Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh
Directed by John McTiernan
I saw the first Die Hard movie by accident. My dad went to the video store and rented it without checking the rating. We were a lazy evangelical household in all the least fun ways, one of them being “no movies above a PG-13,” even then, it was fairly strict. I definitely knew kids with crazier parents, but we were still not normal. So, as we watched the film and the first “fuck” was said on screen, we all turned and looked at my dad. That said, we never shut the picture off and watched the whole thing. That is the only Die Hard movie I ever saw until I watched this, the third installment in the series.
Bad boy cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) is thrown into the center of a mad bomber’s plot on New York City streets. The fiend, calling himself “Simon,” wants McClane to go through a series of challenges, or he’ll set off bombs he’s placed around the city. During his first task, McClane ends up pulling electrician Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) into the mess. The two men rocket across Manhattan, unaware that they are making Simon’s more extensive plans possible. By the time they realize what’s really going on and who Simon really is, it may be too late.
The first thing we have to address is that going forward, I can’t see talking about any film which features police, and particularly the NYPD, so prominently without talking about the media narrative being constructed. The screenwriter knows that race has to be a part of the script and so he does have McLane and Zeus engage in some brief banter on the topic. However, some really cringey moments don’t play well to a modern ear. At one point, McClane says Zeus is racist towards him, and if you understand how racism is a concept that refers to a system of oppression and isn’t just a synonym for “prejudice,” it’s going to feel really awkward to hear.
I don’t see a problem with bringing race into the conversation of a film. However, the script doesn’t really do anything when it brings it up other than be like “these guys are a coupla assholes, amirite?” There’s a giant elephant in the room throughout the picture, though, and that’s the institutional racism of the police, which is very much a problem in New York then and now. I think it would have been relevant and interesting to explore Zeus’s feelings about being forced to help a white NYPD officer. But all of that is ignored for set piece after set piece. I’m not saying those action sequences aren’t good, but the picture clocks in at over two hours. There was room to explore some more ideas.
The best sequence doesn’t involve either these two protagonists but rather the villain, Simon (Jeremy Irons). There’s a brilliant heist, that plays out, set to when “When Johnny Comes Marching,” that is meticulously plotted and presented. We see every angle of the crime, and it’s a beautiful use of a big chunk of the picture. By showing us how coordinated and numerous the bad guys really are, it suddenly ups the stakes. This isn’t the cops against a single mad man but an entire army of criminals. And they are very well prepared and stocked, operating just under the surface of the city.
There’s a lot to like about Die Hard With a Vengeance, but it coasts off of its most shallow elements. McClane could have used some more character development, and some editing choices at the beginning of the picture, awkwardly drop him into the story. I think getting away from the previous films being about McClane outside of NYC and dealing with a significant problem wasn’t the best choice. Here he’s too supported by the NYPD for him to ever really feel like he’s going to lose. The best part about the first Die Hard was how the odds were so stacked against him. The movie’s choices on how it talks about race are really uncomfortable and not in a good way. This is a pretty decent popcorn movie but doesn’t have much substance beyond that.