Die Hard 2
Balls-out sequel. A real Brucie bonus.
Imagine having to spend Christmas alone with your in-laws under several feet of snow while you wait for your wife to arrive at Dulles International Airport. Blergh. Still, given he spent the Christmas before last stuck in a ventilation shaft battling a team of terrorists eighty stories up a skyscraper with only a vest and his trusty 9mm for comfort, New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) should probably thank his lucky stars he's still alive to make strained small talk with his missus' mother. Even if his car just got towed by jobsworth airport security guards he can still console himself with a good cup of coffee and a smoke while he calls his wife on one of them thar newfangled air phones.
Also in town for reasons marginally more nefarious is Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), an elite special forces type with a platoon of men in tow and designs on liberating war criminal General Ramone Esperanza (Franco Nero) who is being flown in from some South American banana republic or another to face charges in the US. The plan; set up an impromptu air traffic control tower in a nearby church, hold the circling planes to deadly ransom and make off with the General in a 747 cargo conversion to a country with no extradition treaty ties. The foil; McClane has a proven track record of not taking kindly to his wife being placed in jeopardy by naughty men with guns. And you'd better believe he's come prepared with that vest...
Right off the bat Die Hard 2 (inventively subtitled Die Harder in the US) comes burdened with ludicrous expectations. Firstly it has to top the crowning glory of it's predecessor; arguably the best action movie of the 80s, and secondly the premise is so outlandishly unlikely you'd expect to have better luck swallowing a brick than the plot. As the action kicks off McClane himself acknowledges the ludicrous set-up of Steven E. de Souza's screenplay. "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" he wonders as he clambers down an oddly familiar lift shaft. Hmmm, we'd have to agree. Perhaps Stuart and his men need the plane to get over the plot coincidences rather than the border. Still, if such cheeky self-referrence indicates Die Hard 2's playfull awareness of it's own ludicrous foundation, relative directorial newcomer Renny Harlin is determined to suspend our disbelief simply by assaulting our senses so viciously and frequently your synapses might be lucky to ever recover.
The young Finnish chap responsible for orchestrating all this mayhem had one previous Hollywood credential to his name: A Nightmare On Elm Street 4. Never having seen that particular installment in the "classic" series, I couldn't possibly comment on the quality of his craftsmanship, but on the evidence of Die Hard 2 as an action movie, it wouldn't surprise me to find Freddy's third sequel to be one of the bloodiest entries in the horror genre. Recognising the unlikely basis of his movie's central conceit, Harlin decides not to play things down, but rather to revel in the opportunity presented by cranking pretty much everything up to eleven. The result is so much breathtaking destruction that to find a film which surpasses it you have to switch genre and start looking at war and disaster movies.
Amidst the wholesale destruction of aircraft, antenna arrays, churches and the general surrounding area it would be easy for Willis to become engulfed and shift down a gear, cruising along in wisecrack mode and swearing frustratedly at incompetent airport security officials. While he does indeed present a masterclass in sarcasm and frankly Olympic-level swearing (the "fuck" count remains in the elite company of peers such as Goodfellas), Willis does a spectacular job of never allowing himself to be outgunned by Harlin's off-screen performance. Grabbing the challenge with both hands, our Bruce does his fans proud, performing the impossible task of delivering an even more physical performance than in the first movie. Luggage conveyors, runways, abandoned terminals and basements all play host to borderline apocalyptic gunfights, while McClane barely has time to catch his breath before being ejected from an exploding C130 and embarking on a snowmobile chase.
That Willis still delivers a central performance to rival the canvas of his frankly insane director's perpetually combusting backdrop is testimony to the man's charisma and sheer presence. Despite the overwhelming pyrotechnics going off left right and centre the viewer never loses focus on Willis, and as such the movie is delivered from being merely an FX showcase by the leading man effectively acting as sherpa between plot waypoints. Not that the plot is of too much concern, mind you. Despite Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) providing John's motivation through the chaos, there's never too much posturing over her husband's internal anguish until midway through the movie when Stuart retaliates against his intervention by crashing a packed commercial airliner. There's a sneaking suspicion it may well have been done for the sake of it, Harlin more concerned with how perversely beautiful a fireballing fuselage looks than why it's happening, but at least it affords Willis a chance to display some of the human vulnerability that proved so effective in his first outing.
In terms of the supporting cast, Willis' theatrical backup from a deliciously insidious Alan Rickman in the first movie has been surplanted by Sadler's out-and-out nasty piece of work for whom snuffing out the lives of a couple of hundred people in a split second serves as a "lesson" rather than a business venture. Bereft of any iota of guilty charm, Sadler may not prove as watchable as his predecessor, but as Orchestrator of Destruction he's swift, brutal and efficient, which is exactly what a streamlined piece of entertainment like this requires. Franco Nero doesn't exactly get to flex his thesping talents much either as Esperanza, coming across more as a fat old cross between Pierce Brosnan and Julio Iglesias than a threatening figure of genocide, but ay least John Amos gets to give Willis a run for his swearing money as a profane, turncoat army Major.
Pleasantly, de Souza's screenplay affords opportunity for the brief but welcome return of a couple of the first movie's subsidiary characters. Although little more than lip service is paid to Reginald VelJohnson's return as Al Powell, William Atherton's reprisal of sleazy reporter Richard Thornburg provides fuel for a welcome subplot unfolding aboard McClane's wife's flight that pays off nicely in the final reel. True, these strands are minor asides compared to spectacularly exploding 747s, but for viewers of the first movie (surely 99% of the Earth's population by now) they provide a pleasant running thread that, especially in VelJohnson's case, gives the audience a rewarding sense of reuniting with an old friend.
Still, at the end of the day, do we really care about all that crap? No. We just care about how frequently Willis swears, cracks jokes, shoots people and blows shit up. The answer in all cases is "alarmingly often". It's been fifteen years since Die Hard 2 hit cinema screens and the mayhem still manages to slap you in the face like a wet towel wrapped around a house. Harlin of course has done nothing to even approximate this since, somehow channeling John Woo, albeit with single handguns, into a touch over two hours worth of career peak death and destruction. Hollywood doesn't make action movies this full-on any more because the "R" rating just doesn't bring in the big bucks like the PG-13, and the world is all the worse off for it. Still a benchmark for on-screen demolition in action cinema, Die Hard 2 will likely remain for some time a triumph of sheer quantity over quality, although Harlin and his leading man somehow manage to still deliver on the latter. Crazy shit.
I award this movie 4 out of 5 "Units That We Use"
William Sadler (Colonel Stuart)
John Amos (Major Grant)
Dennis Franz (Sgt. Carmine Lorenzo)