The 1980s action blockbuster movie was dominated by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme (among others) – muscle-bound one-man armies that killed scores of bad guys with guns, brawn and cheesy one-liners. Along came Bruce Willis in 1988 with Die Hard, tweaking the formula by playing a guy perpetually in way over his head, tired, hurt, and using his brains as much if not more than his brawn to defeat the bad guys. Audiences were drawn to his tough yet vulnerable wisecracking character John McClane. The movie was a massive success and the inevitable sequel followed. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) didn’t stray too far from the first one (why bother messing with a good thing?) except to amp up the stunts, the body count and the explosions all the way to the bank, easily outgrossing the original.
“Merry Christmas, pal!” are the words uttered early on in the movie as John McClane’s day starts off on a sour note and will only get worse as his car is ticketed and towed despite his good-humored protests to a cop that clearly doesn’t care about his problems. It’s Christmas Eve and McClane is at Washington Dulles International Airport to pick up his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). This lack of cooperation from local law enforcement is nothing new for McClane who faced plenty of it in Die Hard and it is also foreshadows the interference he’ll experience later on in this movie.
Meanwhile, General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a drug lord and dictator of Val Verde by way of Manuel Noriega, is scheduled to be extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking. However, rogue U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) and a team of mercenaries take control of the airport effectively shutting them down, which leaves several planes, including the one with Holly on it, circling and running low on fuel. Stuart plans to let Esperanza’s plane land and then demands a 747 be prepped for take-off at which point they will use it to rescue the drug lord.
Naturally, McClane receives a ton of grief from head of airport police Captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) who doesn’t like some hot dog gloryhound cop treading all over his turf. Dennis Franz is at his profane best, dropping F-bombs with gusto. Watching him and Willis trade insults inserts some much welcome levity amidst the bombastic action sequences. Here’s a memorable exchange early on:
Lorenzo: “Yeah, I know all about you and that Nakatomi thing in L.A. But just ‘cos the T.V. thinks you’re hot shit don’t make it so. Look, you’re in my little pond, now and I am the big fish that runs it. So you cap some low-life. Fine. I’ll send your fucking captain in L.A. a fucking commendation. Now, in the meantime you get the hell out of my office before I get you thrown out of my goddamn airport.”
McClane: “Hey Carmine, let me ask you something. What sets off the metal detectors first: the lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?”
Franz is that rare breed of actor that can casually insert profanity in his dialogue and make it flow like poetry. I almost imagine him flying in his buddy David Mamet on the studio’s dime to write his dialogue. It has that vibe to it. Of course, McClane spends the rest of the movie making him looking stupid.
This being a sequel, the novelty of the original has worn off and McClane seems a little more invincible in this one, but Bruce Willis does what he can to make his character relatable and have flaws, like when he is unable to redirect a plane that the bad guys intentionally crash. We empathize with his frustration at being unable to save the plane and his dejected, defeated face says it all. The movie does its job (maybe a little too well) of making Stuart and his men so evil that you want to see McClane take them all out.
William Sadler plays yet another in a long line of villains with his rogue colonel being a peculiar badass so comfortable with his own body that he practices his martial arts in the nude, which also happens to show off his impressively sculpted physique. It certainly is a memorable introduction to his character. Sadler plays Stuart as ruthless man not above disciplining failure by pointing a loaded gun at a subordinate’s face or, in a particularly nasty move, cause a plane full of innocent people to crash and burn on a runway.
William Atherton and Bonnie Bedelia return as a smug journalist and McClane’s wife respectively, spending the entire movie trapped on an airplane together trading barbs. Among the mercenaries keep your eyes peeled for a young Robert Patrick (T2), a clean-shaven Mark Boone Jr. (Tree’s Lounge), John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope).
Much like in the first Die Hard, McClane demonstrates an uncanny knack for improvisation as evident in the first action sequence when he takes on two mercenary thugs in the baggage handling section. After he loses his gun, McClane uses a golf club and then a bicycle to take out one baddie and chase off the other. What I also like is that we see the air traffic controllers problem solve their way around Stuart and his men through good ol’ fashioned ingenuity.
Doug Richardson and Steven E. de Souza’s screenplay has just enough nods to the first movie to let us know that the filmmakers are aware that Die Hard 2 is basically a variation on the original only bigger and louder, symbolized by the iconic money shot (that is equal parts ridiculous and cool) of McClane ejecting out of a plane as it is exploding and him saying at one point, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” The movie ups the ante in many respects as he faces even greater odds and is put in even greater danger.
Watching Die Hard 2 again is a potent reminder of a time when Willis still cared about acting and didn’t phone it in like he’s done in the last two movies in the franchise that don’t deserve the Die Hard moniker. Most fans agree that they should have stopped with Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), which was a fitting way to end things on a high note but as long as they make money and Willis is up for it there will be another installment in this tired franchise.