Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

An enigmatic man called Simon forces Lieutenant John McClane to complete a series of tasks and puzzles in New York City – otherwise he’ll blow up a school…

Source material: Whereas the first two Die Hard movies were adapted from unrelated novels, this one is based on a film script called Simon Says. Originally intended as a standalone thriller, it was then rewritten as a potential Lethal Weapon sequel. But after Bruce Willis rejected several storylines for a third Die Hard film – including an idea that was later used for Speed 2: Cruise Control – Simon Says was appropriated and retooled as Die Hard With a Vengeance.

John McClane: He’s in a bad way as the story begins. John’s back working as a cop in New York but has been suspended; he hasn’t spoken to his wife for a year, and spends the whole film with a monster hangover. Incidentally, between the previous Die Hard movie and this one, Bruce Willis had cameoed as John McClane in Loaded Weapon 1. One of the leads of that 1993 comedy film was Samuel L Jackson, who’s the chief guest star of Die Hard With a Vengeance. Both Willis and Jackson were also in Pulp Fiction together in 1994, though their characters only shared one scene and didn’t talk to each other. So as an in-joke during Die Hard With a Vengeance, John McClane quotes some lyrics from Flowers on the Wall, a song that Bruce Willis’s character listens to in Pulp Fiction.

Regulars: Holly McClane is mentioned a couple of times and we hear her over the telephone briefly. But this is essentially the only Die Hard movie with no recurring characters other than John. 

Villain: The film’s bad guy is only a voice to begin with – he makes calls to the cops and demands that John McClane play parlour games. They deduce that he’s German and clearly holds a grudge against John, yet no one puts zwei and zwei together… The character is played by a blond, athletic Jeremy Irons, who finally appears on screen after 45 minutes. Sadly, it’s a pretty irritating performance. Truly successful bad guys don’t think of themselves as evil; in their heads, they’re the heroes. However, Irons is a paid-up member of the Jonathan Pryce School of Villainy – ie, he thinks his character should be twirling his moustache and laughing manically. (The actor also does a naff American accent during one scene.) He has several lackeys, but none makes much impression. Eventually, it turns out that all the games and puzzles are just a distraction while Simon steals tons of gold bullion from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Why involve John McClane at all? Because Simon is the brother of the first movie’s Hans Gruber and wants revenge for his death.

Music: Michael Kamen returns for a third Die Hard score, and has perhaps too much fun quoting the tune of 19th-century song When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

Review: After LA in film one and Washington, DC in film two, the Die Hard series now hits New York – and it’s a very NYC-centric story. Manhattan, Harlem, Central Park, Wall Street, traffic jams, the subway, yellow taxis, coarse cops, rude businessmen – they’re all here! The spine of the story sees Bruce Willis’s John McClane forced to team up with Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus Carver, a smart, pragmatic shopkeeper from Harlem. They make a great, bickering team and we’re soon into classic mismatched-duo, buddy-movie territory. The characters bounce around New York, solving puzzles and trading sharp dialogue. It’s a lot of fun… for 45 minutes. Then the actual plot kicks in, Jeremy Irons shows up, and it all becomes very on-the-nose. The stunts get bigger, the villains’ plot becomes more convoluted, the terror levels are raised – but we’ve lost any Die Hard-ish distinction.

Seven sandwich boards out of 10

PS: I spotted an oddity while rewatching this 22-year-old film – the script mentions both candidates from the 2016 US Presidential election…

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Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Police officer John McClane visits his estranged wife during her office’s Christmas party. But when terrorists enter the building and take hostages, John finds himself the only person free…

Source material: Die Hard is an adaptation of Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), an enjoyable-enough potboiler by Roderick Thorp. Because the novel was a sequel to a book that had been turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra, Sinatra was asked to headline Die Hard too. But he had just passed 70 and retired from acting, so turned it down. The script was then retooled as a standalone story, and middle-aged Detective Joe Leland became the thirtysomething Officer John McClane. (It’s often been said that, at one point, Die Hard was going to be a sequel to the 1985 action film Commando and would therefore have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Steven E de Souza – the writer of Commando and co-writer of Die Hard – has denied this. He says the ultimately unmade Commando 2 was a completely separate script.)

