Happy Birthday, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE
Most of us have a lot of extra time on our hands lately, and while I try to use it wisely, sometimes I fail miserably. Such was the case last week when a friend admitted that she didn't think A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD was as bad as its rep; she acknowledged it wasn't anywhere near as good as the first three, but still fun. This was very much in opposition to my memory of the film, which was that it was largely terrible with one nice moment that tugged on my "I miss my dad" heartstrings. But then I realized it had been seven years since I had seen it in theaters, and I honestly couldn't remember much else about it from my one viewing.
Well, my one *complete* viewing. See, I tried revisiting it before, not long after it came to Blu-ray and offered an extended cut alongside the theatrical one. Since my excessive love of the first three films give its lesser sequels more leeway than I'd offer the normal bad movie, I picked it up and hoped the extended version might fix some of my issues. But when I realized it was more of an "alternate" cut (it actually *removes* all of Mary Elizabeth Winstead's scenes as Lucy McClane, for reasons unexplained) I only made it to the end of the film's interminable and incoherent car chase before turning it off, using the "I don't have time for this" excuse that doesn't truthfully apply now. And so - selecting the theatrical version this time - I gave it another chance in its entirety, watching each of its 98 minutes again to see if I was being a bit too harsh on the thing.
And guess what? I wasn't! If anything I was being kind in the past, as I hated it even more now than I did in 2013. I don't care for LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD much either, but while it rarely feels like a DIE HARD film to me it's at least a pretty decent action movie in its own right. But GOOD DAY can't even manage that much thanks to John Moore's oft-incoherently directed action (with some "Bryan Mills jumps a fence" style editing for good measure) and overly complicated plot that, incredibly, would more or less play out the exact same way whether John McClane was there or not. I watched a couple of the bonus features out of morbid curiosity (unsurprisingly, they lean on the franchise's legacy as opposed to what this one was specifically bringing to the table) and then ejected the disc, hopefully to never enter my or any other player again.
However it wasn't a total waste of time, because at some point during the viewing I realized that the 25th birthday of DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE was coming soon, and wanting (hell, NEEDING) to wash the bad taste of GOOD DAY out of my mouth, I gave that one a look for the first time in a while as well. However, I should stress that I didn't need to reappraise it or anything like that; since I saw it on opening night in May of 1995 it is and always has been my favorite of the sequels, and I've seen it at least a dozen times since. Some people have even said it's their favorite of the series, period, and while I can't go quite that far, I will say that the first hour or so of the film is just as good as the 1988 original. All due respect to Renny Harlin, I don't think it's too much of a coincidence that the only sequel that measures up is also the only one that brought John McTiernan back to direct, bringing his A-game along with him. Without being weighed down by the implausible "How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?" stuff that made DIE HARDER a bit, er, harder to swallow, McTiernan was free to do what he did best, and restore the things that truly made the first one such a classic (it wasn't specifically the Christmas setting or Dick Thornburg, as it turns out).
For starters, the action is spectacular, but still driven more often by suspense than explosive mayhem, which means it rarely requires McClane to turn into a superhero (and he still occasionally reacts to his injuries instead of completely ignoring them as he would in later entries). In fact nearly everyone agrees that the best parts of the movie are Simon's riddles*, which rely on ticking clocks and brainpower instead of stunts and explosions. Plus, the supporting cast is terrific, particularly the half dozen fellow NYPD officers that John interacts with throughout his latest very bad day (one of LIVE FREE's many failings was inexplicably replacing them all with new characters when the film needed all the connective tissue it could get). Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, Larry Bryggman, etc offer a great dynamic with John and each other, and get their own chances to shine while John is off elsewhere (Camp's character comforting the kids on the roof before their assumed imminent death gets me every time); it's like having a whole squad of Al Powells backing him up.
Also: Jerry the Truck Driver/Beautician. I could write an entire article about him, honestly, but instead I'll just note that more than any other entry in the series, characters like him really sell the location thanks to the film's endless supply of scene-stealers. The irate businessman who thinks Zeus is a real cab driver, the office workers who chew popcorn and try to count how many ambulances are below after the explosion, the stressed out 9/11 switchboard lady... you really get a sense of the city that McClane is trying to save. And that extends to some of the action, as McClane's detective status comes into play more than once - I quite like the bit where he figures out that the bad guys have ten quarters because that's the cost of the toll on one of Manhattan's bridges.
