Saturday, February 9, 2013

Stubs – Die Hard With a Vengeance

Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) Starring: Bruce Willis, Jeremy Irons, Samuel L. Jackson, Larry Bryggman, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp. Directed by John McTiernan. Screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh. Based on certain characters by Roderick Thorp in the novel Nothing Lasts Forever. Produced by John McTiernan and Michael Tadross. Run Time: 129 minutes. U.S.  Color.  Action. Thriller.

Last December, as part of our Bruce Willis Christmas celebration, this blogged reviewed the first two films in the Die Hard series: the aptly named Die Hard (1988) and its sequel Die Hard 2: DieHarder (1990). Now with the imminent release of the fifth Die Hard film: A GoodDay to Die Hard later this month, we thought it would be a good idea to complete reviewing of the last two of the first four. First up, Die Hard With a Vengeance.

The first thing you’ll note, other than Christmas is not a setting, is that much of the supporting cast and subsequent subplots from the first two films have been jettisoned. Gone is Holly McClaine (Bonnie Bedelia), the on-again, off-again happily married wife of our hero John McClaine (Bruce Willis). Oh, there is a passing reference or two and so on, but Holly is not in danger in this one. The marriage is off and if Live Free or Die Hard is any indication, the marriage is still off and there is even bad blood, as not only does the wife revert to her maiden names, but at least John’s daughter has dropped the McClaine as well. But this is fodder for our next review.

Gone is Dick Thornburg (William Atherton), the annoying TV reporter who outed John to the terrorists in the first film and panicked a plane load of passengers with his on-board reporting of pending doom. Two films with this guy was enough and based on the setting for Die Hard with a Vengeance it would be a big stretch to include him in this film. Good-bye to bad rubbish.

Also gone is John’s career with the LAPD. Part of the premise of Die Hard 2 was that John had moved out west to be with his wife and kids, even calling on his pal LAPD Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to run fingerprints. Powell’s character is another casualty of the franchise, not even getting a mention in this one. Again, Powell was sort of a one trick pony and it was time to move on. His appearance in Die Hard 2 had been an extended cameo at best.

Finally, also gone is any sort of logical storytelling, but that’s not what you go to see in Die Hard films anyway. The plot of this film is about as convoluted as it can get, so it’s best to believe everything, so leave that disbelief at the door.

The film starts with a bomb exploding in a New York City department store. A man named Simon (Jeremy Irons) calls the Major Case Unit Inspector Walter Cobb (Larry Bryggman) to claim responsibility for the blast. In order to stop further explosions, Simon demands that John McClaine, who is currently hung over and on suspension, be dropped off in Harlem wearing a sandwich board spelling out “I Hate Niggers”.

The opening sequence sets the stage for the rest of the film.
While no one seems to notice this at first, McClaine is pointed out to shopkeeper Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) by his two truant nephews. Zeus is not a fan of white people, but he can’t help getting involved. He tries to get McClaine off the street before anyone else notices. But he’s too late, as a gang of men see McClaine and attack him and Carver. Both men narrowly escape and hijack a taxi to take them to police headquarters.

Jeremy Irons as Simon Gruber in Die Hard with a Vengeance. Everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Back at headquarters, the omnipresent Simon knows of Carver’s Good Samaritan interference with his plan and now demands that both McClaine and Carver go through a series of drills to placate him. Police have already learned that Simon has thousands of pounds of explosives that he’s stolen, so they are anxious to prevent further damage.

The first game involves a payphone. Simon calls and reads them a riddle, which they have to answer within 30 seconds. They end up being 10 seconds late, but Simon says there was no bomb, because he didn’t say “Simon Says.”

Remember payphones?

