So… What exactly makes a Die Hard movie a Die Hard movie?
Bruce Willis (and his rapidly retreating hairline) is the main ingredient, obviously – but what else? What truly are the vital components that make this action heavy weight tick? Is it the Christmas setting – a staple of both the first second movie? How about setting everything in a single locked off location? That’s got to be a MAJOR one, right? After all Die Hard invented the whole sub-genre of sweaty heroes fighting their way through small armies heavily armed wrong ‘uns in a space barely big enough to swing an exploding cat and the list of hot-spots had rapidly grown. Buses, planes, boats and trains had all taken a 10 megaton beating in the years since Willis hurled himself off the exploding top of Nakatomi Plaza with only a fire hose to stop him Jackson Pollocking on the pavement below so picking another sealed off locale would be undoubtedly vital to continuing that Die Hard vibe, yes?
Well guess what? Director John McTiernan obviously doesn’t agree with you and after returning to the franchise after sitting out Die Hard 2, decided to give the continuing adventures of John McClane and his vest a much larger sandbox to stretch his legs in.
Back in New York and once again estranged from his wife, a heroically hungover McClane must contend with the actions of “Simon”, a mad bomber who has already detonated a bomb in a department store during the morning rush and has pledged to make more of the Big Apple go boom throughout the day unless the long suffering detective agrees to become his own personal plaything in a high stakes game of Simon Says. Barely surviving being sent to Harlem while wearing a sandwich board bearing a particularly notorious racial slur, McClane strikes up an uneasy partnership with Zeus Carver, a shopkeeper with an intense distrust of white folk and under Simon’s orders, set out to complete various tasks and puzzles to avoid any more disturbances in the city that never sleeps. However, Simon is not all he initially seems (A mad bomber hiding his true intent? What HAS the world come to?) and his plan is far more complicated than just a simple and malicious act of revenge; something the bickering duo of McClane and Carver are about to find out the hard way.
Very much a return to form for the franchise (I personally find Die Hard 2’s airport antics a little stilted…) McTiernan’s crowning stroke is to sever ties with all the baggage linked to what audience’s opinions are as to what constitutes a Die Hard film; and then simply concentrates on making a fucking good one. The action is meaty and tangible opens up whole new possibilities thanks to letting McClane actually do things that other action heroes take for granted like full-on car chases (McClane drives a LOT in this movie and usually really fucking recklessly) and engaging in banter while actually being face to face with people instead of doing it over a walkie-talkie which leads us to DHWAV’s not-so secret weapon.
Drafting in the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson (white hot after his incendiary performance in Pulp Fiction) to essentially SCREAM EACH AND EVERY LINE HE HAS EITHER IN FEAR OR ANGER directly into Willis’ tired, laconic face is a masterstroke and moves the film into a more Lethal Weapon/Die Hard hybrid arena. Their chemistry is undeniable and Zeus’ horrified reactions to John’s hugely dangerous antics are a welcome switch on the one-man-alone trope the series had previously leaned into.
Oh yes… those dangerous antics…
The action in this movie is magnificently brutal, low tech stuff, crammed with desperate and impossible races against time as New York City traffic forces John to take an alternative route through a very busy Central Park that would make even the most eager-to-please uber driver piss himself in fear. McTiernan and his unflinching camera shoves you front and centre of the action, every fender bender jarring your spine and right hook loosening your dental work and a close quarters gun fight in a cramped elevator between Willis and four (!) thugs will have you practically picking brain matter from your hair but none of it would particularly stand out if that elusive and very rare sense of fun from the original hadn’t crossed over.
For example, around the midway point the villains pull a daring heist of the New York Federal Reserve in order to thoughtfully liberate a vast amount of gold from it’s vaults and even though these are the bad guys and their methods are blood thirsty (one poor sad-sack security guard gets carved up like a joint of beef), the whole caper is audaciously scored to When Johnny Comes Marching Home and recaptures some of that feeling when Ode To Joy blared from the speakers when Hans Gruber cracked the Nakatomi vault years earlier.
Willis is still on top form as the hapless detective whom the same shit happens to the same guy thrice although he’s on extra rumpled duty here, admirably looking like shit even BEFORE people start punching him and launching bullets in his directions but the franchise still seems to be searching in vain for the next Alan Rickman as Jeremey Irons – while obviously having the time of his life – is all over the place as the villainous Simon. Dry heaving out one ridiculous accent after another like multilingual hair-balls he chews the scenery as voraciously as the shark from Jaws buzz-saws through slow swimmers and the rest of his cabal of villains, while offering many a satisfying death (sliced in half by industrial cable is a highlight), are no more memorable as the faceless goons inhabiting Die Hard 2.
Another thing causing this third movie (Tri-Hard, anyone?) to being a mere arm’s length from legendary greatness is a surprisingly ropey final 15 minutes sent at the Canadian border which noticeably suffers from reshoots, defuses a lot of the tension built up before hand and just feels like the movie just can’t be bollocked to end properly.
Still, despite not exactly sticking the landing, we still have 95% of a cracking action movie loaded with foul language and rivers of O positive pouring out all over the place – where else are you going to get a film where someone tries to pick handcuffs with a sliver of metal McClane’s pulled out of his own shoulder with his teeth?
I mentioned at the top of the review about what I feel TRULY makes up a Die Hard movie, you know, once you’ve pushed past the explosions and spirited line readings of Yippie-ki-yay Motherfucker, and what this movie manages to crystallize is that it’s not Christmas OR the location that is the main ingredient. It’s John’s social status. An analogue outnumbered every man facing high tech, overconfident odds – the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass. THAT’S Die Hard and this third instalment definitely fits the criteria… with a vengeance.