subject through a series of mental and physical acuity tests first before finally dropping the hammer. Since McClane is unkillable, we in the audience know that this plan will eventually backfire.
However, it is these tests, and the genius of Simon’s real scheme, that makes Die Hard: With a Vengeance one of the best action movies of its decade. Since McClane is always pissed off at something, it is hilarious to see him having to jump through a mad genius’s hi-tech hoops while the whole time wondering why the hell he isn’t beating on someone with a sack of dictionaries. At the same time, though, you’re frantically yelling at the screen, trying to give him the answers he needs. It is genuinely both fun and thrilling, which is high praise indeed when you consider all the action flicks that couldn’t be either.
Basically, the ball begins to roll when a remote-activated suitcase bomb explodes in Manhattan, and a German-sounding evildoer calls the local precinct demanding to speak with Officer John. McClane’s boss digs him up, looking like a Norman Rockwell hobo, and takes him off suspension so he can get on the case. Simon begins a little game of “Simon Says” with McClane, who throws a few expletives his way before agreeing to the terms. The sophisticated nature of the bombs and the creepiness of the villain’s voice leads all the other cops to take everything very seriously. John’s first task is to take a hike up to Harlem with a sandwich board on that has a very racist statement written on it. It is there that he meets Samuel L. Jackson’s character “Zeus,” or as Jackson puts it, “shove a motherfuckin’ lightning bolt up your ass, Zeus,” when he tries to protect McClane from a gang of toughs.
More on this: all other Hollywood filmmakers should take note of how skillfully Zeus’s character is written. Even though he takes his place at McClane’s side throughout the film, he is not so much a sidekick. In every other action movie, the black man’s job is to look at a gun or doomsday device with wide eyes and a quivering lip, saying something like “Nu-uh, dog! I’s getting’ my ass outta here.” Not here, and certainly not Samuel L Jackson. From his introduction, Zeus is a smart, pragmatic person; explaining to McClane that the reason he’s helping an obvious bigot is because no white man shot in Harlem is ever good for the black community. Later on, when Simon is forced to include Zeus in the game, Zeus decides to participate only because he is tricked into believing that a bomb was found in a park in his neighborhood. Basically, he is not any white man’s shill, and cares only about the affairs of those who would on any other day ignore him because it suits him to do so. Jackson does an outstanding job of creating a persona much like John McClane’s: a normal guy who has to react to an impossible situation by “manning up.” It is a sad state in the movie business when it is a genuine surprise to see a black character keep his dignity throughout a film.
As each task gets more elaborate, including an excellent race-against-time sequence that has McClane and Zeus driving though Central Park in a commandeered taxi, our hero gets more and more frantic and cagey. He and his new “partner” are not afraid to verbally assault their tormentor and each other, but they manage to come together to solve each of Simon’s crazy riddles and puzzles, which are required to defuse the bombs. The action seems to never stop, and the inclusion of Jackson makes the dialogue so much funnier and more entertaining. We find out that McClane hasn’t seen Holly, his wife from the first two films, in some time, and that he was suspended for his sloppy performance as a result. Zeus is a father of two who owns a repair shop. Their quarrels about race are brutally hysterical, especially considering they are basically the same person underneath.
When the two begin to cooperate, Simon’s real plan comes into view. He has all the police in New York City looking for a bomb in a public school after he threatens such on the radio. With their attention diverted, he can execute a complex and brilliant heist of the Federal Reserve. The plan is so detailed and flawless, he actually is allowed to get away with it. Simon and his right-hand woman, the unbelievably cold Katya (Sam Phillips) are masters of the thieving arts first and foremost. The McClane stuff, we find out, is just a side project. Through all this, the action is chugging along, with only a few pit-stops of humor and quiet suspense to keep us from busting an adrenal. Katya slices a guard up with a scythe, McClane is rocketed through a sewer pipe by flooding water, Zeus and McClane drive a car off a bridge and cut a guy in half with a zipline. And it’s all just as sweet as it sounds.
After this sprawling orgy of amazing action sequences, hilarious dark humor, brainy heist stuff, and “touche” villain banter, we reach a climax that is quick, fun, and fitting. In short, the stuff of Die Hard movies. Since Die Hard 2 is unequivocally the shittiest of the three, the contest for “best of the series” is between the first and third. In this film, we have the same dust-and-blood-covered John McClane from the original: slaughtering people on the fly with impromptu style and giving villainy the middle finger not because he hates lawbreakers, but because they seem to continuously get in the way of his drinking. Also, there is the same horde of faceless foreign terrorists whose chess-like mercenary training proves useless against an American everyman who just knocks their pieces off the board. We have all that, and we have Samuel L. Jackson. The tie, my good sirs, is broken.
The two-disc Special Edition DVD of Die Hard: With a Vengeance is chock-loaded with as much fun as the movie that resides on it. I mean, what could be more awesome than Spanish and English subtitles, regular and French Dolby Surround audio, and widescreen options? John McClane himself could not have made better setup options, although I do believe he wouldn’t have coddled the French.
Besides that technical crap, we get more than enough material on both the production and the marketing of this 1995 highest-grossing picture of the year. There is a loaded commentary track, which seems a little bit disjointed, provided by director John McTiernan (who also did the original), screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh (whose first-draft script didn’t even have McClane in it), and for no known reason, FOX executive Tom Sherritt. His official role at the time was as a marketing and distribution head, which explains why his side of the commentary seems embarrassingly clinical and stupid. It also explains why we have on the second disc:
Ten promotional TV spots and two whole theatrical trailers! I don’t know really why anyone would see the merit in putting trailers on the DVD of a movie we’ve all just seen in it’s entirety. What do the marketing zombies think we’re doing? Are we, in their minds, watching the trailers with gusto, saying aloud: “I remember when that happened!” In addition to those marketing tidbits, there is a short interview with Willis himself about his character, John McClane, interwoven with clips from McClane’s storied policing career. Willis is just a cool guy, and this bit makes it clear that had anyone else played the character, the universe would have torn apart from the strain.
The most interesting addition that this DVD offers is an alternate ending, which takes the whole rivalry between Simon and McClane to a far more sinister place. The theatrical ending is a wild shoot-em-up involving a helicopter, whereas this alternate takes place in a calm, smoky office after Simon has taken the money from his plot and began to live life as a fat rat. The wicked part here is how John literally turns the tables on Simon, using his own mind games against him. You’ll know why it didn’t end this way for the public, but you’ll be amazed at how smart a grizzled old cop can be.
There are two “Making of” featurettes, one long and one short. The short one is better, because it condenses what the long one is trying to say: “This movie is hard to make, but will ultimately be awesome.” The only downside to the shorter version is that we don’t get to hang out as much with Bruce Willis. Sure, he’d probably want to talk about his warhawking, jingoistic views on Iraq, but I could belay my political affiliations for just a little while… I mean, this is freaking Hudson Hawk!
Finally, there is some additional behind-the-scenes filler with the special effects guys, where they break down seven action sequences and show how they were done. Let me guess: lots of pyro, a few stuntmen, and one of those cars that has eighty cameras mounted to it. Piece of cake. I get bored with effects stuff in action movies, especially learning how it was done. Just blow it up already, man.
I don’t believe any future Die Hard could ever match the ruthless combo of brains, action and fun that Die Hard: With a Vengeance manages. It is the kind of film that could immediately drop the testicles of a foppish preteen boy, while at the same time preparing him for his SATs. This is action at its best, and twelve years later, we have to worry that they just can’t make ‘em like this anymore.