I think I speak for everyone when I say that few things are more tired than the inevitable “debate” about DIE HARD’s status as a Christmas movie. Believe me when I say the debate was settled long ago, when boneheads in freshman dorms thought they were being edgy by championing it as a holiday staple. Let’s move on to a more urgent DIE HARD manner: which of the 2 (two) follow-ups is the best DIE HARD sequel? This, too, seems to have been settled since John McTiernan returned to the franchise for DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, long considered by many (most?) fans to be the definitive answer to this debate. It’s a position I can’t begrudge but also one I can’t share: while I get where those folks are coming from, mine will always be a DIE HARD 2 household for various reasons, some quite sensible, others quite not, and I admit that. As the 30th anniversary of John McClane’s second ruined Christmas nears, I think the time is right for the rest of the world to acknowledge the brilliance of a movie that dared to enter the world with the tagline “DIE HARDER.”
I know, I know — I just said this debate is tired when it comes to DIE HARD. But that’s only because the original movie gets all of the attention in this respect. It turns out that, yes, DIE HARD 2 is also a Christmas movie, one that’s actually more in line with the seasonal expectations to boot when McClane gets trapped in snowbound Dulles airport during peak travel week. Look, I get the improbability of McClane stumbling upon another terrorist plot just in time for the holidays but DIE HARD and Christmas belong together like Harry Ellis and fucking up. It’s an integral part of the formula as far as I’m concerned, and something about VENGEANCE’s sweltering summer setting just feels off. Nevermind that both DIE HARD and DIE HARD 2 were released as summer blockbusters: they’re really best enjoyed with the likes of Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman, at least if you want your holidays to absolutely rule.
It’s actually a Die Hard movie
Remember how DIE HARD was so successful that Hollywood churned out a bunch of rip-offs featuring protagonists foiling terrorists in confined spaces? We got “DIE HARD on a bus,” “DIE HARD on a boat,” DIE HARD on a railway,” DIE HARD on a plane (several times).” You get the picture, and DIE HARD 2 is the only sequel that dared to honor what made DIE HARD, well, DIE HARD. Once again, McClane is in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced to outwit terrorists in close quarters by the skin of his teeth. No personal vendettas, no sense that McClane is some superhero forever destined to be the one guy who can save the world: just an average joe wishing he could have a normal fuckin’ Christmas instead of shimmying around ventilation systems and climbing elevator shafts. It even manages to squeeze in Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), appearing for a cameo, kind of like that one family member whose presence is absolutely crucial at holiday gatherings. This is “DIE HARD in an airport,” which actually makes a lot more sense than “DIE HARD in a city,” which blew up the formula so much that other dimensions report the existence of DIE HARD sequels where McClane embarks on cross-country and global missions. Good thing that never happened here, where we only have 3 (three) DIE HARD movies.
Stephen de Souza
Few filmmakers have been as instrumental in shaping the action genre more than Stephen de Souza, the man who was responsible for classics like 48 HRS., COMMANDO, and THE RUNNING MAN before he completely changed the game with DIE HARD. His return for DIE HARD 2 marked the last time he’d ever work on the franchise, further cementing its status as a pure DIE HARD entry, complete with snappy dialogue and a script that charges ahead despite its nonsense. It’s not as airtight as the original, nor is it as clever as VENGEANCE’s demented series of puzzles; however, it does have moments of brilliance as it escalates tension with its various moving parts in and around the airport, including the fleet of planes circling overhead, their fuel dwindling as the terrorists paralyze the location. One of them carries McClane’s wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), providing an additional narrative wrinkle and heightening the personal stakes. Plus, DIE HARD 2 is nothing if not packed with wall-to-wall action, giving McClane plenty of opportunities to engage in shoot-outs and fisticuffs as the terrorist’s complex plot unfolds.
Snowmobiles fucking own. The only thing cooler than a snowmobile? A shootout involving snowmobiles. DIE HARD 2 has one of those. ‘Nuff said.
