Make no mistake about it: John McTiernan’s original Die Hard is easily the BEST film of the franchise, and unquestionably one of the 10 best action movies of all time. However, my personal FAVORITE from the franchise will always be Die Hard: With a Vengeance. Taking the smart and credible plotting from the first entry and combining it with some of the over-the-top action of Renny Harlin’s icicle-in-the-eyeball sequel Die Hard 2: Die Harder, McTiernan returned to the series that made him famous with this brawny, beefy, explosive threequel, a film that over the last 20 years has stood the test of time as one of the most visceral, down and dirty, big-city action flicks ever produced. Shot on location in NYC, the verisimilitude of this movie is staggering, with a noticeable lack of blue-screen work, honest-to-goodness stunt-men doing their glorious, ballsiest best to defy the laws of gravity and physics for our personal amusement, with bravura hand-held camera work capturing all of the insane action, which brought an immediacy and danger to the proceedings. Shot by master action lenser Peter Menzies Jr., Die Hard: With a Vengeance is one of the roughest looking action movies ever shot. The camera is rarely not moving around (never chaotically though), always glimpsing here and there for some sort of visual information, with the anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen space constantly filled with bodies and vehicles and bullets in motion. Willis is paired up with a reluctant buddy in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s hostile and angry Zeus, a hardscrabble man living and working in Harlem who is sucked into McClane’s whirlwind of city saving escapades. The two of them have immediate chemistry and a natural rapport, with their abrasive lines of racially charged dialogue bouncing off of one another with the same intense fashion that the bullets leave McClane’s various firearms of choice. It seems that someone has a grudge against McClane and is setting off bombs all over NYC. Played with vile charisma to the extreme by Jeremy Irons, his villain is an East German terrorist with as much smarts as ruthless killing ability, and the narrative twist that the filmmakers serve up with Irons’ character brings the film full circle with the first effort.
In Die Hard: With a Vengeance, the audience is treated to one sensational action set-piece after another. After the spectacular morning rush-hour bombing of the old Bonwitt-Teller department store in downtown Manhattan, we’re treated to a live-wire chase through Central Park, we get a hair-raising car chase along a rain-soaked Saw Mill River Parkway, a variety of close-quarters (and extremely graphic) shoot-outs, any number of vicious hand-to-hand fight scenes, with one featuring Willis facing off against a hulking, heavily accented henchmen which has to go down as one of the best fights of all time. There are exploding shipping vessels, crashing helicopters, and cars that ram their way thru highway guard-rails in an effort to land on the road beneath. All of this is done with zero CGI, tons of fake-blood-filled-squibs, and a constant stream of vulgarity pouring out of the mouths of the two battered and bloodied lead heroes. This is pack-it-all-in action filmmaking at its finest, and a further reminder of the cinematic muscularity that McTiernan was tossing around in his glory days. I can remember my father picking me up from high school early on the Friday that this movie opened (I ditched the last two classes so we could see the first showing) and I can still remember sitting in the theater and watching this masterwork of pyrotechnics and entertainment, my mouth completely left in slack-jawed amazement. This is one I’ll continue to re-visit for years to come.