Die Hard: With A Vengeance (1995)
Dir: John McTiernan
A New York Minute From a Very Special Time
By Jay Maronde
While Die Hard 3 may be on network television somewhat regularly, it’s unlikely anyone will ever see the full version of the movie ever again, even if it's shown on cable. The reason for this is not the language but the fact that the world has changed and we as Americans no longer wish to see the movie’s biggest star in her full glory. Wait you say, Die Hard is a guy movie, who is this ultra-famous lady star—a star bigger than Bruce or Samuel L.? This Grande Dame of Stars I reference is none other than pre-9-11 New York City herself, and peaking in her Clinton/Giuliani era glory!
In this film, just like real estate, location is everything, and rarely has any movie highlighted so many of NYC’s glorious locations as Die Hard 3, and the grandest /saddest NYC site of all is featured heavily from beginning to end: The World Trade Center. As I’ve already mentioned, this is the part(s) of the movie that requires so much editing for American audiences today, and it’s tragic because the film highlights the towers so beautifully and epically that they really should be appreciated in their once towering glory. This isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have very, very big movie stars, a great director, fantastic action sequences or one of the cleverest plots ever—because surely it does—but in the end, this movie is just as much a wonderful NYC movie as it is a classic of the action genre.
DH3 opens with a fantastic panorama of NYC perfectly set to the classic “Summer in The City.” As the song ends, a building explodes, and the terrorism has begun. Soon we are transported to a busy police station where the emergency response is being coordinated. Suddenly a secretary has a phone call that the boss needs to answer. On the line is the lead terrorist, played exquisitely by the robust Jeremy Irons in one of his greatest roles ever. As the audience, we only learn much later that the Irons character, Simon, is really the brother of the original Die Hard villain Hans Gruber. Not only is Simon intent on mayhem, but he demands that a suspended (and terribly hung-over) Lt. John McClane be part of the fun.
As the movie progresses the viewer learns the just like his brother, Simon isn’t as much of a terrorist as a thief with a very clever ruse. Simon’s first task is for John McClane to go to Harlem and walk the street naked except for a sandwich board that reads: “I HATE NIGGERS.” This bit here is regularly edited for television. In fact the director had the forethought to film the scene twice—once using another sandwich board that read: “I HATE PEOPLE”—and while this early scene is just a shot across the bow in McTiernan’s masterpiece of an everyman questioning 1990’s American racial issues, it serves to perfectly introduce the films other co-star: the always compelling Samuel L. Jackson as the helpful racist, Zeus Carver. Carver leaves his shop to help McClane (whom he believes to be an escaped mental patient) and is quickly drawn into Simon’s games. The movie progresses all the way across Manhattan from top to bottom and then back to the top, through the Bronx, parts of Westchester, and ultimately ends with in epic helicopter battle in which John McClane once again gets to declare “yippe-ki-yay motherfucker” while sending the villain to an ugly demise.
DH3’s lead actors are beyond reproach. All three of these gentlemen (Willis, Jackson, and Irons) are remarkably good in their roles. Irons could easily be one of the best villains all time in this role. His acting talent shines so remarkably because at several points he is playing Simon Gruber acting like someone else, be it the mentally unstable terrorist personality he feigns during his phone calls with the NYPD, his acting as a Dutch flower company CEO, or even his feigned Elvis Duran fan/radio caller. (That is really the real Elvis Duran, playing himself, by the way.) Irons shines throughout the whole movie as he torments McClane and Carver.
Willis and Jackson for their parts are no less amazing. Samuel L. Jackson is probably the pre-eminent casting choice for a disaffected angry Harlem resident whose hatred for white people is so great, it’s “uber-racism.” Bruce Willis, in his third appearance as John McClane, perfected his role as the loose cannon everyman cop kicking ass through a “very bad day.” To be honest, Willis is so amazingly spot-on good at being John McClane that I’m always completely shocked that he ever gets cast for any other roles. (Nothing against Bruce at all, it would just be really cool if they were about to release Die Hard 42, because apparently I’m the only one who never gets tired of these movies, ever.)
My one and only complaint about this film, is that by having removed John McClane’s family from the situation, the movie seems to lose some of its tension being caused by McClane’s desperation. This is no one’s fault, as a crux of the plot is McClane’s status as “one step away from being a full blown alcoholic” due to his estrangement from his wife. This changes the movie slightly from a man trying to save his family to a buddy action flick. Here again is time to sing the praises of Willis and Jackson as two better “buddies” cannot be found in all of American cinema.
