Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Guest Review: Die Hard 2 (1990)

By ScottDS
Most sequels aren’t as good as the originals and that holds true here. While Die Hard 2 isn’t nearly as good as its predecessor, I’ve always been a fan. It’s wonderfully entertaining in its own right, even if it personifies the “Make it bigger!” ethos that has permeated genre filmmaking ever since.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is at Dulles Airport waiting for his wife’s plane to land when the airport is taken over by terrorists led by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), formerly a U.S. Special Forces operative. He and his men hack into the air traffic control system in order to intercept General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), former dictator of Val Verde, who is being extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. McClane gets involved after spotting two of Stuart’s men acting suspiciously. None of the airport authorities believe him at first but once again, McClane manages to save the day and his wife.
This film has one of the greatest teaser trailers of all time, in which McClane wonders how the same thing can happen to the same guy twice. Indeed, you’ll be asking yourself the same question during this film. McClane just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Holly (Bedelia again) just happens to be on one of the planes, all of which are running low on fuel as they circle the airport. Even reporter Dick Thornburg (Atherton again) just happens to be on Holly’s plane! But I’d be lying if I said this film wasn’t genuinely entertaining. It literally has more of everything: more gunplay, more chases, more violence (including a cringe-inducing death by stalactite), more explosions… you get the idea. On the other hand, it doesn’t have the same sense of style that makes the first film so distinctive. Like the first one, this film is also based on a novel, 58 Minutes by Walter Wager, though I couldn’t say how faithful it is to the text.

With John McTiernan busy hunting for Red October, the directing baton was passed to Renny Harlin, a Finnish filmmaker best known at the time for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (which was released one week after this film, with Harlin having edited both simultaneously). I’ve always defended Harlin, even though his career never quite recovered after the one-two punch of Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight (the latter is actually pretty good; the former not so much). The man knows how to stage an action scene though he admits in his DVD commentary that he’d never make the film the same way today. He’s genuinely surprised by the amount of profanity and blood in the film, which perhaps proves that we soften a bit as we get older (I’m looking at you, Spielberg!).
Like in the first film, geography and spatial relationships are all well-established and I have to say I’m thankful these films were made before the era of shaky-cam and ADD-riddled editing. Many of the clichés we complain about today appeared in this film (and the first one) when they were still relatively new: I’m referring to elements like smoke and steam, industrial fans, blue and orange lighting, hanging from catwalks, etc. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the action genre wasn’t replete with these things. Volumes have been written about this but many believe it’s mainly due to the influence of television and the influx of music video directors. Video killed the radio star but MTV may have just killed the coherent action sequence!

Willis is in his element as McClane, though I sympathize with the criticism that he comes off as too “movie star” with a few too many well-placed one-liners this time around. William Sadler is Col. Stuart and while he’s a great actor, he isn’t given much to work with. He’s quite sadistic and in fact, the most controversial scene in any of these films is when he decides to crash a passenger jetliner with over 200 innocent people on board. (This scene went on much longer in the rough cut – thank God the studio put the kibosh on that.) Stewart’s henchmen are all drones and, unlike the first film, they don’t have any distinctive personalities. One of them is played by Robert Patrick, just a year before his breakout role in Terminator 2. Another is played by John Leguizamo, but the filmmakers didn’t use him as much as they wanted due to his height (or lack thereof).

Dennis Franz chews the scenery as Captain Carmine Lorenzo, head of Dulles’ police force. He has no love for McClane, despite “that Nakatomi thing.” And oddly, he comes off as more of a New York cop caricature even though they’re in DC! Fred Dalton Thompson plays Trudeau, head of airport operations. He has the perfect air of authority and makes everything (almost!) believable. Art Evans plays Dulles’ engineer Barnes, and for some odd reason, I love that his first name is Leslie. I can’t explain it. [smile]
The supporting cast is rounded out by Sheila McCarthy as a reporter who actually does some good; Robert Costanzo as Sgt. Vito Lorenzo (Carmine’s brother!) who has McClane’s car towed away in the opening; Tom Bower as an eccentric janitor who helps McClane when no one else will; and John Amos as Major Grant, head of a Special Forces team sent to take back the airport… except it turns out they’re on the same side as the bad guys! Seriously, this film has more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan film, though this particular reveal is pretty cool. McClane discovers that Grant’s men are using blanks and then demonstrates this to great effect by “shooting” Captain Lorenzo.

