Saturday, 2 April 2011

Die Hard 2 (1990)

Along with Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Renny Harlin’s sequel to John McTiernan’s storied 1988 smash represented both an apotheosis and a waning point for the Hollywood action flick as it had evolved through the ‘80s. But whereas James Cameron’s blockbuster sequel saw the genre reins handed to the digital effects crew, signalling the eventual erosion of their ethos of dynamic physicality, Harlin’s film is still firmly attached to the material. But that’s not to be taken for restraint: in fact Harlin shoots far over the top, and that is its greatest asset, partly camouflaging thin writing and the recycling of a few elements too many from the first film. As such it’s the working model of the classic sequel, being the same, but with more of it. Or, as hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) puts it, summarising the entire continent of action sequels, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” McClane here, having successfully patched up his marriage to Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and moved to LA to become a cop there, is now back on the eastern seaboard. In Washington DC so that his family can spend the holidays with Holly’s parents, he’s waiting for Holly to arrive by plane at Dulles Airport, which is operating in the midst of a blizzard and the delirious Christmas rush. Unfortunately another passenger flying in to the airport has a very different welcoming committee. Former dictator and drug lord Gen. Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), recently ousted from his home nation, is now being deported to stand trial in the US, and due at the airport during the night.

A team of treacherous American special forces soldiers, led by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), determined to save Esperanza for his “willingness to stand up to Communist aggression” and a presumably handsome pay check, use a secret base in a nearby church to hack into the airport’s control tower systems and take them over, threatening to crash planes unless they’re allowed to take Esperanza off the plane and fly out again unmolested. John, noticing the peculiar behaviour of some of Stuart’s men in the airport terminal, surprises them in the midst some apparently nefarious business and immediately gets into a battle, killing one. The airport police captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) dismisses McClane’s feeling they were up to something bigger than luggage thievery, and just as McClane finds a sympathetic ear in the person the airport administrator Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson), the airport is still completely unprepared when Stuart takes control. An attempt by Trudeau’s assistant Barnes (Art Evans) to use another communications system in the airport to contact the planes sees his accompanying SWAT team wiped out by three of Stuart’s planted men, and Barnes is only saved by McClane, who, recognising the opportunity for ambush, sneaks up through a ventilator shaft and takes the villains by surprise. Infuriated, Stuart decides to teach the controllers a lesson and deliberately crashes an airbus, killing hundreds of people.

Whilst Harlin and DOP Oliver Wood mimic McTiernan’s and Jan de Bont’s stylistics, essayed in the same crisply defined but saturated colours, with similar evocations of intensely physical extremes, and a voluble feel for the inward mechanics of the modern world’s seemingly serene music of the technocratic spheres, the differences are discernible. Harlin’s innately excessive, flashy style, which soon be let off the leash in films as bad as The Long Kiss Goodnight (1994) and Cutthroat Island (1995) before finding a kind of perfect median of nonsense with Deep Blue Sea (1999), was tethered here to a solid design template. There’s a strong continuity in recurring motifs and characterisation thanks to the screenplay by Steven E. De Souza (collaborating with Doug Richardson rather than Jeb Stuart this time). The disparity comes more in the disjunction between McTiernan’s sharply handled violence, spotted with gritty realism but also judicious, compared to Harlin’s orgiastic readiness to cut away to gory money shots of dead victims riddled with bullet holes, sliced throats, or icicles jammed in their eye sockets. Harlin’s yahoo staging of action scenes approaches the operatic, McClane leaping and rolling whilst firing a gun in a way that suggests John Woo without the accompanying auteurist peccadilloes. Die Hard 2 moved the series further away from a noir-ish situational dynamic decorated rather than dominated by set-pieces, to sheer Republic serial-like gallivanting.

Thus the combative verbal byplay shared by McClane and Hans Gruber and the interestingly emotion-fuelled battle between McClane and Karl in the original give way to far more functional, speedily defined characterisations. Sadler is polarising in his playing of compact psychopathy masquerading as hard-ass patriotism, but except for Nero’s charismatic but brief turn as Esperanza, none of the villains possess anything like Gruber’s mordant humour and inspired personality. John Amos, as Major Grant, Stuart’s former CO assigned to bring him down but really in league with him, is almost unable to keep a smirk off his face in playing his janus-faced role. Bedelia and William Atherton as sleazy hack journalist foil Dick Thornburg do their best to make their repetitious roles, both being trapped on the same airplane together at the eye of the crisis, still bounce. Bedelia tosses the same disdainful quips Thornburg’s way as she offered Gruber (“Writing your acceptance speech for the Video Sleaze Awards?”), and Thornburg tries to scoop the story broadcasting from the plane toilet, thus instituting a rather different mile high club, but neither can make this feel anything less than cheesy recycling, and Bedelia is stuck in an even more passive role. When Harlin cuts to her crossing herself in anticipation of the plane’s final desperate attempts to land, he comes perilously close to self-satire.