John McClane: Die Hard’s hero is a dry, droll, cynical cop from New York. For overseas viewers who might not understand, it’s spelt out that he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in LA,  but he still leaps into action when trapped in a skyscraper with gun-totting terrorists. Cast in the role was Bruce Willis, an actor who was hot from witty TV drama Moonlighting, and he’s *perfect*. He gives McClane a wry smirk, plenty of sarcasm and bags of attitude. One of the key reasons why the character is such a success is that he’s not a Schwarzenegger-type Special Forces vet who can kill a platoon with his little finger; he’s just an everyday guy (albeit one who knows how to fire guns). He even gets an instant all-time-great catchphrase: the villain likens him to a cowboy, so he replies, “Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker.” A good indicator of what an amazing performance Willis gives is the fact he often talks to himself and yet the device never feels clunky or forced. That’s a difficult trick to pull off.

Regulars:
* Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is John’s wife. Six months earlier she moved across country for a new job; she’s been using her maiden name, which doesn’t please John when he arrives at her office at Nakatomi Plaza. Once the terrorists take over, she becomes the leader of the hostages and shares a couple of excellently frosty scenes with bad guy Hans. (In Nothing Lasts Forever, the lead character was visiting his daughter not his wife. But then they cast 33-year-old Bruce Willis.)
* We briefly see John and Holly’s young children, Lucy (Taylor Fry) and John Jnr (Noah Land). They’re at home being looked after by a maid called Paulina (Betty Carvalho).
* When John finds a two-way radio and contacts the outside world, he strikes up a connection with local policeman Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Unlike his LAPD superiors, the likeable Powell quickly recognises the severity of the hostage situation and also figures out that John must be a cop. Their friendship as they talk over the radio has real charm.
* Once it becomes clear that something is going on at Nakatomi Plaza, a news reporter called Dick Thornburg (William Atherton, efficiently slimy) starts covering the story. He’s an amoral shit who thinks nothing of manipulating children for his report.   

Villain: The story’s bad guys show up primed and ready. They move into the building stealthily and with little dialogue, killing security guards and making their way up to the floor hosting the Christmas party. The group has distinctive, memorable members – which always helps in a film with a crime gang – but the standout is still its leader. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is an icy-cool yet charismatic German in a Savile Row suit. There’s a great reversal of expectations when we learn that he’s not the political terrorist we all assumed him to be: he’s just after the loot stored in the building’s vault. However, when Holly accuses him of being just a common thief, he sharply replies. “I am an exception thief, Mrs McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping you should be more polite.” Rickman gives a sensational performance of guile and confidence and poise in what was, remarkably, his first ever film. Actually, it’s difficult to think of a better-played, more entertaining villain in any movie.

Music: The near-constant incidental music was written by Michael Kamen, who’d previously provided great scores for Brazil (1985), Highlander (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987) and TV magnum opus Edge of Darkness (1985). It’s an excellent piece of work, creating tension and supporting action with aplomb. It’s especially good at taking us by the hand and guiding us through moments where we’re crosscutting between different scenes. Kamen also quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when Gruber and the others finally open the vault.

Review: Like a million-pound sports car or a shiny new iPhone, this movie appears so effortless and elegant and pristine, but it’s powered by some extraordinary complex engineering. On the surface, Die Hard is an endlessly entertaining slice of popcorn cinema. There’s action, humour, drama, surprises, suspense and violence, and it’s all muscle, no flab. The film keeps opening up, starting relatively low-key as a group of criminals sneak into a Christmas party and ending up as an enormous action thriller involving helicopters, explosions and SWAT teams. It’s populated by vibrant, interesting, well-played supporting characters – cheeky young chauffeur Argyll (De’voreaux White), stoic company boss Takagi (James Shigeta), lairy businessman twat Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), befuddled police chief Dwayne T Robinson (Paul Gleason), two arrogant FBI agents both called Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L Bush). Everyone in this amazing cast gets line after line of acidic, colourful dialogue packed full of substance and swearing and wit. But look underneath and the film is even more impressive. A huge amount of skill, smartness and hard work has gone into making Die Hard seem so graceful. Narrative filmmaking is about the revelation of information – character details, plot developments, and so on – which must be drip-fed in a specific order and at specific times. Here, the pieces are moved around the chessboard with absolute precision, guaranteeing that we know exactly what we need to know at exactly the right time. We also learn about characters through their behaviour, while their choices drive the plot and action is always significant. Cinematographer Jan De Bont uses the anamorphic widescreen format for all its worth, throwing in extreme framings and telling the story through composition, lighting and purposeful camera moves. John McTiernan directs with a ballsy energy but also a light touch when needed. It’s simply a masterpiece. One of the very best action films ever made.

