Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Die Hard on a Blog: Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)

The biggest problem with Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), perhaps, is that it follows on the heels of a legitimately great movie in its franchise.  

John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) is brilliantly constructed in terms of its character dynamics, its camera-work, and even its primal male fantasy sub-text. It's the gold standard in terms of the action genre, at least for its era.

Die Hard 2 is good enough to merit a positive review, and proved an even bigger success at the box office than Die Hard did. But watching Die Hard 2 today, one cannot help but feel that virtually every ingredient featured this time around is a bit less artfully calibrated.

The villains are a huge step-down from Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, for one thing. Similarly, McClane begins the slippery descent from Every Man to Super Man in this movie, and the supporting characters who make a return appearance -- like narcissistic Dick Thornburg (William Atherton) -- feel shoe-horned into the plot. 

When the movie culminates with the first Die Hard’s R-rated catchphrase, and the same closing song  too -- “Let it Snow” -- the impression of not a sequel, but a rehash, is firmly cemented.

By contrast, the next film in the cycle, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) throws out enough standards (the isolated location, the man-alone syndrome, and the Christmas Day setting) to transmit as a more legitimately original follow-up to a masterful action classic.

This first sequel, however, expertly solidifies some intriguing elements that, perhaps, aren’t always considered in regards to the Die Hard formula. I admire here, for example, McClane’s pattern of cooperating with other Every Men (and Women) such as Marvin (Tom Bower) the janitor, Barnes (Art Evans)  the airport engineer, and non-narcissistic journalist, "Sam" Coleman (Sheila McCarthy)  

They are all real people, working real jobs, often going up against the bureaucracy -- or Establishment --  a key obstacle, if not outright villain, of the overarching Die Hard saga.

Undeniably, Die Hard 2: Die Harder is impressively-made and boasts moments of pure exhilaration. It is also superior to some of the franchise’s later entries, so it has that going for it. Yet -- to quote again  Roger Ebert and his review of Halloween II (1981) --  this sequel is still a “fall from greatness.”

Perhaps this sequel is not a steep fall, or a crash on the runway, but Die Hard 2 nonetheless begins showing the incipient symptoms of franchise-itis.

“You’re the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

L.A. cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) waits in Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. for the arrival of his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) from California.

Unfortunately, the renegade Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) and his team of special forces troops take over the air-port, stop all incoming flights, and attempt to rescue an incoming American hostage, deposed strong man General Esperanza (Franco Nero).

McClane must now get Holly’s plane safely to the ground before it runs out of fuel, and defeat Stuart, Esperanza, and a fiendish double agent, Major Grant (John Amos).

“Another basement, another elevator…how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

Die Hard 2: Die Harder is based on the 1987 novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager, which concerns a retired police detective fighting to defeat terrorists who have seized an airport, and get his daughter --trapped on a plane overhead --  down to the ground safely.

So if Die Hard was a dynamic extension of The Towering Inferno (1974) paradigm, Die Hard adopts its setting from not only a novel (like Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever), but from the disaster genre too, namely Arthur Hailey’s Airport.  

In the Airport movies -- which were released from 1970 to 1979, approximately -- a plane in flight is jeopardized, and intrigue occurs at an airport. Die Harder adds to this common scenario seem key real life "current events."

Colonel Stuart, for example, is a clear corollary for convicted felon (and failed senate candidate), Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who lied to Congress, and was a “functionary” in the Iran-Contra Scandal, which was still big news in 1989, when Die Hard 2 was conceived.  

The film also recreates the international conspiracy angle of that illegal operation with the presence of Esperanza and Grant as shadowy colleagues. In other words, the villains in this piece are American soldiers who don’t view the rule of law as an obstacle to them. They pursue their illegal and so-called patriotic agenda anyway, which actually involves propping up right wing dictators in third world nations. American lives mean nothing to these vainglorious scoundrels.

The James Bond franchise also featured an Oliver North-like criminal -- Joe Don Baker's Whitaker -- in 1987, in The Living Daylights.But despite the intentional resemblance to such real-life malfeasants, Stuart, Eperanza and Amos -- three villains for the price of one -- still can’t match Rickman’s urbane, self-aware Gruber in terms of menace. 

There’s even an unnecessary scene here in which Stuart apes a fake accent (Southern) to trick a British plane into crashing. The whole attempt comes off as a pale imitation of the “Bill Clay” scene in Die Hard.  

All three actors are fine in their roles, I should hasten to add, and I’m a big fan of Sadler (see: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.) But three lesser-villains just don’t make up for one guy who is, essentially, the perfect bad guy. I believe it was a mistake dividing the villain role across three individuals, as not one of them offers the same kind of intricacy or three-dimensional personality as Rickman projected.  They don't have enough screen time, for one thing.

Renny Harlin achieves much directing Die Hard: Die Harder, but some of the core visual conceits here are quite different, and inferior to the original strategy. McTiernan’s furtive, desperate, rolling, tilting, panning camera is gone, and a consequence of that absence is that the action doesn’t feel quite as immediate. 

As I wrote in my review last week, Die Hard’s photography aped the man-alone desperation of McClane.  No such technique informs the action here.