Nonetheless, Die Hard 2 is still a helluva ride, and largely thanks to the fact that Harlin has no shame. The story (actually adapted from Walter Wager’s novel 58 Minutes) reiterates the basic dynamic that made the original stick out: hero with a personal stake + villains + large piece of infrastructure to be exploited as thoroughly as possible. That infrastructure is the airport and its snow-crusted surrounds, and the atmosphere of chilly weather and hot blood and explosions is beautifully sustained. Harlin and Wood maintain the right contrast of deceptive cosiness and hyped-up horror in the yuletide setting, warm interiors and frigid exteriors constantly clashing. The carnage spread by the bad guys is absurd yet potent and widespread, from nice old caretakers to nice young replacement soldiers. Particularly in the sequence on board the British airplane Stuart decides to crash (piloted by Colm Meaney!), full of nervous old woman, children, and sweet stewardesses all ready to get iced, he delivers with such enthusiastic, cold-blooded aplomb you’re not certain whether he deserves plaudits or a trial. He even goes for the old doll-in-the-wreckage gag. A post-9/11 perspective certainly makes it seem less cartoonishly supervillainous and therefore less forgivable: the suspicion this sort of blockbuster gave real terrorists ideas is hard to dispel. But then again the degree to which this sort of action film is a sort of training ground for the psyche in dealing with crises – a notion mooted sarcastically but with some perception by Hans in the original in taunting John about the kinds of movies he liked as a kid – as opposed to mere showman’s claptrap is also just as worth considering. McClane’s quick-thinking, guerrilla-style approach to tackling terrorists as opposed to gallumphing SWAT teams walking in the front door is a reasonable warning about how to deal with the cleverer terrors of the contemporary world.

McClane is at his most unbreakable, a little too much so to be quite as empathetically plebeian as he was at the outset, although he still swears and does battle with same unapologetic lack of class. He survives freefalls from helicopters and exploding snowmobiles, and takes out coteries of machine gun-wielding baddies with his police automatic and a few good kicks. McClane’s brief working partnership with a Rent-A-Car officer (Lauren Letherer) which turns briefly flirtatious more than faintly recalls Bogart’s encounter with Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep (1946), even as our hero establishes his safely married status with another retro reference, this time to Joe Friday. Sporting a score once more by Michael Kamen, repeating his familiar brass and pizzicato-strings themes, whereas the first film was tied together by the ironic leitmotif of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, here it’s Sibelius’s “Finlandia” (doubtless a touch approved by its Finnish director). The script likewise repeats themes of the original, with quiet revisions. The idiotic, obstructionist policing in Die Hard is here pushed further with Franz’s Carmine as the archetypal jealous bureaucrat who quite happily calls himself the big fish in the small pond and spends most of the movie blocking and irritating McClane. This leads to the compulsory moment of degradation – actually, several of them, but most especially when Grant tells off Carmine for constantly abusing “Mr McClane”. But this is tweaked in the end as Grant proves to be in league with Stuart and Carmine comes on board when convinced of the duplicity and sets out to “kick ass!” Likewise, Thornburg is here balanced out by Sheila McCarthy’s more responsible chase-and-face reporter Sam Coleman, who gets dissed by both Stuart and McClane with practically the same profane kiss-off, and dismissed by one of Stuart’s lackeys as a “pinko bitch”. But she proves a helpful pinko bitch, helping McClane zoom after the bad guys in the finale in her station’s news chopper, and doing what Thornburg would never do, covering her cameraman’s lens when John and Holly embrace in the finale.

The eventual impression, bolstered by future Presidential wash-out Thompson’s performance as the rock-solid, competent, conscientious Trudeau, and the plucky, inventive Barnes (who partly fills in the role of McClane’s African-American side-kick a la Reginald VelJohnson in the original: VelJohnson’s Al Powell reappears briefly, helping McClane identify a perp’s fingerprints over the fax) is of a film less bitingly cynical about modern institutional authority. On the other hand, the basic plot motif of fascistic military types beleaguered by their country’s waning enthusiasm for Cold War heroics and turning traitorous, which would later be recycled in the likes of The Rock (1996), is an interesting if soft-pedalled follow-on to the Eurotrash baddies of the first instalment. Stuart’s team contains eye-catching members Robert Patrick, Vondie Curtis Hall, and John Leguizamo. The rebel theme is cutely borne out by the Civil War referencing names of Stuart and Grant. McClane is, on the other hand, again associated with the heroism of WW2: “Just like Iwo Jima!” shouts Marvin (Tom Bower), an airport janitor and presumably a veteran who bestows this beatifying battle cry on McClane and Carmine as they ride off to action. Esperanza, obviously modelled on Manuel Noriega, and his collusion with the Americans carries the unmistakeable whiff of being based on the Iran-Contra scandal, whilst carefully making it clear this is a rogue operation. That was one of the strengths of these early instalments: their clear basis and pointed perspective on topical geopolitical inspirations. The down-and-dirty battle of good and evil reaches an apotheosis in the relish with which Harlin has McClane bite a hunk out of Stuart’s hand and spit it back in his face, and Grant finishes up whisked into a thousand pieces by turbine.