However, this all brings to mind a common complaint: by putting McClane in a larger area (an airport and its environs), the film is less effective. The first film was successful in large part due to its use of confined space, but this film throws that out the window. McClane can go anywhere he wants – he isn’t confined. On the other hand, maybe we're too quick to judge. This was only the second film. There had only been one film previously so who was to say what worked? Sometimes I think franchises need two films to work out all the kinks… but if that were the case, then every third film in a franchise would be great, and that obviously doesn’t happen all the time! Also, I think it might've been a mistake to make the plot "international" with talk of dictators, foreign countries, etc. I think these films work better on a "local" level, so to speak.

On a technical level, this film is very good, but there are some noticeable flaws. It takes place at Dulles, yet there’s a conspicuous Pacific Bell logo. Harlin may not have been familiar with the intricacies of the Bell system but someone should’ve pointed this out to him! The visual effects – this time by ILM – are fine though the famous shot of McClane in an ejector seat wasn’t done very well, but it’s so over the top that I can forgive it. The pre-CGI airplane effects are state of the art for their day, with models being crashed onto a small airstrip covered with fake snow. The final shot – a wide vista of the airport with crowds, planes, vehicles, etc. – was one of the first digital matte paintings in a motion picture. Michael Kamen’s score is, like the film, bigger and bolder. This time, instead of Beethoven’s 9th, it’s Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia.”
By the way, it’s probably best not to analyze this film’s portrayal of airport operations – no film can be 100% authentic but if the actors look like they know what they’re doing, then we believe them. On the other hand, Stuart’s team cuts off communications but the planes could’ve easily communicated with other airports! The climax involves an exciting fight on the wing of a plane between Grant and McClane, and then Stuart and McClane, and is topped off by a ridiculous gag in which McClane lights a trail of leaking jet fuel on fire that manages to make the bad guys’ plane explode from several feet away! To be fair, if the film were made today, this sequence would be in the first five minutes!

Die Hard 2, while not as artistically successful as its predecessor, is just a lot of fun. It’s a bit muddled at times and McClane manages to get himself involved with people who really have no reason to talk to him, but it works. I know it sounds like damning with faint praise but this is one of the great “If it’s on TV, I need to watch it” movies.

“This is my mother-in-law’s car. She's already mad at me because I'm not a dentist!”

P.S. For a good laugh, check out this montage of TV-friendly edits. Holy [crap]!

P.P.S. Reviews of the third and fourth films will be coming in 2013!

48 comments:

Jason said...

Die Hard 2 was a lot of fun and one of the better sequels made (though not better than its predecessor).

I think looking back on the first film, John McClane was shown as this average Joe in a tight spot that somehow always managed to come out on top, but you never could be sure until the very end of the movie. In this second movie, McClane already had that “win” under his belt so he seemed less of the “average guy in desperate situation” and more like a conventional action hero. I think the scene where McClane tries to signal the airplane that’s about to crash, and he fails, that was a pretty daring scene when you think about it, but it restored some of the “average guy” appeal to McClane. Suddenly he’s not so invincible anymore. Suddenly he can fail. Up until that point, you didn’t have that feeling.

I also like that Die Hard 2 doesn’t repeat the “Die Hard on a Blank” formula. Well, maybe it’s Die Hard in an airport, but it’s still quite different from the army of imitators that were coming up.

