John McTiernan returns to the director’s chair for 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, the the third entry in the series. It would take 12 years for the Die Hard films to continue with 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, so this was the last look at Bruce Willis’ John McClane character audiences would get for a while.
This is an interesting film for a number of reasons. It is structurally akin to a sort of Amazing Race-style chase through New York City with some interesting puzzles and traps to overcome, for one. It also pairs McClane with a reluctant partner, taking some of the pressure off the protagonist. And it proceeds through a series of overt attacks on a city, breaking the building/airport confines of the first two pictures.
McClane, the New York cop still famous for events at Nakatomi Plaza, is back in at homebase and struggling through life. He is “one step” away from being a full-blown alcoholic and things with Holly are screwed. When a terrorist (Jeremy Irons) targets him for a series of unpleasant tasks, including one that plops him in Harlem with a rather nasty sign. That incident draws out Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), who becomes McClane’s wary partner.
As McClane and Zeus are pressed from one task to another, the terrorist continues to communicate threats. Soon, the cops figure out that the terrorist must be actually planning something more significant. Bombs are planted everywhere and the attacks mount in tension, but 14 stolen dump trucks and some telling remarks from the terrorist put McClane on the right track.
This is a kitchen sink variety action thriller, where everything that can happen likely does happen. It features similar trappings to the previous two Die Hard movies, but McClane is less confined and the action is therefore less tense. Things play out over a much broader scale, which means that Willis’ character spends less time crawling through ventilation systems and more time forcing a taxicab through traffic.
Once again, Willis does well in the role. In this outing, it’s clear that our cowboy hero has seen better days. He is fighting a killer hangover and really isn’t doing well without Holly in his life. McClane fumbles and needs more time to think than he has, which is why it’s a good thing that Zeus is around.
Jackson puts in a charismatic performance as the guy who actually solves most of the puzzles. He saves McClane from his Harlem predicament not because he likes him but because he fears the ugly reality of more cops snooping around his turf. This puts their relationship on the wrong footing immediately, with both men accusing the other of racism to the point of silliness.
There is much to like about Die Hard with a Vengeance, but Jackson’s character doesn’t override the clear problems. While McTiernan handles the action elements well, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film is more a series of episodes and less a cohesive hole. As such, what tension there is comes more from the “wow factor” and less from actually building suspense.
So perhaps this is the point where the Die Hard series swings from tense, careful exposition peppered with explosions and action set pieces to explosions and action set pieces highlighted with looser, less careful exposition. That’s fine when the results are as breezy and fun as Die Hard with a Vengeance, thankfully.
There are the usual issues of silly convenience to contend with when a movie is this broad, of course. When McClane comes flying up out of the sewers in a flood of water and just so happens to encounter Zeus, who just so happens to be driving by at the time, it’s hard not to chuckle at the absurdity. I’d sooner believe McClane developed a teleportation device in his pocket.
But the idiocy of such scenes still does not manage to undermine the thrust of Die Hard with a Vengeance, which is really a fine action movie. It lacks the claustrophobic feel of Die Hard and, like Die Hard 2, carries a lot of “logic” issues, but it’s a satisfying experience overall.