Where Die Hard 2 attempted to recreate the formula of the original and upped the action, Die Hard With A Vengeance really mixed things up by giving lone ranger McClane a partner. It was a bold move, risking shifting the franchise towards the buddy cop movies we were all so used to seeing with the Lethal Weapon series. McClane works best by himself; his one-man-against-the-world shtick works best alone. Would partnering him up really work? Surprisingly, yes. For while Die Hard 3 certainly has its problems, one of them isn’t the interplay between Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.
From their very first encounter on the streets of Harlem, McClane wearing a sandwich board with a very racist slur, it’s clear that Willis and Jackson have an undeniable on-screen chemistry, something that is vital to making the film work at all. Whether it’s comedy, action sequences or dramatic intent, the pair work very well together with Willis’ hard-boiled outlook on life tempered by Zeus Carver’s bewilderment and sheer horror at what’s going on around them.
What is going on around them is that another Gruber, Hans’ brother Simon, wants revenge for Hans’ death while also carrying out a rather audacious gold bullion robbery and he’s going to be using McClane in order to do so. A series of elaborate ‘Simon Says’ games begin whereby McClane is forced into carrying out various tasks Gruber sets him to avoid bombs going off through the streets of New York. Zeus gets roped in and off the plot goes, McClane reluctantly agreeing to Gruber’s demands.
Naturally, halfway through the film he catches on that the games are nothing more than a distraction for Gruber’s robbery plans and then it’s a cat and mouse game to get back the gold and off Gruber and his team. Who wins? Oh come on, you really don’t need me to tell you.
John McTiernan returned to direct the third film after Renny Harlin had helmed Die Hard 2 amidst calls from some quarters that the franchise deserved much better. Personally, I love Die Hard 2 but I can understand why people wouldn’t.
The return of McTiernan also signalled the return of many of the Die Hard values that had become lost in the second outing. McClane was once again a vulnerable cop, someone who just happened to be called upon against his wishes. He wasn’t an invincible, all-action hero type. He didn’t have all the answers, Zeus being called upon many times to help him solve Simon’s riddles. He did get stressed like any other average Joe and these were some of the factors that made him such an endearing character in the first place.
It also brought a return to more believable set pieces (relative to the Die Hard universe) with crazy chases through Central Park, realistic smack-downs in lifts and plenty of blood being shed. McClane’s fractured home life was again touched upon and in general, the film did seem to be attempting to bring the series back to where it first began. Bringing McClane back to New York, a city we’d never seen him in before remember, was also a master-stroke, the scenery playing its own role in the movie.
The film’s plot gave McTiernan an opportunity to work on a few stand-out sequences to showcase Gruber’s games. The subway station bomb is a highlight, Carver’s protestations to a man who won’t get off a public payphone giving light relief amidst the tension of McClane’s frantic attempts to get rid of the bomb. Most memorable of all though is probably the water jug riddle puzzle in the park. It had me scratching my head for ages after and is arguably one of the finest moments of any of the entire series. I’ve seen similar games included in work team building days and they always remind me of this film. Without the explosions, obviously.
With the return of the series’ best director, the McClane ethos and a strong plot, this should be one of the series’ finest outings. So why is it then that, for me, it’s the worst in the series? Because, as I touched upon at the start, Die Hard With A Vengeance does have its problems.
For starters, the plot loses its way once McClane realises that he and the NYPD are being led a merry dance by Simon. The games stop and the chase begins and, the school bomb aside, the film suffers as a result. Then we get to Gruber’s Bond-esque villainy in tying McClane and Carver to a huge bomb on a boat and it becomes little more than your bog standard action hero flick. The ending too is utter bobbins. It’s over far too quickly and Gruber’s final moments are unsatisfying as a result.
The film also suffers badly from some ropey effects, even for the time (1995). Witness McClane surfing a truck and that boat explosion. Blue screen is so obvious on both that it renders the two scenes ridiculous.
Jeremy Irons is a problem for me too. He’s a fine actor with a great delivery but he’s simply not that good here, lacking the evil eyes of Alan Rickman and the all-out anger of William Sadler. He can talk the talk but I doubt whether he could ever truly do the evil genius bit when push comes to shove. I just don’t believe in the performance which leaves the film with an ineffective protagonist whenever he’s on screen, perhaps another reason why the movie’s first half is far better than its second.
For all the movie’s problems though, it’s still packed with enough moments to be more than worthy of its place in one of the finest franchises ever brought to screen. Willis is on top form, Jackson shines too and the film demonstrates an intelligence Die Hard 2 was sorely lacking.
No-one knew whether we would ever see McClane again and as things stood, this proved a worthy swansong.
Until he returned 12 years later…