I agree that the actors make this movie at least sound plausible, since in real life this would be about impossible to pull off. Flaws aside, I liked this movie.

Tennessee Jed said...

this was one of the first films where "forced" profanity was so ridiculously obvious. While I didn't hate it when it was released, it has never held up for me over the years the way the original has. Put slightly differently, I can still enjoy Die Hard if it came on tonight. If it was "2" I wouldn't bother.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

You hit the nail on the head. While I'm certainly no prude, there is one instance where it is so completely forced that it takes me out of the movie for a second.

At the end when the planes start to land after McClane blows up the bad guys, Barnes has this line:

"They're using the fire to see, they're using the f---ing fire to see!!"

I don't think the character had cursed once during the film and now he has this line? :-)

And when they raid the church where the bad guys are, one of the commandos says, "Looks like C-4 and the motherf---er is armed." Really?!

ScottDS said...

Jason -

I agree with your comments, but I also like that the filmmakers acknowledged the first film. McClane had his 15 minutes of fame and has since been reduced from celebrity back to everyman. Lorenzo and the others don't care about his adventures in LA. Maybe if they did, they would've trusted him before it was too late. (Though for plot reasons, they obviously couldn't.)

And yeah, this might've been one of the last action movies to come out before the other studios started producing imitations (though some were pretty good!).

I guess back then it took longer for the studios to find a trend - today it's almost instantaneous! Twilight is successful in book form so all the studios - the ones that didn't get the rights - start developing vampire movies seemingly at once!

PikeBishop said...

To me this was the beginning of the "bullet proof McClain, where as pointed out above, he ceased being a regular guy in an extraordinary situation and become a typical "Arnold Van-Sly-Norris"

I never botherd with 3 and for some reason forced myself to watch 4, and the transistion was complete. The guy is now sliding down 200 feet of concrete without a mark on him while using a semi to fight a plane. Absurd.

Won't waste time with the fifth either.

ScottDS said...

Pike -

The third film is actually quite underrated IMHO and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It's miles ahead of the fourth film (as you'll read in my reviews hopefully next month). It also marked the return of director John McTiernan to the franchise.

I totally agree with you about the fourth one - it doesn't take place in our universe where the laws of physics apply. It takes place in Michael Bay's universe where everything is shiny.

The fifth one... I'm sure my reaction will be something to the effect of "Not terrible but not terribly satisfying either."

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Thanks for another excellent review. I agree with PikeBishop that the problem with this film is that McCain is no longer just an average guy. By this point, he's become a typical action hero who knows everything and can do anything. The first one was great because you never knew if he could pull off what he was doing. Even after you've seen it, you still hold your breath when he gets in trouble. In this one, you pretty much know he can't be stopped.

Anthony said...

I didn't care much for Die Hard 2 for the reasons others have already given, but I'm glad I'm not the only person with a soft spot for The Long Kiss Goodnight.

It didn't do anything surprising, but it delivered the goods and Samuel Jackson's character was entertaining (though it was pretty much the same charismatic loudmouth he always plays).

The bit where he was kicked out of car onto the street by the female assassin then lay in the street ignoring the traffic whizzing by him up until she had a change of heart and came back around was insane but amusing.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

You're welcome!

I still maintain that this film kinda straddles that line between Everyman and Action Hero. (The fourth film crosses the line.)

He may not know everything but I agree with one critic who complained that McClane manages to get himself involved with every major conversation and decision being made by people who have no reason to give him the time of day.

So I agree with you, to a point.

ScottDS said...

Anthony -

A friend recommended The Long Kiss Goodnight to me years ago and I finally watched it for the first time not too long ago. What a fun movie!

And this might be a controversial statement but it might be Samuel L. Jackson's most quotable movie, which is saying something.

"Were you always this stupid, or did you take lessons?"
"I took lessons!"

And Brian Cox... man, he does more with 10 minutes of screen time than most actors do in two hours!

LL said...

