Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Guest Review: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

By ScottDS
Now that we’ve discussed the first two films, let’s take a look at Die Hard with a Vengeance. I’ve always felt this film was underrated and, in fact, it’s probably one of the last “analog” action films. It’s also a lot of fun.

In New York City, a terrorist bomber known as Simon (Jeremy Irons) demands that John McClane (Bruce Willis) stand on a Harlem street corner wearing an offensive sandwich board or he’ll blow up another building. Shopkeeper Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to get him off the street before he’s killed. After being ordered to play along, McClane – with Zeus in tow – is put through a series of games before it’s revealed that Simon is actually Simon Peter Gruber, brother of Hans Gruber whom McClane killed in the first film. Like his brother, Simon is after money, this time the gold in the Federal Reserve. Simon and his men are using dump trucks to transport the gold and McClane and Zeus are caught after tracking them down to a tanker. They escape before the tanker explodes but McClane theorizes that Simon must’ve absconded with the gold to Canada, per the address label on the aspirin bottle Simon gave to him earlier. They raid Simon’s hideout and McClane shoots a power line, which causes Simon’s helicopter to explode.
I’ve always liked this movie. The pacing feels a little off at first, like there was something cut except there wasn’t anything cut. Also, the helicopter climax almost feels like it belongs in another movie. This is, in fact, the only Die Hard movie based on an original screenplay, though it wasn’t intended to be a Die Hard movie. It was originally titled Simon Says. Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh once asked himself (I’m paraphrasing), “What would happen if, when I was younger, I hit a kid with a rock? The kid wasn’t killed but the grudge he held against me completely warped him and he spent the rest of his life trying to get back at me?” The first half of the film resembles that script, with the Gruber connection signaling the transition to Die Hard territory.

This is a buddy cop movie, with Willis paired with Samuel L. Jackson. Willis is in fine form here. McClane is a borderline alcoholic and he and Holly haven’t spoken in months. I understand why the filmmakers made this choice but I can't help but feel that their marriage troubles almost negate everything that was accomplished in the first two films, where the relationship was what kept everything grounded (more or less). His humor is a little darker and a little more sly, with less one-liners this time around. Jackson is excellent as Zeus, who becomes a reluctant participant in the proceedings.
There is a racism subtext but it’s mostly played for laughs. Zeus clearly has a problem with white people and only saved McClane because he didn’t want the neighborhood raided by “white cops, all with itchy trigger fingers.” McClane calls him out which leads to one of my favorite bits when Zeus thinks McClane is gonna call him the n-word but he wasn’t. “What were you gonna call me?” “A--hole!” Willis and Jackson have great chemistry and, like partners in every buddy cop movie, they eventually learn to get along.

John McTiernan returns to the director’s chair and while this film isn’t as stylish as the first one, there is an authentic look to this film. It’s New York as New Yorkers see it. In the opening montage, you see city streets, pedestrians, food carts, etc. You don’t see the typical New York movie landmarks: there’s no beauty shot of the Empire State Building or Grand Central Terminal. There’s a real gritty feel to this film. One thing I appreciate is the extras. Look at the people in the background – they all look the part, complete with trademark NYC indifference. Another quick gag I appreciate is the harried 911 call center supervisor whose shirt is three sizes too small. McTiernan applies many of the same tricks to this film as he did to the first one including full use of the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio (these films look awful in pan and scan) and establishing characters through camera movement as opposed to cutting.

Jeremy Irons is clearly having a blast (pun intended) as Simon. We only hear his voice for the first act but his physical introduction is quite memorable. From an extremely high angle, we see the various police and government officials spread out to find the latest bomb. The camera pulls up and turns around to find Simon on a rooftop. He has only one line: “They bought it.” He's all business but he manages to do it with a smile. Admittedly, most of his henchmen don’t make much of an impression, save for Nick Wyman as Targo, a giant of a man, and the lovely Katya, played by rock singer Sam Phillips. Ironically, she’s mute in the film but she is an imposing presence, slitting throats like nobody’s business in one wonderfully-choreographed shot. Just imagine a fascist Mirror Universe version of Rosie the Riveter.
The supporting cast features some familiar faces. Soap opera actor Larry Bryggman plays McClane’s superior, Inspector Cobb. He’s soft-spoken but very direct and you believe he can boss around Bruce Willis. McClane’s fellow detectives are played by Graham Greene (as Lambert) and Colleen Camp (as Kowalski). McTiernan regular Anthony Peck plays another detective, Walsh. (Peck also appeared in the first film as a cop and Red October as the executive officer of the Dallas. He sadly passed away in 1996.) Kevin Chamberlin plays Charlie, the geeky bomb expert who is ready to sacrifice himself to save hundreds of schoolchildren.