Also, the camera-work and narrative details made it truly seem that McClane was in mortal danger throughout Die Hard.  He had to run across broken glass in one scene, and paid the price in blood. He was scared and desperate, and often won battles on the basis of pure grit and luck. In Die Hard 2, he has much greater -- and perhaps -- super-heroic luck.

For instance, there’s a silly scene set at the under-construction Skyway Annex. McClane is seen rolling across the floor -- in plain sight -- and terrorists bracket him. 

He rolls and pivots, in clear view, picking off the terrorists, and they don’t get in even one clear shot.  Not even a flesh wound!  Again, McClane is an obvious, slow-moving target.  

Even an Imperial stormtrooper would graze him!

The shot looks awesome, of course. McClane looks bad-ass slowly rolling across the floor, expertly picking off his nemeses, but the sense of furtive desperation is gone.

Similarly, in a later scene, McClane is trapped inside a grounded plane, as Stuart lobs a half-dozen or so grenades into the cockpit with him. The devices land next to his face, at his feet, and around the cabin. Yet McClane still gets ample time to strap himself into a chair, pull an eject lever, and escape the cabin before even one grenade detonates.

At most he would have 3-5 seconds, once the grenade lands.

He gets a lot more time than that to achieve his spectacular escape. 

Again -- mea culpa -- I love this scene in terms of the special effects presented, and Willis's spirited performance. It is fantastic and delightful to see the chair (with McClane strapped to it...) hurtle right towards the camera (taking up a position high in the sky), as an explosion blossoms below him. 

 But Harlin doesn’t get us to that great visual punch-line without cheating the set-up.

One is left to conclude that McClane has begun the journey from determined, gritty, human cop to Rambo-like super-hero. The slide is reversed a bit in the next film, which gives McClane a hang-over, and restores the furtive camera-work. 

But then the slide continues, unabated in the franchise.

Still, I appreciate how Die Hard 2: Die Harder sets out to establish or fully-cement some aspects of the so-called Die Hard paradigm. 

Here, McClane allies with people who, if not outright blue collar in terms of their jobs, are either cultural/gender minorities, or out of power, to achieve his ends.  

He befriends a reporter named Samantha, for instance, who comes through for him right when he needs her.  McClane treats her with respect (or at least more respect than Stuart does...), and Samantha gets him access to a helicopter when he needs it.

Engineer Barnes, largely ignored and considered unimportant by his superiors and Carmine, demonstrates ingenuity and initiative in finding the terrorists’ headquarters at a nearby church.  

And Marvin the janitor is crucial in leading McClane from one part of the airport complex to another. These three friends -- disdained, disciplined, and lacking privilege and/or authority -- are crucial to John’s success.

By contrast, Die Harder also diagrams the idea that there are two kinds of bad guys in these films.  

First, there are the terrorists who actually attempt to do evil, with finely-crafted strategies and brute force.  

And then there is the establishment, or bureaucracy, which prevents John from doing his job successfully.  

Representing the latter category, we meet two police officers, Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) and his brother, Vito (Robert Constanzo), who make one wrong-headed decision after the other, thoroughly gumming up the works and making it easier for the terrorists to complete their anti-social tasks.  

Trudeau (Fred Thompson) is a more neutral “establishment” figure, one who must be persuaded to trust McClane, but who then qualifies an ally of sorts.

Part of the Die Hard franchise’s Every Man appeal involves this “Fighting City Hall” story angle. John makes friends and enemies as he fights the good fight. And he has a perfect barometer in choosing his friends. They are are usually lower-level, disenfranchised people who nonetheless know their jobs, and clearly see right from wrong.  

Yet the nearer the distance to power someone becomes, these movies tell us, the harder it is for people to embody that kind of clear-headed thought. They are bogged down in red tape, and lose their clear moral compass.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder succeeds as much as it does because the location/setting -- a snowed in airport -- is unique and intriguing, and the danger to the planes overhead is palpable. It is a horrific scene, indeed, when the terrorists trick a plane into landing…and it blows up on the tarmac. 

We all harbor a fear of flying, at least at some level, and Die Hard 2 absolutely taps into that universal dread.

Yet still, by the end of the film, I felt that the sequel had failed to tread boldly enough into new territory. Having John note “how can the same shit happen to the same guy twice” is meta and funny, I suppose, but  the in-joke doesn’t cure the film of its particular deficit: repeating too many of the ideas that informed John McTiernan’s original.  It tells the same jokes, in other words, but tells them less effectively and artfully.

For purposes of franchise building, I absolutely believe that McClane can -- and indeed, must -- get himself into danger again.  

I have more trouble believing it would occur again on Christmas Eve, and so intimately involve his wife Holly and journalist Thornburg. The movie’s choice to end again with fire and “Let it Snow” is also a sign of creative exhaustion.  

Too many notes are, literally, repeated.

Clearly, Die Hard 2: Die Harder got the job done, both at the box office and in terms of fan expectations. I can second-guess it all I want, and the facts don't change.

It’s a solid sequel. But at the same time, some of Die Hard’s inspiration clearly didn’t make the flight with the rest of the luggage.

Next Week for Die Hard on a Blog: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995).

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