Their next task is to travel to Wall Street, 90 blocks away, in 30 minutes and find a bomb that has been planted on a Brooklyn-bound subway train. McClaine breaks off and jumps aboard the subway from a grating above, finds the bomb and throws it out the window. Since only Carver makes to the next payphone, Simon says that’s a breach of the rules and explodes the bomb, which was already set to explode anyway when the train passed over a switch in the track. The resulting blast derails the rear of the train, which goes on to smash up many of the station’s support columns. The FBI gets involved and tells McClaine that Simon is Simon “Peter” Gruber, the brother of Hans Gruber from the first film. This time it’s personal.

During the debriefing, Simon calls again and this time there is a bomb planted at a school that is sensitive to police radio signals. McClaine and Carver are given a series of riddles to help them figure out which school it is in the city and to diffuse more bombs.

Meanwhile, the police spread out across the city to search schools and also turn off their police band radios. This is in the day before cell phones, so that pretty much wipes out citywide police communications.
The first bomb McClaine and Carver find is in a briefcase in an Elephant fountain. When they open the briefcase, they activate the bomb. They then have to figure out the 5 gallon 3 gallon 4 gallon riddle to disarm the bomb, which they do.

Next, they try to figure out which school has the bomb in it. The clue is 21 of 42. (At the time the film was made there had been only 42 Presidents.) A truck driver tells McClaine that the 21st President was Chester A. Arthur, the name of the elementary school where Zeus’s nephews Raymond and Dexter attend. (What a coincidence!)

For Future Reference.

As McClaine and Carver are travelling between locations, McClaine scolds a boy for stealing a candy bar. When the boy says that the police are so busy someone could steal City Hall, McClaine realizes that they are being kept away from Wall Street and that Simon is planning a heist. Returning downtown, McClaine finds that Simon’s men disguised as cops, security guards, construction workers, etc. have raided the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and, using the damaged subway station, have made off with $140 billion worth of gold bars in 14 dump trucks. Talk about raising the stakes. Hans was only after $640 million in U.S. bearer bonds. Some kids never outgrow their sibling rivalries I guess.

What the fuss is all about times a bunch.
After killing Simon’s henchmen, McClaine takes chase. He follows the dump trucks to an aqueduct in the New York City Tunnel No. 3. (Tunnel No. 3 happens to be the largest construction project in New York history providing the city with a third connection to upstate water. Authorized in 1954, the project began in 1970 and will not be completed until 2020 at a cost of about $6 billion.) After McClaine manages to capture one of the trucks, Simon floods the tunnel, but water pressure throws McClaine through a man hole.

Simon tries to drown McClaine in Tunnel No. 3
Carver, who has been to Yankee Stadium on a wild goose chase, just happens to be driving by when McClaine comes flying up riding a water spout. Talk about lucky timing. But Carver is followed by two assassins who had been waiting at the Stadium. After a wild shootout on some winding narrow highway, McClaine manages to kill their pursuers. The two take chase after the remaining dump trucks. They follow them to a tanker, but are captured when they board the vessel.

Meanwhile, the police find the bomb at the school, and evacuate the school. With the timer running down to zero, the police get everyone out, except a handful of kids. Including Zeus’s nephews, who have gotten locked in an upstairs room. Detective Joe Lambert (Graham Greene) rushes back into the school. One miraculous escape later, they find out the bomb is just a decoy.

McClaine and Carver find out that the explosives have been put aboard the tanker. Simon, in order to upset the world economy is going to sink the gold to the bottom of the sea. Simon leaves the boat. Unfortunately for them, McClaine and Carver are left tied up next to the bomb. In a last act, Simon gives McClaine a bottle of aspirin for the nagging headache he’s had all day. But don’t fear, our heroes manage to escape before the bomb explodes, sinking the tanker.

While their wounds are being treated, McClaine theorizes that there wasn’t any gold on the tanker. That proves to be correct, as it was full of scrap metal. John decides to call Holly to try and make amends after his harrowing escape. But he realizes that an aspirin bottle Simon had given him earlier has the address of a Quebec border town.

