I’m guessing you have an issue with the title of this article. In fact, so do I. While I presume most of my many readers (literally dozens) feel that the first Die Hard is vastly superior to the third entry, I hate that I have to refer to Die Hard as a franchise. With just three films I could have said trilogy, with four I can get away with quadrilogy (which is a word that was made up purely to put on DVD box sets) but with five films I have to start using the ‘f word’ to describe the series. Maybe if the franchise had maintained a level of quality it wouldn’t bother me but the legacy of the action franchise has been tainted somewhat by the last couple of films, one of which is ‘meh’ and the other actively awful, and it’s easy to mistakenly throw Die Hard with a Vengeance in the trash with 4 and 5. However the more I watch Die Hard with a Vengeance the more I grow convinced that not only is it the best sequel, but it just might be better than the original movie too.
For a Die Hard sequel to truly transcend the original it has to break free from the one location gimmick. Sure, it worked perfectly for the first film which is now a vital part of film canon but Die Hard 2 showed just how quickly the series would be driven into the ground if the gimmick continued. I like Die Hard 2 to a degree but once again setting the film in one location felt restrictive and came close to remake material, particularly with John McClane’s wife Holly once again in danger. There is some fear of losing what made Die Hard special by expanding the world and moving the location to New York City (and the Canadian border) like ‘Vengeance’ does but the key was that the audience was now familiar of Bruce Willis’s John McClane and the franchise rightfully could focus on him as the crux of the movie rather than the one-location gimmick and bringing back the director of the first film, John McTiernan, helped with this too.
‘Vengeance’ also has a slight genre shift which works in its favour; the temptation would be to make the film a straight up action movie like its predecessors but instead it feels much more like a thriller, and a racially-charged one at that. The film was never supposed to be a Die Hard film, originally it would be its own property called ‘Simon Says’ and the original script was later converted to include the characters of John McClane and villain Simon Gruber, brother of Hans Gruber from the first film. The film sees McClane unintentionally team up with Samuel L Jackson’s character Zeus Carver as they play a deadly game of Simon Says, finding and disarming bombs while the villains use it as a distraction to steal billions in gold bullion. Our hero characters are almost always on the move, whether in a taxi, car, truck, boat or helicopter, which creates an incredible pace to the film which has rarely been beat. The film is essentially an extended chase sequence, first a rush to the bombs, then a bank and then after the bad guys in the second hour and I love a good chase film; Live and Let Die is my favourite Bond film and is one chase after another (while also being racially-charged, this time in a Blaxploitation manner) and even Temple of Doom which is my favourite Indy film has those attributes.
The one thing I’ve not seen anyone online talk about is the superb editing in ‘Vengeance’ which is a travesty. Cutting back and forth between two storylines in movies can ruin a film’s momentum, just look at Star Trek: First Contact which was released at around the same time in the 1990’s. While I like the film and Jonathan ‘two-takes’ Frakes as a director there are some jarring moments as we cut between the action on the Enterprise and the slower story points on Earth. ‘Vengeance’ however is edited to perfection, cutting from action scenes like McClane in a fistfight, to the evacuation of a school due to a bomb scare, to Zeus confronting the villain and back to the school to where the bomb is being disarmed, managing to keep the break neck pace and with the cuts even adding to the tension rather taking away as it builds to a big reveal which effects every character in each location. I’m racking my brains trying to think of a film that does it better and only recent Christopher Nolan efforts such as Inception and the newly released Dunkirk come close.
With all the epic tension, the film at its heart doesn’t forget what it actually is: a nineties action movie. For all the terrorism and politics the film dabbles in, it is, for lack of a better term, absolutely ridiculous. Like other nineties classics such as True Lies, the film features characters surviving impossible falls, comedic characters like the nerdy explosives expert (who should have been played by Wayne Knight), random ramps for cars to jump impossible distances off of, mysterious-sunglasses wearing-spectacle-chewing FBI guys for plot exposition, bad guys with quirky medical issues, logic problems and one liners. All of this equates to one of the most rewatchable films of all time which despite the dark themes maintains at its heart a level of undeniable fun.
‘Vengeance’ also has one of my favourite movie villains in Simon Gruber played by Jeremy Irons. He chews scenery just as much as he does aspirins for his migraines and his half-German half-English accent is so bad it’s brilliant; he even does an American accent at one stage which I can’t decide if it was supposed to be bad or not. His chemistry with his co-stars is fantastic and his personal vendetta against McClane (avenging the death of his brother) is classic villain 101. He reminds me of Khan from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan just without the literary quotes and I may even go so far as to say he is better than Khan, or at least more intelligent. Gruber is on a quest of revenge but is still able to think logically and focuses on getting away (which he does, for a while) instead of murder/suicide.
I also have to mention the music from the film, whether it’s ‘Summer in the City’ which blares as the very nineties title slams onto the screen with a satisfying sound effect at the film’s beginning or the use of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ during the great heist sequence and over the credits. Not the best argument for the film being the best in the series but I had to bring it up: the soundtrack is brilliant.
All the preceding points are trying to convince you why ‘Vengeance’ is a great and underrated film (only 51% on Rotten Tomatoes) but this next point is why I believe it to be better than the first Die Hard film. While McClane is a cool character by himself, whether he’s crawling through air vents in a skyscraper while muttering to himself about feeling like a TV dinner or doing the exact same thing two years later in an airport he is best when interacting with another character allowing us to really get to know him and adding some needed humour and humanity. Maybe I’m alone in this but I never connected with his interactions with the “I shot a kid” Cop from the first Die Hard with them being forced and stagnant however the relationship between John and Zeus in ‘Vengeance’ is perfect. They both start out at odds, constantly arguing, but as the film progresses their joint experiences solving riddles, defusing bombs and accidently cutting someone in half, creates a genuine friendship and bond. McClane helps Zeus confront his racism while Zeus helps McClane with his family problems and relationship with his estranged wife Holly. Their dynamic from enemies to ‘buddy cop’ style connection is why, in my eyes, Die Hard with a Vengeance transcends the first film in the franchise.
So there you have it, that’s why I believe Die Hard with a Vengeance is the best film in the series. Am I right or am I an idiot? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about movies on Twitter @kylebrrtt.