Despite being a phenomenally good entry, Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2: Die Harder has often escaped notice. It’s a distraction to get into debates if the original Die Hard is the best or Die Harder, and I won’t go into it here. What’s interesting is that Die Harder is often skipped over by even admirers of the Die Hard film series.
To be sure, the film has its faults. The plot has difficult spots that become progressively more difficult to accept as the film continues. All in all, the film is fairly effective in trying not to simply mechanically copy the original. Now a hero following the Nakatomi Hostage Crisis, Bruce Willis as John McClane is set to meet his wife as her plane arrives when, once again, terrorists intervene.
Set in Washington’s Dulles airport around Christmas Eve, McClane faces off against Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), a disgruntled military officer, aiming to free indicted drug lord General Ramon Esperanza. Accompanied by a team of commandos, Stuart takes over control of Dulles airport forcing McClane into a series of confrontations to save his wife onboard one of the planes that Stuart is manipulating to free Esperanza.
A lot of credit goes to, first, the performances led by Willis, Sadler, and the secondary cast. Second, there are many often genuinely funny parts to the film. The clincher comes in introducing Major Grant as the film reaches its mid-point. I can’t spoil the dizzying maze-like contortions the plot soon takes on. Some are effective. Others are not. But the penultimate fight atop a commercial jet that closes out the picture does spectacularly tie up the entire plot nicely, even if it is a little too neat for my particular taste.
One big criticism that always comes up is that William Sadler simply does not come off as memorable a foil as Hans Gruber did. I disagree. One of the sly things about the film is its critique of America’s drug wars. Unlike Die Hard, there is a definite political angle that Sadler’s right wing character represents. Indeed one of the more odd things the film does is to try and play on the obvious conservative politics Willis has championed off-screen compared to Sadler’s pretty clear fascistic extremism.
Admittedly, the actual strategic objectives behind the entire affair are murky. It’s great fun in cinematic terms, but as a sustainable plot, the first Die Hard and Die Hard: With a Vengeance make more sense comparatively and can, at least, be imagined. However, a better criticism is the mishandling of the secondary sub-plot that has actress Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly dueling with Richard “Dick” Thornburg (William Atherton). The only real reason for this banter seems to be just to have characters from the original included to make the audience comfortable. In this sense, the original was far better in coordinating these various characters. A less forced inclusion of the characters from the original Die Hard might have helped a lot. Instead many scenes come off as needlessly hurried and rushed.
Though there is a lot of heavy handedness in referring constantly back to the first Die Hard to the point of apologizing for even making a sequel, what needed to be done was a respectful but independent effort that does acknowledge the original but isn’t imprisoned by it either. I don’t mean to exaggerate where Die Harder goes wrong since many scenes work almost perfectly. Scenes like the explosive outbursts between McClane and Captain Carmine Lorenzo revealing a major plot twist involving Grant’s team make up for a lot of the problems in the film as a whole.
Of course, one would’ve liked to see more surprises on the familiar narrative that does – shock! – lean on the original Die Hard too many times. Yet, on balance, it’s better to have McClane in a compact, tight film within a bounded setting and atmosphere than the ambitious but marginally less effective adventures that have him jaunt over the globe with Congress, the White House, or Wall Street serving as backdrops. And to his credit, Harlin combines the use of special effects and more gritty fight scenes in just the right proportions. There are many stunning images of a snow-covered McClane, bloodied up, still struggling on, that aren’t overused.
I know by the high standard set by the original, Die Harder is lacking in certain places. One can already see in Die Harder the origin of McClane as the invincible superhero cop that turns into a parody in the later films. But compared to the later entries, Die Harder deserves a second look or a first look for Die Hard fans.