Die Hard With A Vengeance

Die Hard. Over in the corner. Quietly, damn you!

Released in 1996, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 11 May 2005 by Craig Eastman
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It doesn't seem 10 years since Die Hard With A Vengeance reached cinema audiences eager for a fitting closure to their beloved action legacy. I was one of them; hunched excitedly down in my seat on opening night after a hard week's sniggering and playing cards at high school, already halfway through my large Pepsi and peanut M&Ms. Two and a bit hours, one brief toilet break and a stomach cramp later I was full of mixed emotions. Fox had promised it's baying public a spectacular closure to an iconic trilogy that would eschew the fine line between ironic and imbecilic walked by Die Hard 2 and return to the hard-edged roots of the original, hence the re-instatement of Die Hard director John McTiernan. I for one was not about to complain with the choice of director.

Presumably, and perhaps not surprisingly, the source of what would prove to be an almost crippling rot came with the studio execs' decision not to forge an original script, but rather to adapt an existing script to suit their needs. Having already optioned Jonathan Hensleigh's Simon Says, I can only assume Fox decided to minimise overheads and maximise profit by holding back on commissioning an expensive bespoke manuscript. The result is a film that feels less like a member of the Die Hard family and more the detached, standalone action movie it was always intended to be, and although the end product is an entirely acceptable entity in it's own right my friends and I left the cinema feeling just a little short changed.

Clunky from the offset, With A Vengeance immediately reverts to tired clich? with John McClane (Bruce Willis) back in NY, once again separated from his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia escaping any contractual obligations by virtue of her absence) and nursing one hell of a hangover. Too bad someone calling himself Simon (Jeremy Irons) just blew the shit out of a department store then. Even worse still, that someone seems to have some personal beef with McClane, insisting that to avoid further carnage the bedraggled lawmaker be forced to endure a number of self-deprecating acts and unravel a slew of time sensitive riddles. Fail to comply or miss a checkpoint and somewhere in one of Manhattan's hundreds of schools a ridiculously large bomb will go !POP!, rendering Alice Cooper's assertion about being "out for summer" three seasons insufficient.

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Alarmingly, despite reviewing the evidence himself, McClane remains woefully oblivious that the psychopath with the German accent and a personal grudge is in fact the brother of Die Hard's Hans Gr?ber until the series' traditionally inept Feds step in and wave a flashing sign in his face. Durrrr. Not only does McClane's hangover seem to have induced a startling degree of amnesia (hey, he only dropped the guy off a skyscraper after all), but his nausea, sickness and quite probably diarrhoea will be compounded by his unlikely partnership with annoyingly loud-mouthed civilian sidekick Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson); a harlem shop owner with an almost offensive race-related chip on his shoulder.

So far it all reeks of cheap setup, which is far from what we've come to expect of a franchise that defined genre standards rather than rely on them. Fortunately in the grand scheme of things such trivialities do not overwhelm the numerous setpieces including a suitably messy bomb-on-the-subway scenario and Simon's raid on a Federal gold depository that marks his group of mercenaries' real motivation for the surrounding chaos. Which is all just as well because this is a movie that really needs something special to draw our attention away from the nagging suspicion that, at it's heart, never was a Die Hard movie to begin with.

Speaking of which chaos, while McTiernan may never reach previous heights with this installment he does at least make the best of the material he's given, orchestrating events with a suitably sure hand while still displaying some of the flair that made both Die Hard and Predator such eyecatching fare. Despite some budget-defyingly ropey FX work, the action sequences still pack a considerable punch, even if they do often reach almost cartoon proportions. It's a shame the same can't be said of Hensleigh's script, leaden as it is with clunking clich? after clunking clich?. Quite why Fox were so keen to burden it upon the jewel in their action crown we may never know, as a cursory glance at any one page pretty much gives the game away as far as quality of plot and dialogue is concerned.

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Willis, for his part, is either visibly tired of all this malarkey or a bit of a method actor when it comes to the hangovers. His tired performance is, I fear, a result of the former, as no size of paycheque can possibly blind the man to the calibre of written word he's being asked to channel through his cakehole. Fortunately for the viewer his disgruntled demeanour forms a surprisingly fruitful counterpoint to Sam Jackson's mouthy outbursts, and the ensuing banter betwixt the pair forms the core of the audience enjoyment for most of the movie. Although both are clearly just going through the motions there is a certain chemistry that proves most watchable no matter how bargain basement the dialogue becomes, and it's this that really emerges as the movie's saving grace. I won't even mention Jeremy Irons, however, who hams it up so badly with an accent to match you'd think the bloke was doing pantomime.

As far as thematic content is concerned you can forget it; With A Vengeance is as shallow as a puddle, casting a cursory glance at the potentially intriguing notion of racism against whites before casually dismissing it in favour of a puzzle involving jugs and water. Where Die Hard reflected certain geopolitical concerns and it's sequel at least bookended one decade of arms-race cinema while ushering in the new breed of OTT action, installment 3 neither makes any social comment nor typifies any particular traits of that cinematic idiom. Rather it proves a harbinger for the current trend of bending over backwards to tailor for audience tastes rather than pushing the envelope; the tacky test audience-precipitated ending is as disjointed in the context of the narrative as the actual movie feels in terms of the trilogy.

Not that With A Vengeance falls flat on it's face you understand. Rather the disappointment stems from such a high bar having been set by it's predecessors in an era where Hollywood no longer pays any attention to quality control down at the Sequels Department. Here is a by-the-numbers installment, satisfying enough in it's own superficial sense, but inserted messily as coda to the mightiest of cinematic landmarks. It's a bit like BMW building an elegant yet punchy new Series model only to supply it as standard in matt yellow with an elevated spoiler to suit teenage boy racers. We expected better, but as a professional cynic I conceed it could have been worse.

I award this movie 3 out of 5 "Units We Use"

John McTiernan
Cast list:
Bruce Willis (John McClane)
Samuel L. Jackson (Zeus)
Jeremy Irons (Simon Gr?ber)