Of the Die Hard franchise, this was my least favorite. I can watch the others over and over. Not so with Die Harder.

ScottDS said...

LL -

I understand. Not counting the fourth film, that seems to be a common statement. First and third films? Woo-hoo! The second one? Nope. :-)

T-Rav said...

Honestly, haven't seen it. I heard it was awful. Also, for some reason the idea of recycling the plot for the first time bothers me more than it does for the second and third times. No idea why.

ScottDS said...

T-Rav -

It's not as good as the first one but it's damn entertaining and you could certainly do worse!

Hmm... I guess after the first time it's recycled, people just expect it so it's less disappointing?

The plot itself isn't recycled per se but the basic, uh, "blueprint" pretty much is.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's another problem, they treat McClane like a main character rather than treating him like the character he is.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Can you elaborate?

In the first film, he is what he is. (Technically, he's the antagonist, creating obstacles that the villains - the protagonists - need to overcome.)

In the second film, same thing, but the setup is rather arbitrary.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, In the second film, they basically treat him like John McClane the hero who is allowed everywhere, gets to the front of every line, stumbles upon all the hidden clues as if the story was written that way, and can get help from anyone with just a simple request. That feels really fake.

But at the same time, they try to cover this up by having people like Franz pretend they really hate him... until it's time for them to be won over.

None of it feels real. A real police force would just arrest him or shove him out of the airport. This feels Hollywood-fake.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

The "covering up" actually works for me, at least up to a point. Plus I can excuse a lot of this since he is a cop, after all.

(This is a totally random and bizarre mental connection but the first thing I thought of was Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut who: a.) has money, and b.) is a doctor, which grants him access to certain places that you and I couldn't get in to, simply by virtue of the fact that he's a card-carrying physician.)

They may not arrest McClane but I suppose they would've kicked him out!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's true that people with certain credentials will get certain favors. And being a cop could be helpful. BUT the film tries to have it both way. They act like he can get away with this because he's a cop, but they simultaneously have characters acting like they want to be rid of him. It feels like a script to me, i.e. it doesn't feel real.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I really dislike Eyes Wide Shut. I wanted to like it so much, but it just feels so utterly fake.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Not to get off topic but Eyes Wide Shut is a movie I enjoy very much... and some would say it's supposed to feel utterly fake. This is probably Kubrick's most analyzed movie next to The Shining.

Why do I enjoy it so much? I honestly have no friggin' idea! Maybe because it's Kubrick but I don't "enjoy" all of his movies equally. I guess it just leaves me with much to ponder. And it's just so visually striking.

I'd love to review it one day but I wouldn't even know where to begin.

Back to Die Hard...

I can't disagree... and the more I think about it, the more I can see the plot wheels spinning. I suppose this film is a good example of a film that's greater than the sum of its parts. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I wouldn't know where to begin either. Eyes Wide Shut is just an awkward movie in my book. I don't know if I'm supposed to be shocked or if this is parody or if it's just pure self-indulgence? I really have no clue.

That's a good way to describe Die Hard 2 -- you see the plot wheels, and that's a problem for me. When I can see the writing at work, it becomes problematic for me. And in this film, there's so much that screams "script" to me.

I'm not saying I hate the film, not at all, but it's nowhere in the league of Die Hard because of that.

tryanmax said...

I will concur with Scott that With a Vengeance is alright, probably the best of the sequels.

The only reason I can even recall what Die Hard 2 was about is b/c it was shown endlessly on TV as a Sunday matinee for the last half of the 90s. For all the effort they put into making this one "bigger" than the original, for me it just drags. I think it should have been titled Die Hard: That one time at the airport.

Anonymous said...

This is my least favourite of all the Die Hard movies, I loved the first, then the third, then forth then this. Not saying it's bad, just that I prefer the others. Yes I quite liked the fourth, even though it is over the top, but to me it isn't as big a jump then the first to the second. Saying all that I still like the movie.

