In celebration (or dread, realistically) of the impending release of Live Free or Die Hard, the time is ripe to revisit the other three films in the series. In the spirit of great thieves, I’ve blatantly stolen Devin’s 10 Days of 13 format to celebrate John McClane’s previous excursions into octane. So for the next few days, leading up to our review of the new film on Wednesday, join me for this look back at the series that redefined the Great American Action Movie.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Kills: Church caretaker falls in a bullet ballet; Cochrane’s performance is a little flat; SWAT sergeant gets a new pituitary hole; SWAT #2 takes the ladder down; A soldier makes his last phone call; SWATted on the moving sidewalk; SWAT gets boxed in; SWAT slo-mo squibbed, glassed and 2x4ed; McClane grates on Robert Patrick; The Painter goes into scaffold shock; Ass-kicker takes the moving sidewalk to a new existence; Colm Meany and his plane kiss the concrete; Esperanaza’s co-pilot meets god; Esperanza’s pilot takes one in the grey that no longer matters; Stuart grunt #1 goes ‘aaah!'; The sentry gets an eyecicle; Black Snowmobile Down; Stuart grunt #2 is Bullet Chest; Talford gets a one gill; Major Cuisinart; Stuart, Esperanza and boys get roasted.

Best Kill: I know some people love Major Grant’s death, because it’s an attention-getter, but Raiders did Airplane-icide so much better. I’m honestly torn between the eyecicle and the painter. I think I have to go with the painter’s death because that last shot of the FX dummy is just so wonderful and analog.

Non-PG13 Moments: 61 fucks. Graphic slashed throat. Graphic eye socket violation. Broad disrespect for human life and airline safety.

Best Non-PG13 Moment: I get tired of Dennis Franz pretty quickly in this movie. He’s pushed into playing his role even more broad than Paul Gleason did Dwayne Robinson, all part of the vague Lethal Weaponization of this sequel. But I love hearing him say ‘fuck’, especially when he’s talking about having “a fuckin’ reindeer flying in here from the fuckin’ petting zoo!” Alternately, Major Grant telling him to ‘shut the fuck up and do something useful!’ is a line I’d been wanting someone to say for the entire film.

The Movie: Oh, there’s just no way to avoid the hate mail on this one, is there? Die Harder is one of those films that polarizes fans; either they hate it as a dull retread or enjoy the way it offers a redundant visit to the life of John McClane, peppered as this episode is with guy movie stalwarts like William Sadler, Robert Patrick, Don Harvey (who would get his best role a year later as Snickers in Hudson Hawk) and a glimpse of Mark Boone Junior, who today is one of the only reasons I care to see Thirty Days of Night.

Also: Dennis Franz does not show his ass. Big surge of value, right there, even though William Sadler does show his.

But looking at Die Hard 2 now, it’s impossible not to pay attention to the missteps. There are several. The supporting cast, though it looks good on paper, is never allowed to develop into the collection of personalities that earned some measure of empathy in the original. The actors aren’t as strong, they’re not directed as well, and their scripted dialogue is less indicative of character. Future President Fred Thompson is solid as Trudeau, but Art Evans is really hit and miss as his crew chief Barnes. His reaction after the antenna array is destroyed is pure community theatre.

(And I do love the three-man crew in command of Holly’s airplane. They’re great and really manage to sell the emergency landing. They’re a lot better than Colm Meany.)

More problematic is Colonel Stuart. As chief villain, he’s simply too vague. We’re never given compelling insight into his dedication to General Esperanza, nor is his holdup of an entire airport mapped out with the same tension and attention to detail as the plans of either Gruber brother in the first and third films.And in hindsight, with the Gruber brothers as role models, Stuart is just too evil and callous. I like Sadler, but I can never take Stuart seriously — he’s too much of a cartoon. Even Simon, with his goofy games and inconsistent stutter, is far more real.

Then there’s the action on Holly’s flight. I’d much more enjoy a crossover between this movie and Millenium, so that at the outset all the people on Holly’s plane could be spirited away and we’d never have to see them again. The Dick Thornburg scenes are cheap comedy and weak suspense, especially since his clandestine broadcast has no functional effect on the primary plot, other than to cause enough chaos that McClane can end up in the news chopper at the climax. And after his tirade about her proximity to him we’re expected to believe that he’d lean over her aisle to look out the window?