The film’s action scenes are its raison d’etre, and it’s all systems go there, from McClane’s first luggage-ramp combat to the brilliant snowmobile chase over a frozen lake. Some scenes are so hilariously silly they achieve a kind of awe, especially when the baddies, having bottled McClane up in an airplane cockpit, toss in grenades, requiring him to use the ejector seat to escape just in time, hurled up into the sky just above the roiling fireball. And that’s without mentioning the comeuppance McClane gives to the collected villains, the sort of moment that the Mythbusters have probably tried to test and declared impossible, yet it’s hard to care, because Harlin screws both the tension and two major plot points up into a tight wad at this point, delivering both an aptly sticky end for the baddies and a landing light for the aircraft desperately needing to land. The whole thing is both spectacular and spectacularly illogical, for the plot has holes you could pilot a 747 through, and the excess reaches overkill at points. It is however an arch display of Hollywood production on the most massive of scales, where jet liners are playthings for cinema fantasy. Whilst the whole affair isn’t up to the standard of its predecessor, it possesses a rugged lustre and infernal intensity that Hollywood can’t wield anymore when it insists on blowing stuff up.


Sam Juliano said...

It's been years since I saw this sequel Rod, but it seems that flaws are meaningless when you have top-flight, exhilarating entertainment like this. This is one instance (much like ALIEN/ALIENS)where the sequel for all intents and purposes matches up favorably with the original. There are little things I remember about the cop with the twinkie fetish and the character traits of the Alan Rickman character. Anyway, thanks for the trip down Memory Lane with this fabulously-penned examination of a film and trilogy that has now achieved cult status in the action/adventure realm.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Sam;

Yeah, they're a lot of fun, and as I've said, I like the sheer ballsiness of these films, their tactile, gloves-off rudeness, but still being quite well-written and possessed of an integrity that put them far ahead of the Stallone and Seagal style of action flick. Watching the atrociously weak pastiche of Machete last week really put across to me how much I miss this kind of film. In any event, whilst I've noted how it doesn't possess the same organic richness as the original, it does, as you say, stand up with the likes of Aliens as a top-flight follow-up. Maybe one day I'll get around to writing about Die Hard With a Vengeance just to tie it all up.

J.D. said...

Wow, I haven't watched this film in ages but I do remember enjoying the hell out of it last time I did. yeah, this is big, dumb fun but so what? The filmmakers go for it all the way and it's hard not to get caught up in the spectacle of it all.

As for Harlin, I will admit that THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT is a guilty pleasure. Hated it the first couple of times I watched it but repeated viewings on cable have worn me down and I actually enjoy the ballsiness of certain sequences, like watching Samuel L. Jackson get launched out of a building on a chair by an explosion! He makes the film for me with all of his sarcastic retorts and incredulous facial expressions after surviving a particularly insane action sequence.

Anyways, enjoyed the hell out of this review. I haven't thought about this film in ages.

Roderick Heath said...

I may give The Long Kiss Goodnight a second shot one of these days, but my one attempt to watch it on TV one night just didn't light my fire. It certainly wouldn't be unusual for Jackson to make the film watchable. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the review.

Troy Olson said...

Wow, it was over 20 years ago that this came out. I miss this era of blockbuster, non-CGI action films -- I really haven't gotten too excited about most action films post-THE ROCK, whereas during the early 90's I made it a point to see just about every action film that came out. Now I sound like an old man.

Not sure what more I can say about the review -- to get this many intelligent words out of DIE HARD 2 is an impressive feat. Great stuff, as always.

Roderick Heath said...

Yeah, 20 years...even I feel old and was still a tween when it came out. But yes, I miss them too, Troy. In a funny way, and I recall thinking this and even arguing it when I was a young and budding film buff, that was a quality to '80s style action movies that was not dissimilar to '50s westerns, the sense of aesthetic give and take, the clash between the raw meathead movies (Rambo Cobra, Commando), and the artful, even satirical ones (Robocop, The Running Man. The Die Hard flicks occupied a kind of middle ground quite successfully. And I agree that The Rock was pretty well the last of the breed, already (d)evolving thanks to Michael Bay's onanistic stylings at the helm.

kenjfuj said...

I just came across this post, Rod. This perfectly encapsulates my own thoughts on Die Hard 2, and why I continue to defend the film to this day, even as popular opinion seems to have turned against it in favor of, say, Die Hard With a Vengeance. The first Die Hard is still the best, but this is just as entertaining in different ways. And as I commented on your Ferdy on Films post on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I think Die Hard 2 occupies a similar place in the Die Hard quartet that Temple of Doom does in the Indiana Jones series: the darker and gleefully, delirious over-the-top follow-up to a relatively saner, straighter original.