Speaking of Bedelia, this is the last DIE HARD movie to even feature McClane’s wife, Holly, who’s pretty much the pivotal character in the franchise besides John himself. The entire plot of the first movie hinges on McClane trying to fix his broken marriage, something he succeeds at before saving his wife’s life again, climaxing with a rousing embrace on the runway in DIE HARD 2. Then, like an asshole, VENGEANCE came along and revealed that John and Holly split up anyway, a turn of events that never quite sat right with me. Obviously, it doesn’t render the previous movies entirely moot, but the knowledge of their impending split takes the wind out of the sails a bit. Don’t get me wrong: it is improbable that Holly would also always get caught up in these terrorist schemes, and DIE HARD 2 already stretches believability by essentially shoe-horning Holly into the plot. But, damn it, a movie that features Bonnie Bedelia tases William Atherton (another admittedly shoe-horned reprisal from the first movie) is always better than a movie that doesn’t.
Okay, I have to admit this is actually probably a stalemate. Jeremy Irons absolutely rules as Simon Gruber in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, impossibly recapturing the Eurotrash charm that made Alan Rickman’s turn as brother Hans so indelible in the original film. Smarmy Eurotrash is also synonymous with DIE HARD, leaving part 2 to be the odd man out in this regard. But DIE HARD 2 goes the extra mile in trying to replace Rickman’s towering presence, at least; rather than foolishly enlisting one man to fill such immense shoes, it graces us with Franco Nero and William Sadler, here conspiring with a legion of black ops turncoats to hijack a plane so they can live out their days in a tropical paradise instead of rotting away in prison. Sadler is the face of the operation for the first half of the film, influencing traitorous Colonel Stuart with cold, steely practicality that’s miles removed Rickman’s slimy charm. Meanwhile, Nero spends most of the movie glowering in captivity as a deposed dictator and drug lord of Val Verde, craftily biding his time until he can escape and take charge again. Casting cult movie legend Nero is inspired as hell in any context, much less in a DIE HARD sequel that helped to raise his profile for American audiences who otherwise would have rarely crossed paths with his beguiling blue eyes.
And if these two weren’t enough, DIE HARD 2 surrounds them with an incredible supporting cast. The roster here isn’t just enough to be a definitive tiebreaker in the sequel debate; it’s enough for me to declare DIE HARD 2 has the best cast of the entire series. You have a veritable all-star team of dudes who constantly pop up in movies for guys (and gals) who like movies. William Atherton, Dennis Franz, John Amos, Art Evans, Don Harvey, Fred Thompson, Colm Meaney, Robert Patrick, and even John Leguizamo all appear, coaxing the audience to point out familiar faces throughout the entire movie. DIE HARD 2 is full of “that guy” actors and is perhaps just one Dick Miller cameo away from being the ultimate “that guy” movie. Still, you add up everyone who is here, and I am confident they add up to at least one Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons. Don’t ask me to show my math.
In fact, DIE HARD 2 has a strict “fuck math” policy, which stands in stark contrast to WITH A VENGEANCE, a movie that features a goddamn word problem right in the middle of its mayhem. For 25 years, the water jug puzzle has mystified me, and it continued to so even after I took calculus. Granted, there is probably a reason I eventually majored in English, but I just can’t abide by an action movie that takes me back to trying to shake off sleep in 1st-period geometry in a frustrated attempt at figuring out whatever the hell a hypotenuse is. (Let the record show that I still can’t even spell hypotenuse without a spell-checker’s assistance.)
DIE HARD 2 does not want to tax your brain. In fact, it would prefer if you just went ahead and set it in the “off” position, lest you start to think too hard about how the plot crumbles under the slightest scrutiny. “Why don’t all of the planes just go land at another airport?” you might be inclined to wonder. I would suggest directing that mental energy towards keeping track of all the bad guys McClane kills instead and see if we both come up with the same number, which I have officially tallied to be “a shitload.” McClane goes full slasher movie in DIE HARD 2, dispatching goons with everything from a baggage conveyor belt to an icicle in an eye-splattering display that would make Lucio Fulci nod in approval. The only numbers I need with my action movies involve drive-in totals.