And there are elements here that make me think Joel Silver had paid serious attention to the success of Lethal Weapon 2. McClane’s self-referential “how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” and the broad evil and vaguely political character of Colonel Stuart feel overtly influenced by the Lethal Weapon series. In case the tonal shift isn’t enough, we’re even flashed an ad for the second film during the first sequence aboard the plane carrying Holly McClane and Dick Thornburg.

(I also catch some Spielberg — the little sequence where McClane chases Curtis-Hall on the bicycle and grapples in a mess of baggage before Curtis-Hall gets away is staged, shot and scored like something out of an Indiana Jones film.)

The difference between this movie and the original is apparent as soon as a shot is fired. The old church caretaker takes three shots and falls into his pews in slow-motion; McTiernan wasn’t so liberal with slo-mo, breaking it out for the most important kills like Hans and Karl. But Renny Harlin wants us to pay extra attention to the old guy’s death. And while admittedly callous, we all know what kind of movie this is and we foresaw his death as soon as he took a spoonful of soup.

Not that Harlin isn’t occasionally ballsy, though. He hides Willis’ stunt double in plain sight during the first fight with Vondie Curtis-Hall. On DVD it’s all too easy to see that it’s not Willis in the wide shots, but originally I can see that Harlin might have got away with the shot in front of most audiences. He pulls the same trick when McClane and Major Grant fight on the wing of the airplane. (While Blu-Ray or HD-DVD would be kind to Die Hard, there are moments in both this film and the next that will really stand out in HD.)

With a two-hour introduction to McClane set up in the last film, Die Harder has to put him into action a lot sooner. That’s a good thing on one hand, because I like seeing him in regular police mode. But the downside is that, as mentioned, Stuart’s plan is drawn in more of a shorthand. Not that his actions don’t make sense, but there’s less of the satisfying detail we saw of Gruber’s scheme in the first film, and even Simon’s plan in Vengeance seems smarter and more intriguing.

So what works? What does Die Hard 2 have that the original lacks? Besides William Sadler’s hairy taint?

I like McClane’s through line, for one. He’s happier at the outset than we’re used to, towed car notwithstanding. He’s in LA with his wife, life is probably pretty good. Doesn’t take much for him to talk her into a hotel retreat, at least. It takes a succession of events and the incompetence of Carmine Lorenzo to push him into the desperate, pissed off mood we like to see. Willis is inconsistent with the accent, but he gets it when it’s most important, and his dialogue becomes more satisfyingly vulgar as the situation worsens. And, goddammit, I’m a sucker for his reunion with Holly at the end.

And, on paper at least, I’m thrilled for the presence of Franco Nero, the original Django, as Esperanza. That’s a beginning, or would be if the Esperanza plot were more interesting. Yeah, he strangles the poor green soldier assigned to guard him, but otherwise, what does Esperanza do that suggests he’s a man accustomed to command?

Some of the military action, while not up to par if stacked against the original, is at least entertaining. The walkway shootout is entertaining, largely thanks to Robert Patrick, and I enjoy the snowmobile sequence, absurd as it is. And the whole idea of the color-coded double-cross, which we’ve seen before, is still fun and well-executed, especially as it concludes with McClane emptying a clip of blanks into Lorenzo.

But Harlin is sloppier than McTiernan. Watch the bank of monitors decend several different times in the scene where air traffic control is knocked out. Sure, that’s a tough move to orchestrate, but it’s an equally noticeable continuity flub. Instead of creating a smaller, more memorable group of antagonists, he throws in redshirts and takes them out in relatively anonymous ways. And while an entire plane explodes, killing all aboard, we’re shown a relatively intact doll — cheap, obvious imagery.

If nothing else, the film is just as entertaining a glimpse into the early ’90s as Die Hard was for the late ’80s. The emphasis on airphones and fax machines? Amazing. Not as much as sadistic old ladies who get to take their tasers on the plane, but still. I would be happier if the airphone was more tightly integrated into the script — I can’t understand why Holly doesn’t page her husband much earlier to see what’s going on.

With a script that’s far less tight — ironic considering the improvised nature of the original — there are fewer lines that I love. Here’s a sample:

McClane: “I don’t think this one’s gonna make it,boys.”

Barnes: “And where do we get those big, portable lights? Borrow them from Batman?”

(The only reference to the first film I like in this one.)

And even though she should just die: “What about that porker, Willard Scott?”

The line I hate:

McClane: “Which sets off the metal detectors first? The lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?”

The stunt I love: McClane falling down the stairs the last time he goes back to see Marvin. He’s so tired and so weak-kneed that he can barely stand, and it’s a great entry to the scene.

Two Exploding Nakatomi
Buildings Out Of Four