Carl takes a retrospective look back to what is arguably one of the greatest sequels of all-time
The original ‘Die Hard‘ was something that seemed to come out of nowhere. An action film that was released in the Summer of 1988 (although it was set at Christmas), it wasn’t thought of being what it became. The action film that redefined the genre. It was, strangely not released in the United Kingdom until February of 1989, by which time I had heard so much about it that I couldn’t wait to get into a cinema screen and see it. After the first twenty minutes, I thought ‘what’s so special about this? It’s nothing out of the ordinary’. And then the gunfire started. And I was blown away. The film was a breathtaking and brilliant film to sit in a movie theatre and experience. And that was exactly what it was, an experience that those who have only seen the film on TV will never understand or appreciate. By the time the film was (or so I thought) over, I had no breath left. And then the unexpected denouement happened that made the entire audience throw themselves back into their seats, the re-emergence of Karl to kill Bruce Willis’ character of John McClane. And nobody shifted in their seats after that until the end credits rolled.
With the film opening in the UK in 1989, I had only a seventeen-month wait until the inevitable sequel rolled around. Based loosely on the Walter Wager novel ’58 Minutes’ of which it shared certain scenarios, ‘Die Hard 2: Die Harder‘ was another complete blast, another one that needed to be seen in a big movie theatre with an audience and great surround sound speakers. I saw it for the first time in London’s Odeon Leicester Square late on a Thursday evening with a packed, sold-out crowd. And we loved it. However, on the way out, I bumped into an American tourist and her boyfriend who confided in me that although they enjoyed it, they thought the first one was better. I didn’t agree at the time as the film was still fresh in my mind but over time, I have to admit, they did have a point. Although the film is an amazing, thrilling, funny, and violent thrill ride, it can’t quite reach the standards or the sheer power of the original. It suffers slightly from the lack of surprise that the original gave the world which is unfair to the film. It also seems like this. The original film was, figuratively, serving Cheeseburger and Home Fries for lunch then serving the sequel up as home fries and cheeseburger for dinner and telling the diners its a different dish. But that is to the film’s advantage. It’s like the ‘Star Wars‘ argument that raged with the release of the sequel trilogy. To some, it’s bad because it’s too much like the original. To others, it’s bad because it’s NOT like the original, that it’s been changed too much. The audience can be so fickle at times.
The film suffers slightly as it dispenses with the claustrophobia that the original had to open the scenario up and not confine it inside one area. Whereas the original had us wincing at some of the tight spaces McClane found himself in, here we are allowed to roam pretty freely. But the film pulls it off extremely well regardless. And something else that distracted the audience this time around was the way they made Willis’ character into the working man’s James Bond. On several occasions during proceedings, McClane gets out of situations that 007 often finds himself in. They ‘Bondified’ McClane somewhat and this made the character never seem to be in any real danger. Willis actually wanted to kill off McClane at the film’s climax, a request that was rightfully denied. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Willis is thanking his lucky stars that they didn’t kill McClane as he has made a nice tidy sum out of playing him the five times he has and with a potential sixth film on the horizon, guaranteeing Willis another bumper pay packet and probable box office hit.
We all know the story by now. It’s Christmas in Washington and John McClane is waiting at Dulles International Airport to greet his wife as she arrives on a flight from Los Angeles. McClane witnesses a sneaky under the table exchange between three men and follows two of them to investigate into the baggage area of the airport. The pair open up on McClane with automatic weapons, forcing McClane to fight for his life and eventually killing one of the men. Sneakily taking the dead guys fingerprints after his warnings to Chief Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz, excellent here), the Airport Police Captain, McClane is alarmed to discover that the dead man is an American soldier reportedly killed in Honduras. A former U.S Special Forces Colonel, William Stuart (William Sadler) is planning to cripple the airport while awaiting the arrival of General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a drug lord and dictator of Val Verde. (Hold on, didn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger destroy the army that attempted a coup of Val Verde in ‘Commando‘?) It’s more than likely considering the writer of both films was Steven E. DeSouza! Anyway, after a shootout between McClane and some of Stuart’s men on a skywalk, Stuart causes a British airliner to crash into the runway at the airport by resetting ground control to minus 200 feet, killing all on board. An army unit is sent to assist the airport and tackle the terrorists, all the while, the planes above are forced to circle and rapidly run out of fuel including McClane’s wife’s plane.
The film was the first to use digitally composited live-action footage along with a matte painting that had been scanned into a computer, the final scene which took place on a runway. The film’s budget was $62-70million with $7.5million going to Willis as a salary for playing McClane for the second time. The film earned (in 1990s monetary terms) a whopping $240million worldwide which was almost double the box office haul of the original film. It was also re-released internationally in 1993 and made a further $216, 339 in box office receipts. The film became the seventh highest-grossing film of 1990, behind such classic fare as ‘Total Recall‘, ‘Back To The Future Part III’ and ‘Dances With Wolves‘. The film wasn’t as highly reviewed as the original film but still gained decent reviews and audiences lapped it up. In the UK, the film was cut down by 30 seconds, removing most of the strong language and a chunk of the gorier violence to gain a less restrictive ’15’ rating instead of the ’18’ the film would have gotten otherwise and thereby allowing it to be seen by a wider audience. The film was eventually released on VHS in its uncut form and is now widely available unedited in the UK.
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Now, I love the film. It doesn’t hold up as well as the original but it is still, to my mind, the second-best film in the franchise. It is completely enjoyable and some of the events that happen during the film are as thrilling as some of the set pieces from the first film. It does suffer slightly from not having John McTiernan on directorial duties, handing them over to Renny Harlin before returning to direct the third film, ‘Die Hard With A Vengeance‘ in 1995. But Harlin did a spectacular job with the material he was given and made an excellent follow-up to the quintessential action film of them all. Adding to the fun was an outstanding performance from William Sadler, all bluster, nastiness but charming at the same time as Colonel Stuart as well as appearances from Colm Meaney, Chief O’ Brien from TV’s ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation‘ as the pilot of the British Airliner and future T-1000 Robert Patrick as O’Reilley, another one of Stuart’s henchmen. With some pretty nasty deaths to boot (an icicle through the eye, a vicious throat-cutting, a head crush, etc), the film is an enjoyable way to waste two hours while savoring some classic action sequences. With the addition of legendary actor Franco Nero (who I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to at last year’s London Film & Comic Con and found him to be a charming and friendly man), the film stands out as one of the better sequels in the action genre.
Thirty years ago, the film made its bow around the world. It still seems like only yesterday that I was sitting in an expensive seat in a cinema in London’s West End, surrounded by like-minded film fans and enjoying what turned out to be one of the Summer movie highlights of 1990. They sure don’t make them like this anymore. And more’s the pity.
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Carl Roberts is a Senior Staff Writer and Books and Literature Correspondent for The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter @CarlRoberts2 where he uses the force frequently!