Man, even the character names are spot-on: Cobb, Lambert, Kowalski, Walsh. I know it’s trivial but I’m a stickler when it comes to this stuff and some names sound more authentic than others. I also appreciate the teamwork aspect of this film. While McClane and Zeus are hunting down Simon, the other cops are searching schools for a bomb. At the time, Willis felt he should’ve been the one on the scene defusing the bomb but the story simply didn’t lend itself to that. Like the second film, the canvas has expanded once again: from one building to one airport to one city. If you compare it to the first film, then you might be disappointed in that regard but I believe it stands on its own. In this case, McClane and Zeus are given a specific set of tasks – they might be in NYC but they can't exactly go anywhere they please.
Again, tech aspects are mostly top-notch, though there are a couple of wonky effects shots. I’m not familiar enough with every part of NYC but I do know that you can't access the subway simply by picking up a grate from the sidewalk! For this film, Michael Kamen eschews European composers and goes with something a little more American: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” which could be a reference to McClane being on his home turf but is also a nod to Dr. Strangelove. I also need to mention the car chase through Central Park, with McClane driving a cab to the Wall Street subway station before another bomb goes off. As one critic said, “Only John McTiernan could make a car chase exciting with only one car!” This film was made when cell phones were becoming ubiquitous and screenwriter Hensleigh admits on the DVD commentary that this aspect of the film embarrasses him. Sometimes you need to make your hero unable to contact his superiors and nowadays that means bad reception!

Again, this film is seriously underrated. It made a ton of money but as we look back through time, it’s been lost in the shuffle somewhere, having come out a year after Speed and True Lies and a year before Mission: Impossible and The Rock – all entertaining action films from the 90s that are still talked about. It was also the third film in a series, though the law of diminishing returns doesn’t apply since many people prefer it to the second one. I like them both just fine!

“As I was going to St. Ives / I met a man with seven wives / Every wife had seven sacks / Every sack had seven cats / Every cat had seven kittens / Kittens, cats, sacks, wives / How many were going to St. Ives?”

P.S. To hear more about John McTiernan’s filmmaking philosophy straight from the horse’s mouth, click here.

32 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Ironically, I just watched this. It actually finished 12 minutes ago. LOL! Well timed! :)

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - unfortunately, unlike Andrew, it has been quite a while since I have seen it. Unfortunately for me, I have to admit that I have never been able to not compare any of the sequels to the original. Perhaps that is unfair of me, but fairness is rarely at the top of the list in what we like and don't like.

You do make a case for what is good about it, and why it should be considered on it's own. I will say I did like it better than the second film, which is to say, I didn't think it terrible. Still, it's kind of like the old axiom where a movie's expectations can be so high, disappointment becomes almost inevitable. In this instance, that is not the case . . . my expectations were not impossibly high after the second film. Rather, it is just terribly difficult for me not to compare any of the sequels with the original. And, in that regard, I always end up thinking to myself "yeah, it was o.k., but it wasn't as good as the original." And just maybe, that isn't the worse thing one can say about a film, particularly when it is compared to a classic.

Another similar comparison might be trying to objectively judge the coaches who succeeded John Wooden and Bear Bryant. Anyway, good review and defense of the good things about this film.

Dave Olson said...

I've only seen DH3 once or twice, on video and not in the theater. I'll give it another look and this time I'll make sure it's in 2.35:1, as God intended. I remember liking it more than 2 but it was nowhere near as good as the original. Nothing is. When I think of this movie, the one scene I remember is McClane and Zeus on the tanker ship, looking down at the henchman who died as they came on board. They have to stash the body, so one grabs his wrists, the other grabs his ankles, and it takes a second (because McTiernan, his current legal troubles aside, is a more talented director than most Hollywood hacks), but you realize that the henchman was cut in half by the cable. Sometimes it's all about what you DON'T show.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Well-timed, indeed! Oddly, after watching all these films to prep for the reviews, I swore I wouldn't watch them again anytime soon.

Then a friend I haven't seen in years calls up and invites me over. A day before, she e-mails: "Bring the Die Hard movies - I've never seen them before!"

So I got to watch them again, this time with fresh eyes. She did agree that the second one was much more gratuitous than it had to be, both in terms of language and violence. (I warned her in advance about the stalactite to the eye.)

But the point is she liked them. :-)

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Thanks. Perhaps, because I saw all these films for the first time in the late 90s on TV, I can kinda consider them part of a "package deal" (at least the first three).

