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 With A Vengeance

Kills: Someone musta kicked it in the Bonwit Tellers bomb, right?; Ricky is plugged, against orders; Katya carves the bank guard; Karl and two grunts eat elevator lead; Otto’s brains make good makeup; Nils and friend redecorate their truck; Yankee snipers aren’t Ford tough; one ship’s mate becomes two; Targo’s friend is shot, despite his request; Targo is romantically executed; Simon and Katya go down on with each other.

Best Kill: No argument here: the ship mate splice, because it’s so unexpected the first time, and every time thereafter we get to enjoy the gag where Zeus and McClane drag away both halves of the body. And Katya killing the bank guard makes a grandly operatic runner-up.

Non-PG13 Moments: 97 fucks; Otto’s last moment; the cable kill; the audience yelling “what the fuck?” at the tacked-on ending.

Best Non-PG13 Moment: Otto’s death, because it might be the most immediate and gruesome kill in the series.

Honorable mention:

“Hey, who was the 21st President?”
“Go fuck yourself!”

The Movie: There are people who don’t like Die Hard With A Vengeance at all, and I am very suspicious of them. If there’s a more adventurous popcorn movie from the ’90s that holds true to and expands established character while providing a crystalline vision snapshot of time and place while also delivering fantastic comedy, tension and action, I don’t know of it. Yes, the last act is increasingly weak and the ending feels gestated by committee. But I’ll take the rest of the movie over almost any other action film.

The fact that we really didn’t need a third Die Hard movie makes the 90% of the film that is truly excellent all the more satisfying. Because when I say we didn’t need another Die Hard, what I mean is that we didn’t need another film set at Christmas in a constrained location with McClane rescuing his wife against all odds. For one moment, Fox was smart enough to know that, and also smart enough to let John McTiernan and Jonathan Hensleigh give us entirely new reasons to dig John McClane.

By not relying on the same formula, McTiernan freshens up McClane and the action movie genre. Does it matter that the fantastic first hour is almost entirely sourced from a script that was never intended as a vehicle for McClane? Not at all, because McTiernan, Hensleigh and Willis, with a great crew and cast, make it work perfectly. If only the third act didn’t bog down so severely I’d be tempted to rate Vengeance on par with the original.

Given that I implied irritation about the Lethal Weaponization of Die Harder, you’d think I might be more skeptical of Hensleigh’s Simon Says script, since it was also considered for a new Lethal Weapon installment. But it works quite well refitted for McClane, especially since the often overt discussion of race was, at the time, surprising as hell. It works a lot better here than it ever would have as a Lethal Weapon movie.

I once thought that the film’s approach to race relations was simplistic and cheap, and the argument might still be made by someone less forgiving than me. But this is a broad popcorn movie, and I can take the simple approach. I’m still knocked back a little when McClane actually accuses the angry, relatively blinkered Zeus of racism. I like that Zeus’s dialogue with his nephews (“Who don’t we want to help us? White people!”) isn’t outrageous in the context of Harlem, but that his assumption that McClane might call him a nigger is. McClane is a dick, but he’s not a dick with an agenda. Zeus is, but McTiernan gets us in his corner regardless.

Do I need to call buddy-movie bullshit? Of course they like each other at the end. Does that mean Zeus has learned a lesson? No, and that’s not the point. Instead, the importance of race is a massively important ingredient in the tensions of a multi-cultural city, and almost no other movies in the genre even attempt to hit it so directly. With Sam Jackson along for the ride, giving one of his last performances I can truly love, this works as well as it possibly can, not even feeling shoehorned into the script.

I said in the first retrospective that the original film was masterful at establishing a sense of place, and Vengeance is, in some ways, even better. I place tremendous value on films that successfully convey what it’s like to walk certain streets at a given time. McTiernan’s vision of Giuliani’s first year in New York is beautiful. It feels real.

Part of that is that the assistant director staff does a terrific job with extras. Poor extra work, especially in a movie set in a big city, can be disastrous. Just look at Spider-Man 3, where almost no one who lives in New York is remotely credible. Then there are the background artists of Vengeance, who are perfect. They look great in the elephant fountain park sequence, they’re spot-on for the bomb at the payphone, and I absolutely love the older blond woman who loses it when McClane tries to look under her seat on the subway.

Thinking about it now, I’d love to hear a post-9/11 commentary on the film, because it’s so firmly entrenched in the early ’90s that it seems naive. Despite having the first WTC bomb in the recent past, we see New Yorkers reacting to the Wall St. bomb like it was a movie. Elsewhere, a pedestrian comments “welcome to New York” after the false bomb threat at the pay phone, before handing Zeus a buck. Contrast the public response to terrorism with the rookie cop who’s ready to shoot Zeus for jumping a subway turnstile.

