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With A Good Day To Die Hard coming to theaters this week, we've got John McClane on the brain, and obviously any conversation about Die Hard inevitably leads to list-making. But it seems completely pointless to argue over the best Die Hard movie, since, duh, that's die-hard. But the second-best? That's definitely up for debate. Yesterday you read Sean's argument for Die Hard 2: Die Harder, but today's Eric's turn to fight for Die Hard With A Vengeance.
John McClane is a brilliant character. More than just about being weak and human, which are elements that we’ve before in many other characters, McClane has this amazing punished by life quality, where reality just seems to keep kicking sand in his face. And yet each time he just stands up, wipes his face clean, pulls off the one-liner that only he can, and walks away. He’s a character you want to see get pushed to his dirtiest, smelliest edge, just because you know how much fun it will be to watch him pull himself all the way back from it.
What’s unfortunate, however, is that most of the sequels in the Die Hard franchise don’t seem to grasp this idea very well. Die Hard 2: Die Harder is too much of a carbon copy of the first movie to be taken seriously, while Live Free Or Die Hard pushed the character so far that he just became Bruce Willis: Action star instead of John McClane. No, I like my hero cop to be hungover, divorced, on suspension and the ultimate annoyance for any criminal trying to pull off a big score. Throw in a sidekick that is actually useful and has brilliant chemistry with McClane, an engaging, energetic villain, and a story with a tone perfectly in line with the original, and you begin to understand why there is no better sequel in the series than Die Hard With A Vengeance.
The best thing that any sequel can do is create new and interesting ideas for a character without betraying everything that has already been said, and in that sense the third Die Hard is quite exceptional. While it’s unique in the franchise in that it’s the only film where McClane is chosen as a player instead of happening into a situation by coincidence, selected by Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) to compete in his little games, it still perfectly captures the spirit of a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time and being forced to undermine a villainous plan from within by slowly and cleverly turning the tables between protagonist and antagonist. Initially Simon has all of the cards, able to get McClane to pull crazy stunts like getting naked wearing a racist placard in the middle of Harlem and playing riddles in a park fountain, but as the hero cop gets further pulled into the situation he uses his instinct and street smarts to get one step ahead and once again foil evil’s plans.
But John McClane isn’t a mastermind. Sure, he’s clever and innovative in a crisis, but he is far from a smart man – which is where the importance of Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson) comes in. Beyond the fact that the on-screen chemistry between Willis and Jackson is some of the best seen in both actors’ careers, the way the characters are constructed together allows them to be the best they can be individually. Because John is a bit of a dummy and would otherwise be unable to solve Simon’s riddles, Zeus allows the plot to move forward without the writing betraying the action hero we’ve grown to love. There’s also the hilarious antagonistic relationship between the two leads that serves as the perfect dynamic change up from the first movie, where John is paired with a friendly (Reginald VelJohnson) who is with him at every turn. Sure, the expanded sidekick role is what eventually led to Justin Long’s role in Live Free or Die Hard, but you can’t blame a film for doing something right even if it led to another director doing something wrong.
Die Hard With A Vengeance also had a lot to make up for in terms of finding a proper villain for McClane to square off against, and found the ideal for in the second Gruber brother. As much as I enjoy William Sadler’s work, his turn in Die Harder was underwhelming at best – which only makes Jeremy Irons’ turn as Simon that much more impressive. Not only is the choice a fun tie-back to Die Hard (that’s even more fun if nobody ruins it for you going in), Simon by himself is an charming, memorable foil for McClane, who not only has the fun Simon Says game to play with the heroes, but also the ingenious, ornate, perfectly-crafted robbery of New York’s Federal Reserve Bank to play with, showing off both personal and enterprising sides of the character that mesh together so perfectly. Just ranking the Die Hard movies by villain the second sequel is clearly number two in the franchise – and honestly that alone should make it the obvious choice in the position overall.
The first Die Hard movie will forever remain not just the best movie in the franchise, but Die Hard With A Vengeance gives it an honest run for its money and is one of the best action movie sequels of all time. It’s rare to find a franchise movie that perfectly blends respect for the original with fun twists, great storytelling, and exciting new characters, but this one has all of that and will forever be a perfect companion piece to the 1988 classic.
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