The thing that saved it for me was the bad guys crashing the plane and McClane failing to save them, which stopped it from being totally over the top. My biggest faults with the film were the bad guys were all cookie cutter, the authorities were all stupid and some of the action looked to unreal. But saying that the movie is fun to watch and better then most action movies and that is enough for me.

I too will jump in with my love for The Long Kiss Goodnight, I turned on the TV last week and it was 20 minutes in, I had nothing else to do so I watched the rest of it. I liked SLJ a lot (now like most stars he mostly plays a Caricature of himself instead of the character), but this role while he was a smart ass, he wasn't the main badass that he always is, he was the backup which I quite liked.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax and ScottAUS, I loved the first, liked the third and then this one, and I really disliked the fourth.

I think this film suffers from feeling fake. As Scott says, the bad guys are cookie cutter and the good guys are too dumb. I think the plot is far-fetched. I think McClane is too perfect.

This film also lacked a really solid buddy relationship like the first and third ones had.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, Good call on the lacking of a buddy relationship in #2. Though I did like the fourth movie (flaws and all), it bought his family back into the story and it had a buddy relationship.

Do you think it would be easier if I sign off as ScottAUS then just Scott to avoid any confusion?

Scott(AUS)...

Anthony said...

I didn't care much for any of the Die Hard sequels. Like the Matrix, the nature of the original (a guy confronting a threat he had never faced before) meant that the sequels would be but pale imitations.

John McClane has killed more terrorists than Seal Team 6, how worried can they make him? If I were a terrorist, I would call off my operation if John McClane was in the same country.

ScottDS said...

tryanmax -

They still show this film (and the others) on TV all the time! And like the others, it's an awful experience, at least on network TV, what with the bad dubbing and cropping of the picture.

I don't think it drags but I get the idea... there are a lot of climaxes and twists at the end, it can become a frustrating experience. "Alright, just end already!" :-)

ScottDS said...

Anon/Scott -

Your ranking is pretty common, from what I've seen. This film seems to polarize people - they either like it or they hate it (though I have yet to encounter someone who flat out loves it).

Sadler is fine as the villain but he can't compare to Alan Rickman. And as I mentioned in the review, all of his henchmen are drones - no distinct personalities.

Another Long Kiss Goodnight fan?! Renny Harlin's probably wondering where we all were back when the movie was actually released! :-)

ScottDS said...

Anon and Andrew -

(Anon, as long as you don't use ScottDS, I don't think anyone will be confused.) :-)

You guys are right about the buddy relationship. Even though no one considers the first film a traditional "buddy movie"... in a way, it is. The buddies just don't physically meet till the last two minutes of the movie.

Honestly, I didn't miss that here. There are so many characters that, while the buddy relationship isn't there, McClane isn't exactly working in isolation either. Trudeau and Barnes (Thompson and Evans' characters) in the control tower make for good allies... but yeah, it's totally not the same.

ScottDS said...

Anthony -

Yeah, you think villains would learn by now! I suppose that's just part and parcel of making an action sequel starring an Everyman:

How do you have him kill more bad guys while keeping him human?

Jason said...

I remember The Long Kiss Goodnight, though not very well. I do seem to recall enjoying it, though what I remember most was Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel criticizing the fact that Samuel L. Jackson and Genna Davis could outrun an exploding fireball that was right behind them.

ScottDS said...

Jason -

Some things obviously never change. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, No problem either way, I don't think people will be confused -- I just wanted to be clear I wasn't talking to ScottDS in my comment.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew, on "Eyes Wide Shut" What I found interesting that amidst all that nudity and simulated sex the hottest scene was Leelee Sobieski in her underwear.

Yum!

ScottDS said...

Pike -

Yeah, that was nice. :-)

Aside from the sex/nudity, the critics just didn't know what to do with this one. They all thought it'd be a pornographic romp and it wasn't. I think Entertainment Weekly did a cover story on it: "Is Eyes Wide Shut the sexiest movie ever?!"

