While most of us were pondering the next urban cage in which John McClane will be reduced to his vest, facing off against some nefarious criminal scheme (shopping mall? Subway train? Oilrig?) original director John McTiernan and the writer of Die Harder decided to spin the basic idea on its head.
For the third, and to date final, Die Hard the boundaries are New York itself, McClane’s home turf, and the deadly game is entirely personal. It was considered thinking, but in partnering McClane with irascible Harlem shop owner Samuel L. Jackson, immediately reduced the lone wolf qualities of one of Hollywood’s most worthwhile franchises. This is a buddy-buddy romp of good order but scant inspiration and not quite the Die Hardest we were looking for.
The idea is that the villain of the first (and still best) blitzkrieg of action, Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, has left a brother keen on exacting revenge. McClane is forced into dashing about Manhattan, picking up Jackson as a passenger in the process, to solve various riddles. It’s a structural conceit that keeps the film hurtling along, and McTiernan ably contrasts the nightfall of the previous film with the sweltering glare of a New York summer day (a better reason to get down to that vest). This is Die Hard inverted. Therefore, for all its consummate actioneering, and the film opens dramatically with a sudden screen-shuddering explosion like a gung-ho calling card — we’re back! — it lacks the vital claustrophobia and that wry notion that, more than the baddies’ devilry, the fates themselves are aligned against Bruce Willis’ plaintive hero.
The soap opera that is McClane’s life remains in full gear, he’s back on the booze, suspended from the force and his marriage is in tatters — although Bonnie Bedelia, his on-off wife, opted out of a third film and her absence is felt. Vengeance lacks the spare design of before, that McClane must overcome these ridiculous odds ultimately to mend his relationship. And while Willis has the role down pat and Jackson does his loud, proud thing, Jeremy Irons’ sneering and snorting Euro-git is long way shy of Rickman’s gleaming villainy.
It’s fun, in that crazy-hectic, no-expense spared approach of good action movies, McClane remains a very likable hero, he has Indiana Jones’ why-me exasperation, a man who would rather be anywhere else. It’s just that this time, his day just got that bit too complicated.