With the Royal Canadian Mounted Police alongside, McClaine raids the warehouse where Simon and crew are preparing to distribute the gold. Simon once more escapes, but when he tries to shoot McClaine from the air, McClaine shoots a power line which hits the helicopter and destroys it. Carver joins McClaine and tells him he should finish his call to Holly at a nearby pay phone. (Again, this is before the ubiquitousness of cell phones.)

As with these kinds of actioneers, the story seems to have its fair share of plot holes. Simon manages to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. He seems to have correctly out guessed the NYPD and knows exactly how they will react to every false clue he leaves. He’s a blueprint for the Joker in Dark Knight as he manages to defy time and space, planting bombs and clues without drawing any suspicion. I mean who would notice a briefcase, a 5 gallon jug and a 3 gallon jug in a fountain next to a busy sidewalk?

One has to wonder about the resources Simon Gruber had at his disposal to pull off such a large scale heist and how many operatives he would have to have to plant all those bombs and to steal 14 dump trucks.

As part of Simon’s gang there is only one woman, Katya (Sam Phillips), a literal cutthroat who never says a word. Her only purpose seems to kill an innocent guard during the heist and to be Simon’s sexual partner at the most inopportune time possible.

Katya (Sam Phillips). Deadly and silent.
But Katya is luckier than Mathias Targo (Nick Wyman). Mathias has been Simon’s right hand man through most of the film and it is he who discovers that Simon has traded the goid bars aboard the ship for scrap metal. When Mathias questions Simon about this, he is killed outright by Katya. There is really no explanation for why Mathias is suddenly left out in the cold. It is not like it’s down to the three of them to share the bounty. Rather it’s like they’re going from sharing the gold with 31 co-conspirators to 30. Why is Mathias left out of the big plans? Well we couldn’t have five minutes go by without someone being shot could we? Someone had to die, it might as well be Mathias.

Just like the previous Die Hard films, the only thing keeping the bad guys from winning in the end is John McClaine. It is McClaine who has the bright idea that Simon is after the world’s gold supply. It is McClaine who also fights back and disrupts Simon’s plans. The police as always are incompetent and the film boils down to a battle of wills between McClaine and the evil mastermind. Spoiler Alert: McClaine always wins.

Bruce Willis is in fine form once again as John McClaine, the wise-cracking tough as nails rogue cop who never knows when to quit. He is, as he describes himself in the movie, the Energizer bunny. Falls and injuries that would have crippled most men or at least sent them to the hospital are walked off. McClaine simply rubs a little dirt on the wounds and continues on. You admire his single-mindedness and wonder about his sanity at the same time.

Complaints aside, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a definite improvement over Die Hard 2. Part of the improvement has to do with casting. A practically new cast, Willis being the only returning actor, gives the series a fresh feel. Samuel L. Jackson, who is usually very good, is no disappointment here. Not only has he proven himself to be an action hero, but he also provides the comedic relief a film like this needs in order not to take itself too seriously. While Jackson can’t make every movie he’s in better, see Star Wars 1 through 3, he does make Die Hard better.

Samuel L. Jackson  as Zeus Carver makes Die Hard 3 better.

These are not films about subtlety. The bigger the action, the more bullets flying, the more dead bad guys the better. We go to see our hero triumph especially against villains with bigger purse strings, bigger brains and bigger armies at their disposal. McClaine is a one man wrecking crew and he never fails to tough it out and to win. He is an everyman hero and we love to hear his cowboy-themed catchphrase when he triumphs over evil. And as long as Willis is able, then there will always be a Die Hard in development. It’s hard to imagine he would walk away from the franchise if he is still able to walk. And as long as he makes them, we will keep watching them.

Next week, we’ll wrap up our reviews of the first four Die Hard films with Live Free or Die Hard. But instead of the Die Hard light PG-13 version that hit the theaters in 2007, we’ll review the unrated version with more blood, gore and the unedited catchphrase.

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