No, that metaphor doesn't work. What I mean is, while the sequels can't compare to the original, they get points for being in the same ballpark, especially in an age when most sequels are borderline unwatchable. The fact that Die Hard's two sequels are quite watchable and fun is a testament, not only to those filmmakers, but a testament to the first film, which set the bar so high.

ScottDS said...

Dave -

Please, for the love of God, watch these films in 2.35:1!! John McTiernan even points out specific shots on the commentary that don't work when formatted for 4:3 TVs!

There actually is a shot where you see the henchman cut in half but it's literally one second long, and from a great distance. If you blink, you'll miss it.

As for McTiernan, I talked to Andrew about this. Troublemakers like Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan are still working, and Harvey Weinstein goes apes--t when Roman Polanski is captured...

...but for the man who gave us Predator, Die Hard, and The Hunt for Red October? Bupkes!!! And he didn't kill anyone. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn't have a drug problem. He was involved in a wire-tapping scandal of all things!

(Ditto for Wesley Snipes, who's in jail for tax problems. Where was the outcry then?)

rlaWTX said...

I have to admit that I'm looking forward to seeing the new one at the theater, Die Hard in Russia... ;) I might have seen this one in the theater, but I don't remember doing so - which means Russia could be the first one I'll actually see on the big screen...

I haven't seen this one since our last discussion about it (on some other thread, of course), so I haven't had the chance to see if I can get over my original knee-jerk irritation with the racism subtext (as I saw it when I saw it)... But when it comes on TV next, I will.

ScottDS said...

rla -

No worries!

The next film... I touch on it briefly in my Live Free or Die Hard review next week. In short, I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun but nothing special. Will I eventually see it? You bet!

As for the racism, it's only Samuel L. Jackson's character and, as mentioned above, Willis calls him out on it as only he can. And there's something to be said for a film where the minority character is the racist one - usually, it's the white character who has to learn a lesson.

As Willis says to Jackson at the start: "[Simon] doesn't care about skin color, even if you do."

LL said...

It's my favorite of the Die Hard franchise to date. AND one of if not THE best Action film of its decade.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, By and large, I enjoy this film more than the second film, but I find parts of it rather annoying. I hate the music because it keeps playing the same short snippet over and over and over and over and over and over.

I also have a realism problem with the film. For one thing, if a large work crew of clean-cut, white bodybuilders rode into town, they would be a spectacle. In fact, even leaving race out of it, they still would be surrounded by gawkers. Yet, the film pretends that no one sees anything abnormal here. Ditto on the idea that the work crews would arrive minutes after the explosion -- before the FBI even closes off the scene and does an investigation.

I also don't really understand why they brought McClain into this. It's kind of Rube Goldbergian. They could just as easily have called in the bomb threat directly. It works because it gets him into the film, but the moment you stop to think about, it seems unlikely.

I also find it hard to believe the way they get around NYC in the car. At points, they seem to cross the river and then come back within seconds and no matter how long they wait, they are able to catch the dump trucks.

These are small things, but they've always bothered me.

Still, like I said, I like this better than number 2. And I like it a LOT better than 4.

ScottDS said...

LL -

Your favorite of the franchise? Really?! (No argument, just something I don't read that often.)

But one of the best action films of the 90s? I'll drink to that!

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Re: the music, it's only during a few scenes but yeah, it's the same loop. La-La Land Records recently released the complete score and some of that material isn't on the album which leads me to believe it was some generic thing added later.

Ordinarily, I would agree that it would be a spectacle but we are talking about New York City here! Walsh does comment to Jeremy Irons, "Wow, you guys are fast!" and Irons' answer is something to the effect of, "Lots of people the mayor doesn't want to keep waiting." I'll buy it. This one time. :-)

I can't disagree about McClain but I think Simon just wanted an excuse to f--- with him. It was never about him, just the money. He even has some little non sequitur near the end when Jackson asks, "What does this have to do with killing McClain?" and he replies, "Life has its little bonuses." Again, it's late in the movie and I'll buy it. If we had found out at the beginning that he didn't care about McClain, then it wouldn't work.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott -Actually, what I think you really meant was " and just maybe that isn't the worst thing one can say about a film, especially when it is being compared with a classic!" :)

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Perhaps that was what I meant. :-)

At the end of the day, any sequel that's actually good is a miracle.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's forgivable, but it's enough to annoy me when I watch the film.

T-Rav said...

Didn't Sam Phillips used to be a Christian singer or something? I only remember because she said somewhere that she was really nervous about how family and friends would view her character in the movie.

ScottDS said...

T-Rav -

I think so. Per Wikipedia:

"She began her career in the contemporary Christian music industry but uncomfortable with that image and industry, she left it behind and rebranded herself as 'Sam,' thus transitioning into the mainstream market after meeting producer T-Bone Burnett."

