Until the tacked on finish, Die Hard with a Vengeance can do little wrong. It doesn’t aim particularly high, just high enough–it’s a symphony of action movie action (and violence) set in New York City; the city’s geography (at least movie familiar geography) plays less and less of a part as the runtime progresses, but director McTiernan and his crew are doing a large scale action movie over a wide setting and a constrained time period. The film takes place, without the tack on, in maybe nine hours. With the tack on, a few more.
Most of the city in crisis action happens in the first forty minutes or so. New York wakes up to a bombing in a department store. The unidentified terrorist (Jeremy Irons) calls the cops to demand Bruce Willis perform various tasks to prevent further bombings. On his first assignment, Willis involves local shopkeeper Sam Jackson. Irons likes the idea of Willis having a sidekick, so Jackson stays on. Larry Bryggman is Willis’s disapproving boss, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, and Anthony Peck are his disapproving coworkers. Willis, separated from his wife since the last Die Hard, is failing about to be fired. Much of the first half of the movie is Willis complaining about his hangover; whoever’s job it was to make his eyes blood shot did great work.
Once they’re teamed up, Irons changes from tasks to riddles, giving Willis and Jackson this amount of time to get to this New York location and solve this riddle. Along the way, Willis and Jackson bicker. Despite it being Willis’s franchise, Jackson is there to be the audience’s anchor. For a while, McTiernan wants Vengeance to seem reasonable… plausible… not entirely unrealistic. Soon after Irons finally shows up on screen–with mostly silent flunkies Nick Wyman and Sam Phillips (the third tier East German guys make more of an impression–Vengeance doesn’t care about its supporting villains)–Willis finally catches on to what’s going on and starts shooting people. Only, even though there were a bunch of cops around, he and Jackson are on their own now. It’s just their action movie. Albeit one with a very wide setting.
The first stunning action sequence is when Willis has to jump on a subway train. Vengeance has been pretty up until this point. Lovely photography from Peter Menzies Jr.–the film takes the passage of the sun through the day rather seriously–fine editing from John Wright, excellent production design from Jackson De Govia. But it’s not until half an hour in and Willis pulling up a subway grate and jumping down does Vengeance show off its technical expertise. Once it does, however, the floodgates are open. The scale of the subsequent action varies, but McTiernan and his crew are always executing these grandiose, complication sequences with utter success. It’s a breathtaking ride. And a lot of fun, because Willis and Jackson are a fun pair. Sure, Jonathan Hensleigh’s attempts at solving racial prejudice through male action movie bonding is exceptionally naive and occasionally way too pat, but Willis and Jackson do manage to sell it. Their performances, even when the material’s thin–like the tack on finale–are outstanding.
Ditto Irons. Irons gets to relish though. Neither Willis or Jackson have relish-worthy material. Irons just gets to run wild. He’s the action movie villain in the “realistic” action movie. Only since he’s got all these henchmen doing the action villainry (for the most part), Menzies and McTiernan just have to make sure he never looks out of place and he’s fine.
McTiernan and editor Wright do well no matter what kind of action is going on. Willis surviving a flooded tunnel has just the right amount of tension, a bomb detonating in a middle school has just the right amount of tension. McTiernan toggles between the small scale Willis in a Die Hard movie getting out a situation with the very real terror involved in the school evacuation and so on. Though, in some ways, by keeping Willis (and Jackson) separate from that impending tragedy, Vengeance is able to cop out of having Willis in a “realistic” thriller. The real stuff is juxtaposed against his adventure with missing gold and fake accented Germans and whatever else.
Besides Willis, Jackson, and Irons, the rest of the cast is similarly superb. Bryggman especially. But also Greene and Camp, who slow burn throughout the film before getting their own big sequence. Peck’s good. Kevin Chamberlin’s fun as the bomb guy. Robert Sedgwick’s one of Irons’s thugs who makes more impression than Wyman or Phillips. Heck so does Joe Zaloom as the contrived action movie flunky Willis gets late in the film. Vengeance isn’t about the supporting villains.
Most of the Willis vs. thugs action is just bridging stuff between him and Jackson moving on to their next set piece, which is fine. It distinguishes Vengeance, especially since McTiernan and his crew excel more during the set pieces. The execution of Vengeance is just as important as the content executed, which is another reason the finale is such a disappointment. It’s an exterior night sequence, which–given any thought–fails all credibility tests (even for Die Hard with a Vengeance, though especially given the work put into the film’s procedural constraints). It’s a shame the finish doesn’t live up to the rest of the film, both in terms of narrative (it’s thoughtless) and execution (the big foil is a spotlight distracting Willis).
Not a worthy finish to the previous, sublime two hours.
But Vengeance is still a success. It can’t not be, not with the heights McTiernan and Wright reach; you can’t fault an action movie too much for having a perfunctory action movie finish. To be fair, the first ending–before the tack on–is phenomenal even in its absurd grandiosity.
Good score from Michael Kamen. Great production values. Excellent performances.
In five-dollar words, Die Hard with a Vengeance is so elegantly executed, it transcends the very tropes it functions on (as well as the script’s faults). Just not through the very end.