Everyone knows that you can have all the greatest actors in the world but without a director you still won’t get a good movie at all. In Die Hard 3, John McTiernan has returned to the classic franchise he helped begin two films earlier and is more outstanding than ever. This movie is excellently planned. From the editing, to the foreshadowing, to the tie-in with previous films in the series, everything about this film fits perfectly together in just such a clever way that it always brings a smile to my face. McTiernan continues to explore the character of the everyman super hero in John McClane this time not only taking on a whole city instead of just a building or an airport, but also through questioning many social mores of the time period. For a movie filmed in the time of race riots, DH3 tackles the race issue head on and has John McClane saying what many average Caucasian folk at that time were thinking: “You’re a racist, you don’t like me because I’m white!” McTiernan, with his “down under” Aussie-approach to American culture didn’t hesitate for a moment in tackling the biggest issues of the time, and he did it with two of the biggest stars at the time. These are the moments in history that drastically alter everyone’s perceptions of race and culture by holding up a mirror to reality and showing us all what we’ve become. By forcing the racist Carver to deal with the stodgy McClane because “This guy (the terrorist) doesn’t care about race” McTiernan was holding up a torch for the people of the world to unite in their shared humanity and hatred of terrorism.
These racial “semi-tones,” while shockingly predictive of a post 9-11 world, aren’t the only triumph of McTiernan in this film—his foreshadowing is exquisite. Please note the scene early on while McClane is in the police van, which is possibly some of the best foreshadowing in Hollywood history. This one scene sets up so many of the plot points utterly essential for later in the movie, I won’t spoil it, but pay careful attention to what could have been a completely throw away scene. McTiernan’s directorial genius doesn’t stop there: he twice very covertly alludes to the original Die Hard. First, just outside of Tompkins Square Park when McClane stops the shoplifting youths and is told: “Look around, man! It’s Christmas. You could steal City Hall.” The “it’s Christmas” is a very careful word choice to help remind the viewers and McClane that not only was the original movie also a heist but also happened on Christmas. My other favorite indirect allusion to the original film occurs when McClane is investigating the Federal Reserve Bank and just as in the original Die Hard a covert terrorist gives himself away with un-American speech patterns.
As I mentioned in the introduction to this piece the real star of this entire movie is the grand city of New York in all of its stunning pre 9-11 glory. First and foremost, I want to say again that we as a people cannot let the terrorists win and happily strike the image of one of the modern wonders of the world from our collective social conscious in some lame apologist attempt to preserve “feelings.” Everyone has very strong feelings about the WTC and 9-11 and I as a writer am no different; I can tell you for a fact that I considered this review long and hard because of The Towers and the fact that I was there and saw it all go down in mind-scarring reality. Personally I will always choose to remember the resilient carefree pre-9-11 NYC that McClane ferociously and triumphantly fights to save before I will concede the horrible realities that terrorism and the police surveillance state have brought upon us all.
All of this being said, NYC is in her finest glory in this film. The movie features not only the WTC, but Wall Street, Harlem, Yankee Stadium, Central Park, Columbus Circle, the real Tompkins Square park (always one of my favorites being some of my old stomping grounds) the real 72nd Street subway station, but also the streets and avenues and traffic, and the real “summer in the city” feel that only NYC can provide. The movie plays it real too: 72nd Street to Wall Street in less than half an hour is a miracle, and just for reference: the aqueduct is real too, even though tunnel 3 is now completely finished and functioning.
Die Hard 3 is a great movie about 2 great heroes fighting their way through what could easily be history’s greatest city (come at me Rome and London). The acting, directing, and locations are epic and this movie should be recognized as one of the finest action movies ever made, and McTiernan hereby cements his place as one of the greatest action directors with this piece. Jackson and Willis, reunited for the first time since their gripping performances in Pulp Fiction, continue to carve out their places in Hollywood history. Jeremy Irons raises the bar for all action movie villains to an incredibly high place with his multifaceted and grimly sardonic performance. All and all not just a movie to see for cinema’s sake, but a film to enjoy because movies are great in the way that they can take us back to times and places that no longer exist all while having a great experience.