Uh, no. :-)

PikeBishop said...

"Sexiest ever?" No way. Perhaps the problem is with Kubrick himself. I mean has he ever even directed a normal love scene, let alone an erotic or exotic one?

When I think of Kubrick and the sexes, I think of dirty talk and Asian hookers, "Full Metal Jacket."

Rape and near rape in "A Clockwork Orange." Even the hyper-kinetic threesome is played totally for laughs.

Or totatly male casts, "Paths of Glory" and 2001.

The few love scenes in Spartacus, to me anyway come accross rather ham handed.

Kubrick was the wrong director for that film, as the final result shows.

ScottDS said...

Pike -

Man, now that we've talked about it, I want to review it, but like I said to Andrew, I wouldn't even know where to begin!

No, Kubrick never filmed a "normal" sex scene.

I don't think he was the wrong director (I assume you're referring to EWS)... but that it was a case of ridiculous critical expectations and a huge amount of hype, what with Kubrick not having directed a film since 1987, and it starred two of Hollywood's biggest stars.

And when critics are left to speculate, they are usually more often than not wrong. :-)

rlaWTX said...

I like this one. I doubt I have ever seen it anywhere but TV though. I like this one better than 3 and much more than 4 - although I watch pieces of all of them when they show up on TV. The first one, I'll keep watching...

Outlaw13 said...

I never saw this movie because I could never get past the ridiculous things I saw in the previews...like the ejection seat. So I can't comment on the film itself.

Obviously I thought the preview sucked and I never heard anything that caused me to change my mind. Way to go marketing guys! I was in the prime demographic at the time the movie came out and they FAILED.

ScottDS said...

rla -

You like 2 better than 3, others like 3 better than 2... interesting reactions!

Yeah, they're definitely movies that get a lot of action on TV. The channel-changing just has to stop when one of them comes on. :-)

ScottDS said...

Outlaw -

Some people are certainly more discerning than others. ;-) And trailer editing is an art form in and of itself.

As I mentioned to some of the folks above, it's certainly worth checking out and I can excuse some of the craziness simply because it's expected. In other words, adrenaline can take over when logic disappears.

If the film were made today, the ejection seat gag would be in the first two minutes of the film, setting things off on the wrong foot. In these films, we're at least allowed to settle in first before the insanity.

Or as Ivan Reitman once called it, "The Domino Theory of Reality." (He was talking about Ghostbusters and basically implied that, if you believe floating books in the beginning, you'll believe a 90-foot marshmallow man at the end.)

Anonymous said...

"The Domino Theory of Reality", I'd never heard that before but it makes sense and thus is too often ignored.

Scott.

ScottDS said...

Anon/Scott -

It's just one director's theory (a director who hasn't done anything that good in years IMHO)... but it makes perfect sense and perhaps it's why many people seem "bombarded" by some of today's movies.

rlaWTX said...

"The Domino Theory of Reality" - I like that theory! Get me involved and then go crazy...

I think my problemw/ 3 is SLJ's a racist black guy, but McClane still has to defend himself as a decent white guy. Got old in a HURRY.

ScottDS said...

rla -

Then you may not like my review of the third one! In short, the racial stuff between them never really bothered me. It's mostly played for laughs and, lest we forget, McClane calls SLJ out on his BS.

"You were about to call me a n-----, weren't you?"
"No, I wasn't!"
"What were you gonna call me?"
"A--hole!!!"

Rarely does the white character accuse the black character of being a racist - it's usually the other way around.

rlaWTX said...

I guess I didn't internalize that interaction - I just remember being annoyed, so I don't rewatch it... I guess I need to give it a shot next time it pops up on TV.

ScottDS said...

rla -

No worries! I always watch it when it's on (and I own it).

I can definitely understand why it might get old after a while... but there are other movies that are worse in that regard. :-)

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