And while the shot of McClane and Zeus running down a street with the WTC as a backdrop was simply pretty at the time, now it’s impossible not to look at the image without thinking about the many ways this film would be different if made now.

Until it becomes very dumb, the script is terrifically smart for an action flick. Jonathan Hensleigh is wickedly confident: 47 minutes before Simon is shown, and 51 before an explicit onscreen death. Much better: little exchanges describe and reinforce character, like ‘what has four legs and is always ready to travel?’ Zeus figures McClane doesn’t have kids because he doesn’t know the joke, and in fact McClane’s ignorance tells us a lot about his presence as a father.

The point has been made that Hans Gruber is a massively satisfying villain because he’s far smarter than John McClane, which is quite true. Simon is patterned in a similar way, but his game playing, which begins as a fun gimmick for the film, turns into a massive handicap. I have the hots for Sam Philips as Katya, but she’s barely enough to support Simon, and his most significant underlings aren’t as strong as even Al Leong in the original.

But Jeremy Irons gives Simon a humanity that overcomes almost every problem until the third act. Just look at the way he clearly wrestles with the idea of killing Zeus or letting him live, when Zeus drops off the bomb at Wall Street. That’s exactly what differentiates Simon from Colonel Stuart in Die Harder, and why I like him infinitely more.

In the Die Harder piece I mentioned how much I liked seeing McClane acting as a cop from the beginning, and this film is even better about showing his skills. He’s not fighting incompetent authority here because his peers and superiors have a grudging respect for him; we see that in his opening scenes, when they’re disgusted by how he’s wasting himself, not dismissing him for doing so.

And as the movie goes on we see that McClane is actually a great cop who knows his city. We see it in Harlem when he attempts to placate Zeus, and on the subway during the bomb search. The high point of this exhibition of his NYC knowledge isn’t the Central Park ride (which is great) but shortly after when he calls in the ambulance.

This is also a good point to talk about some of the camera decisions made by McTiernan and relatively new shooter Peter Menzies. Take the moment when McClane jumps the cab out of Central Park — whoever thought to show it through the window of another car is a genius. I love the elegance of the shot where the ambulance and then McClane’s cab peel into view in succession, especially since McTiernan had just tossed off a good gag by having the cab tear through an outdoor cafe mostly out of frame. Looked at dead-on, the cafe destruction would be routine; almost out of view it gets a laugh.

The problems start as soon as Simon blows the dam. McTiernan turns a dump truck into a surf board as best he can, but the silly McClane geyser that erupts right in front of Zeus is the first of several moments that are just too much to take, especially in contrast to the more realistic tone the film has had so far. The parkway chase is weak and, without Kevin Chamberlin’s excellent Charlie, the school bomb thread would never work as well as it does.

(Not to say there are no issues before the third act — it always bugs me that Ricky is the one who announces the theft of 14 dump trucks but doesn’t put things together when a shitload of dump trucks show up immediately in Wall St.)

I rate the scenes on the boat quite highly, in part because of the dialogue between Zeus and McClane while tied to the bomb. But none of the endings – the theatrical, the alternate or anything else proposed, works at all. The one we’re stuck with is a pathetic tack-on that wastes nearly two hours of good will. Hensleigh claims it doesn’t make him cringe, but I don’t believe it. Bellevue speech aside, McClane’s hangover moans irritate me throughout the film, and to find that they’re all just a setup for discovering the crew’s getaway plan thanks to a bottle of fucking aspirin?

And so I usually just stop the movie after the boat blows up, and let the artificial fade to black salvage what is mostly a far better movie than we ever should have seen as a last-ditch continuation of the series.

Other notes: The first minute is among my favorite openings of the ’90s. I love that we see Zeus’s blood dry on his shirt. The shark poster near the subway bomb rules. Love Anthony Peck, Graham Greene and Larry Bryggman. Connie, the underling of Inspector Cobb, is fantastic, from accent to delivery, as is the woman who says “they’re asking for you and Mr. Carver,” after the Wall St. bomb goes off. I Heart Jerry. And the 911 supervisor rules.

Lines I love:

Zeus: “I can get used to this.”

Simon: “Still trying to butch up by chewing on your

Pamela: “You are so full of shit, Walsh!”
Rick Walsh (bows): “Thank you.”

(Also dig that everyone calls him Ricky, but he introduces himself as Rick.)

Zeus: “That guy was pissed”
McClane: “He’ll feel better when he looks in the back seat”
Zeus: “Oh, shit, that was my gold bar!”

Targo: “I see you all day, little man. Police man. And you don’t go away.”

Simon: “If you are not in gridlock, I invite you to come and watch.”

And the one I hate:

Simon: “I’m a soldier, not a monster. Even though I sometimes work for monsters.”

The Transportation Official I can do without: Chief Allen.

Three Exploding Nakatomi
Buildings out of Four