Yippee Ki-Yay, Mr. Falcon
We at Daily Grindhouse would never endorse an edited-for-TV version of any movie, much less a version of DIE HARD 2 that would sanitize all of the damn violence and fuckin’ language. (Sidebar: could you imagine if someone purposely made a PG-13 DIE HARD movie like this? I shudder at the thought). However, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the TV version of DIE HARD 2 features one of the most memorable TV edits of all-time because someone decided to reimagine McClane’s iconic (and in this case, climactic) catchphrase as the completely nonsensical “yippee ki-yay, Mr. Falcon,” complete with a voice that’s not even trying to imitate Bruce Willis. (To be fair, Bruce Willis has found it hard to imitate being Bruce Willis in recent years, so we’ll cut them some slack.)
Let me preface this with the reassurance that I totally get the appeal of John McTiernan returning for WITH A VENGEANCE. He’s one of the greatest directors of all-time, returning to the scene of one of his greatest triumphs. The fact that DIE HARD isn’t indisputably his best movie (one could make a case for PREDATOR or HUNT FOR THE RED OCTOBER) speaks to just how incredible of a run he was on when he reunited with Willis in 1995, capping off a decade of absolute action masterworks. But if you couldn’t get McTiernan, you could do a lot worse than Renny Harlin, who by 1990 was emerging as Hollywood’s next big blockbuster director. After delivering a hit in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 in the shadow of a writer’s strike, he stepped up to the plate and then some with DIE HARD 2, which was by no means a guaranteed proposition. Like McClane himself asks, “how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” You could have forgiven audiences for writing off DIE HARD as a one-and-done affair, but Harlin turned in a quintessential dumb fun sequel that’s just too entertaining to deny.
DIE HARD 2 is one of those sequels that’s better than it has any right to be, mostly because Harlin approaches it with the right mix of self-seriousness and glibness. It draws attention to its own implausibility without using it as an excuse to lapse into self-parody. Some moments, like McClane’s improvised use of an ejector seat, probably do stray a bit from the grounded grittiness that defined DIE HARD, but there’s never the impression of watching a weightless cartoon. Moments of sincerity, like John’s anguish at preventing a plane from crashing or his climactic reunion with Holly, are too genuine to dismiss.
In many ways, this is the trademark of Harlin’s best work: delivering brash, brawny, and borderline silly action without losing his grip on the emotional stakes. (And anyone who did want one where he does lose that grip and goes full Looney Tunes, they didn’t have to wait long for THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, which bowed in theaters just a week after DIE HARD 2. Civilization peaked in the summer of 1990, and it’s clearly been all downhill since then.) Some might see WITH A VENGEANCE as a course correction that returned DIE HARD to its grittier, more believable roots, but I’m not sure I need to correct away from a course that ends with William Sadler and Bruce Willis kung-fu fighting on the wing of an airplane.
Maybe all of this has convinced you of DIE HARD 2’s superiority; maybe it hasn’t, and that’s okay too. Because, at the end of the day, I think we can all agree that the three movies together form a great trio, and squabbling over petty rankings is kind of like ranking your kids. And it’s a damn good thing DIE HARD never had any bastard children we’d rather not speak about. Nope — just three of the finest action movies ever made, forming a kick-ass trilogy. Yes, trilogy. Someone out there might be convinced I’m counting wrong because there are five DIE HARD movies, which is nonsense. I know I said I was bad at math, but I’m not that bad at it.
Tags: Action Film, Art Evans, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Willis, Charles Gordon, Christmas, Colm Meaney, Dennis Franz, Doug Richardson, Franco Nero, Fred Thompson, Holidays, Joel Silver, John Amos, John Leguizamo, Lawrence Gordon, Mark Boone Junior, Michael Kamen, Oliver Wood, Reginald VelJohnson, renny harlin, Robert A. Ferretti, Robert Costanzo, Robert Patrick, Roderick Thorpe, Sequels, Snowmobiles, Steven E. de Souza, Stuart Baird, Suspense, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Walter Wager, William Atherton, William Sadler