And then of course there's Zeus, played by pre-omnipresent Samuel L Jackson. Both he and Willis were coming off PULP FICTION, a film that gave them no chance to interact due to its plotting, and their chemistry keeps VENGEANCE afloat even when the narrative starts to get a bit clunky (starting right around the point where McClane is shot out of a tunnel at the precise moment Zeus is driving by). The next two installments would also play with the buddy formula as opposed to the largely solo adventures of the first two films, but it never worked even remotely as good as it did here, mainly because of the difference in the dynamic. In those films, McClane was essentially along for someone else's ride while playing the butt of too many "old man" jokes, but here (thanks to later plot points) Zeus has as much investment as McClane, and satisfies the "guy at the wrong place at the wrong time" requirement filled by McClane in the first two. Watching Zeus go from unwitting sidekick to someone who demands to go first by the time they have to jump on a moving boat is just as satisfying as seeing McClane battle his hangover and try to outwit another Gruber, and therefore satisfies not only as a DIE HARD but as a buddy action film** to boot.
Naturally, being that it's 25 years old now, it works as a sort of time capsule as well, with scenes revolving around needing to find someone with a "cellular" phone and working public pay phones being an essential part of its plot. But there are some other moments that make it a truly odd experience to watch in 2020, particularly when a lady talks about marrying Donald Trump as an ideal fantasy, or when they (brace yourselves) joke about how Hillary Clinton will be the next President. And while over time it's gotten easier to see the Twin Towers in an older movie, it's still mildly chilling that they are framed behind Jeremy Irons' Simon Gruber when we see him for the very first time, after he's caused two major terrorist attacks in Manhattan. Also, at a time when policemen continue to get away with murdering people of color, Zeus' "I saved a white cop from getting killed in Harlem" speech is sadly even more apt now than it was in 1995, just a couple years after the LA riots that likely inspired it in the first place.
I've owned the film on several formats over the years, but can't recall if I ever watched its bonus features (not counting its original ending, which is just as underwhelming as the one they ultimately used). I threw on an old interview with Willis and was fascinated to hear him say that what defines McClane is that he always has to do these things despite not wanting to (let's not forget, his first act in DIE HARD is to call other cops for help so he can just hide and wait). Forcing him into this situation as opposed to the coincidental nature of the first two was a brilliant decision, and hearing him say this less than 24 hours after suffering through the fifth film - where McClane has almost no understanding or connection to the villains and more than once seems downright giddy to just murder the bad guys - cemented why the film worked as well as it did. He might not have been trapped in a building or airport this time, but with the bad guys demanding he and only he do their bidding to prevent more casualties, he was boxed in more than ever before.
Will we ever get another great DIE HARD movie? You can almost blame VENGEANCE for the fact that they keep trying, since it was proven that it could be done. Of course, even with a terrific script and a great director (McTiernan is a free man now, any chance we can get him back?), much of it rides on whether or not Bruce Willis will snap out of the mumbly stupor that passes for most of his performances these days and find the character from the first three films again, as he seemed like an entirely different person in the last two (at one point in GOOD DAY he actually mocks his own son's injuries. This is supposed to be the same guy that cried from some glass in his foot?). The half-prequel idea they keep floating around seems to be a decision that stems from a desire to limit an increasingly lazy actor's screen time as opposed to a creative one, which doesn't bode well. But whether it happens or not, it's easy enough to just pretend that DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE was the last of the series, ending on a hopeful note of John attempting reconciliation with Holly, free of its eventual PG-13 restrictions and John Moore, and allowing Roy Rogers to ride off the sunset with a solid track record - and his hair - intact.
* Fill the five gallon, pour what you can into the three gallon, leaving 2 gallons in the five. Dump the 3 gallons. Use that 2 gallons remaining in the five to fill the three gallon jug again, leaving exactly one gallon of space left. Completely fill the five once again, use it to top off the three gallon jug, leaving exactly 4 gallons in the five gallon. Boom, done. (Or, I guess, NO "boom".) The movie skips over most of it and only offers the last step, which is why people often ask "But how do you do it?" So, you're welcome.
**Jonathan Hensleigh's spec script SIMON SAYS was famously reworked for other franchises, including a potential LETHAL WEAPON 4, before taking its final form as DIE HARD 3. I'd love to read that version if it's still floating around out there.