Retrospect Hard: Championing Die Hard With a Vengeance

Die Hard With a VengeancePulling off a sequel is hard enough. But pulling off a threequel? Even harder. Expectations are either insurmountably high (assuming you’re one of the lucky ones who has a sequel better than the original) or people walk in pessimistic, having been burned and are even more inclined to compare you to the original.

Every now and then, though, we’re lucky enough to get a threequel that manages to at least capture the spirit and tone of the original while also giving us something that feels fresh. Die Hard With a Vengeance is one such film.

That said, I’m in the vast minority here when I say that WAV is my favorite of the series. It’s not “the best,” no (that honor unequivocally goes to the original), but there’s just something about this one that brings me back to it time and again that’s a little hard to put my finger on. Maybe it’s the pacing, the editing, the fun but volatile chemistry between Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson. Maybe it’s the way that director John McTiernan (who also helmed the original film) manages to make this one of the last great pre-9/11 New York City movies that captures the City That Never Sleeps in a moment in time that can never again be captured.

Regardless, I love Die Hard to death, but I keep coming back to With a Vengeance far more often.

People like to deride WAV for the fact that it doesn’t confine the action to a solitary location or that it often comes across far more like a traditional 90s “buddy action flick” or that it goes over-the-top in ways the original never did. And those are all certainly valid criticisms, I suppose, but none that ever really feel like truly negative aspects.

Die Hard With a Vengeance posterFor one, did we really need yet another movie where McClane was trapped in a building and had to fight his way against insurmountable odds and countless henchmen again? Not really, no. Are Zeus (Jackson) and McClane a mismatched pair that yell and shout at each other as much as they help each other out? Certainly, but the conflict feels real.

My point is that even with WAV doing so many things differently or “not in tune” with the original, it still manages to be a great entry in the series and a “proper” Die Hard in a way that no other sequel has managed thus far to.

For one, it manages to advance McClane’s character in some natural ways while also showing us a side that we’ve never really gotten before. For one, we actually get to see McClane as a cop. It’s often in the most “action movie way” possible, but it’s still interesting.

That may seem somewhat trivial since the guy flashes his badge constantly in Die Harder and is certainly always observant in the ways a good cop is, but we’ve never really seen him put it to use in the way a cop would in these sorts of situations. A great example of this is when he calls in an ambulance to clear a path so he and Zeus can cover ground more quickly to get to a pay phone in the subway 30 blocks away. True, it’s hardly a realistic thing to do, but it shows McClane being resourceful in an out-of-the-box way and using the tools that only he’d have at his disposal as a cop. He also on several occasions uses his in-depth knowledge of the city, something that puts him at a distinct advantage in a way he’s never had in the movies before or since.

We also get some small glimpses of what McClane is like as a father, which is to say, preoccupied and somewhat inept. It’s telling when during the bit where they’re trying to figure out “What has four legs and is always ready to travel,” McClane is confused and frustrated, to which Zeus asks, “Don’t you have any kids?” Obviously he does, but it shows, perhaps, how little he’s paid attention to his children and the things they do and say.

The script gets docked for never really giving Zeus much at all in the way of development, but I still liked the character, largely because Jackson is always entertaining and he and Willis play off each other well in a way that is at least a mark or two better than most “buddy cop pairings.”

That said, where the film really sort of dropped the ball was in leaving us without much peripheral personality. Part of what made Die Hard so great was the way it paid attention to even the most disposable of side characters and henchmen. Ellis, for example, is about as disposable (in principle) as you can get. But because the script took the time to give him some standout moments and because Hart Bochner is such a great character actor, he ends up being a memorable part of the film that we all love. With a Vengeance lacks those memorable henchmen and those peripheral characters, but we at least get some good moments with Inspector Cobb (who seems to be genuinely saddened and disappointed by the state of McClane’s personal life) and even Ricky, the bomb disposal technician, gets a good hero moment.

The other element that seems to stick in most people’s craw is the more (relatively) outlandish action bits, to which I say, “You’re overreacting.” Die Hard (rightly) gets points for taking a more “realistic” approach to how it treats McClane as an action hero. In the age when Stallone and Schwarzenegger could wipe out entire armies with a wave of their machine gun, seeing a guy like McClane get bruised, battered and bloodied was practically a revelation. But just because he would nearly get taken out by running over glass doesn’t mean McTiernan didn’t have his share of unbelievable moments. In other words, anyone who thinks that “dump truck surfing” is somehow less realistic than swinging from a detached fire hose while the top of a skyscraper is exploding, well, I’m just not sure what to tell you.

That said, I think we can all agree that the ending is balls. There are times when I simply wish the movie would fade to black after McClane and Zeus jump from the exploding ship and believe that Simon got away with the gold, because all that Canada crap and McClane somehow shooting a .38 special with a sniper’s accuracy to take out a helicopter, well, just … ugh.

But even with those issues, there’s a sense of momentum that feels unique to With a Vengeance. It’s constantly moving forward just as all the others do, but there’s just something about the way McTiernan paces this that feels different. Maybe it’s the way he captures New York City. If nothing else, With a Vengeance has such a wonderful sense of place that not even the original can match. I love the way he shoots the city. It puts you right there, especially after that magnificent, expertly constructed opening before the first bombing. I could watch that Lovin’ Spoonful set sequence on a loop.

Also, no other Die Hard movies inspired a sequence in The Incredibles. No, really! That bit where Frozone (also voiced by Jackson) and Mr. Incredible are cornered by the cops and Frozone slowly moves to get a drink of water is, beat for beat, just like the bit where Zeus slowly moves to answer the pay phone while being confronted by the nervous subway cop.

With a Vengeance has problems, there’s no denying that. But there’s just something about the way this thing moves and the way Willis just feels so settled into this character that I can’t help but revisit it time and again, even more times than I’ve done with the original. The original is,¬†unarguably the better film, but this will likely remain my favorite.