Ten machine guns (ho ho ho) out of 10

Predator (1987, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A crack team of commandos are sent into the jungle to rescue a captured diplomat. But they encounter a ruthless alien, who starts to pick them off for sport…

The cast: As a film-obsessed child I had an enormous man-crush on Arnold Schwarzenegger; or rather the films he made. Here he plays Major Alan ‘Dutch’ Schaefer, the cigar-chomping leader of the special-forces team. Because it’s an 80s Arnie flick Dutch has a couple of James Bond-style puns, but they don’t fit the film’s tone at all. It’s not one of Arnie’s best performances. Much better is former Rocky star Carl Weathers as George Dillon: the only character with any kind of complexity, he lies to the others then realises he’s fucked up. The rest of the team are played by Bill Duke (decent), Jesse Ventura (barely an actor), Sonny Landham (who was such a fruit-loop the producers insisted on a minder to keep him in check), Richard Chaves and Shane Black. Black is an interesting piece of casting. He’s a really good screenwriter (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, Iron Man 3 and others) and was given the minor role of Hawkins so he could be on set to do any last-minute rewrites. Given that he’s not an actor, he’s actually okay. Hawkins’s character trait is that he tells bad jokes. Incidentally, two of the cast feature in other 1980s Schwarzenegger films: Duke had been in 1985’s Commando; Ventura was in 1987’s The Running Man. Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast as the predator, but looked weedy next to Schwarzenegger, Weathers and the others so was replaced by seven-foot-two Kevin Peter Hall. Elpidia Carrillo plays Anna Gonsalves, an underwritten woman the team rescue from the bad guys. At the end of the film there’s a credits sequence where the actors smile at camera in time with their names appearing. I’m going to assume that the idea was stolen from Hi-De-Hi.

The best bit: The most successful aspects of the film are the visual effects used for the predator’s POV shots and for when it’s ‘cloaked’. The former is a thermal-vision image where heat shows up against the blurry background, while the latter has the creature only visible as a see-through shimmer.

Crossover: Watching the Predator and Alien movies at the same time is an idea based on the later films featuring both monsters. However, the two series share a connection at this point too. Unhappy with the original creature design, McTiernan hired visual-effects guru Stan Winston to come up with a new predator. Winston doodled his initial ideas while on a flight with his friend James Cameron, who’d just directed Aliens. Glancing at the drawing, Cameron suggested that Winston add mandibles – hence the predator’s distinctive multi-jaw face, which in no way reminds me of a vagina.

Review: There’s a scene about halfway through where the characters know the predator is nearby so all fire their guns into the jungle. Despite a deafening hail of bullets, they hit nothing but foliage. Director John McTiernan has said that this was a joke on his part. A satire of brainless, gung-ho action films. The characters have all this hardware, he chuckles on the DVD commentary, yet are ultimately impotent. Well, he’s being extremely disingenuous. Earlier in the film, an attack on a terrorist compound is staged and shot like a music video. There’s a pornographic excitement about guns, bullets, deaths, muscle-bound men and explosions. The notion that any irony is on show is funny in itself. (Admittedly, the film does have some spoofy moments: surely it’s a joke when Dillon’s arm is ripped off but keeps firing the gun it’s holding.) The bad guys in that compound, by the way, are from some unspecified Central American country and are barely seen let alone fleshed out. They’re just A-Team villains, there to be killed by the untouchable heroes in slow motion. God, I sound like an old fart moaning about violence. I actually love action films and have no problem with violent stories. But there has to be more class to them than this. This movie doesn’t seem too concerned with plot or characterisation. The only woman in the story, for example, is an embarrassment. Anna Gonsalves has no dialogue in English until nearly an hour in, does nothing but provide exposition, then is absent from the climax. In its favour, the film can be seen as some kind of Apocalypse Now in reverse. The characters’ journey ‘upriver’ only takes up the first half-hour of the story – it’s then about them trying to escape. On that level, the story works well and is tense and exciting. It takes the predator a while to show up, but it’s clear he’s not just a mindless killer. For him, this is a game. The film then becomes obsessed with the rituals of hunting. The predator refuses to attack the unarmed Anna; Bill Duke’s Eliot superstitiously scrapes his bald head with a razor; Dutch has slashes of camouflage make-up that make him look like some kind of New Romantic tribal leader, then in the final act he improvises a series of traps. Not as smart as it thinks it is, but still enjoyable enough hokum.

Seven pussies out of 10

Next time: The predator takes LA…

My 30 favourite films

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So, a few years ago – in order to complete an Empire magazine readers’ poll – I set about compiling my top 10 films. Narrowing them down that far was too tough, and I ended up with a shortlist of 30. Since that time, I’ve made one change: GoodFellas was reluctantly dropped for the most recent movie on the list.

I’ve added links to any films I’ve blogged about elsewhere on this site, whilst clips indicate my favourite five…

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985)

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)

Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)

D.O.A. (Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, 1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)