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Fair enough, and God knows there are plenty of things that annoy me about otherwise decent films.

In this case, I think it's a combination of plain old-fashioned goodwill (which expired with the fourth film) and the fact that the film moves so fast, there isn't much time to ponder, at least not until you've seen it dozens of times. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Have you ever noticed how prevalent the nickname "T-Bone" is in music circles? It must be some sort of inside joke.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I wouldn't know, but I imagine it's a common enough nickname. Not among my friends or family, though. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'll agree with that. The film moves quickly enough that you don't really need to stop to think, so that's a plus.

AndrewPrice said...

What you say ol' RibeyeDS! :P

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

To that, I say nothing! :-)

By the way, since I'm bored and I don't mind bumping up the comment count, I saw a few more movies recently:

-Flight - Robert Zemeckis is back! After toying with motion capture for a decade, he makes his return to live-action. I thought it was very, very good, but not great. And it's NOT subtle at all. Denzel is excellent as usual and after a while, the movie just cast a spell over me and I was sucked in. (And the plane crash sequence is something else.)

It's weird... big FX spectacles are the norm now, which means small character pieces are the novelty. :-)

-Total Recall - not terrible, but not very good. I'll give this to Len Wiseman - he knows how to craft an exciting set piece. My friend called this movie "porn for art directors." Unfortunately, the movie is a bit of a mishmash and as much as I love him in other things, Bryan Cranston wasn't a good villain - he's just too nice to be convincing.

-Wanderlust - a movie conservatives should adopt as one of their own, about a couple (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) who move into a commune and decide all the free love and communal ownership isn't for them. It's kinda funny (despite the unwanted male nudity) and it proves hippies are no more or less manipulative than the rest of us.

-Moonrise Kindgom - I have a love/hate relationship with Wes Anderson. I mean, I admire his work but I really only LIKE one of his films (The Royal Tenenbaums). This movie was cute, though it's actually like two 45-minute films in one. Per usual, Bill Murray steals the show, and Bruce Willis proves he can do other things besides shooting German terrorists! And the end credits pay loving homage to Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra."

Anonymous said...

Good review and this is my second favourite of the franchise. The movie works mostly due to the pacing and the chemistry of the two leads who work well together.

While some things don't quite match, I can ignore that and just enjoy a great movie. I wish they made more like it.

Scott.

El Gordo said...

I´ll have to see this one again. I liked it when it came out, but I cannot remember it too well.

The 80s and 90s were a great time for action movies. Every year, they would do something you had never seen before. On the other hand, in the days before CGI it was still somewhat anchored in reality and not completely cartoonish. Of course the stories often weren´t great, but that has not improved either.

Are there any action movies from the last 5 or 10 years that don´t insult the audience and have no left-wing sucker punches? Are there any American ones? I somewhat liked The Raid or Dredd or Taken, but these weren´t American. It´s all zombies and vampires these days. To be honest, I can sometimes watch Transformers and revel in the whole outrageousness of it ("There is no tighter shirt! We looked!") but I´m under no illusion that I´m watching a classic.

ScottDS said...

El Gordo -

From the last 5 to 10 years? Including comic book movies, the following come to mind:

The Dark Knight films, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Kill Bill, Iron Man, Casino Royale, 300, and Black Hawk Down. All American and not insulting.

I do agree with you - the 80s (and 90s) were a great time for the genre. It hadn't been completely tapped out yet and even something silly (and awesome!) like Tango & Cash would be chock-full of memorable moments and characters. Nowadays, action movies need to do more in order to stand out but, unfortunately, that usually means breaking the laws of physics.

ScottDS said...

Anon -

I wish so, too. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I haven't seen any of those yet.

Gideon7 said...

If they are going in the same direction, 1 + Σ n ∈ {0,1,3,4} 7^n = 2753 persons and animals going to St. Ives.

n=2 (sacks) excluded. The 1 is for the narrator.

ScottDS said...

Gideon7 -

Math was never my best subject but I'll take your word for it. :-)

Dave Olson said...

Suddenly, I remembered why this movie was a bit of a box office stiff. It involved bombings by terrorists, and it was released in the summer of 1995. There hadn't been such a case of bad cinematic timing since "The China Syndrome" in 1979.

ScottDS said...

Dave -

Ordinarily, I'd agree but after a quick perusal of boxofficemojo.com, it seems this film was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. (#10 domestic and #1 internationally)

I just think it was lost in the shuffle. In addition to the action films mentioned above, 1995 also marked James Bond's return in GoldenEye and the flashy revitalization of Batman with Batman Forever.

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