DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE

Dir: John McTiernan
Ed: John Wright, A.C.E.
St: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irons

(*) (*) (*) ( )

It's about midway through DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE when Zeus, played by Samuel L. Jackson, asks Bruce Willis's John McClane, covered with distasteful grue, if he's OK.

"I'm alright," Willis responds. "It's not my blood."

That pretty much sums up the operating principles of DIE HARD 3, a focused bloody action machine of a movie. The film is so tightly trained on Willis's cop caricature that nothing else beyond his status as everyday guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances - again - matters. No mention is made of the number of casualties when a New York City department store is blown to bits in the middle of the day; we're told no one is killed when an explosion sends a subway car careening through a Wall Street station; subsequent acts of brutality are just par for the course. McClane gets bloodier and grimier, but he just likens himself to the Energizer Bunny and takes on another thug.

Only when the mad bomber suggests that schoolchildren will be the target of his next attack does anybody's death seem to matter. Oh yeah -- the mad bomber. The story, such as it is, concerns a German military type (Jeremy Irons) who blows up a midtown Manhattan department store and then phones in to police headquarters demanding to speak to McClane, who has been suspended from the force in an alcoholic haze. A police shrink explains to the cops and the audience that this German guy is a psychopath with an obvious vendetta against McClane. Somehow McClane got on the terrorist's bad side, and the bomber's now out to make his life hell, sending him charging uptown and downtown, beating the clock and solving riddles and brain teasers to find and defuse bombs in the city.

The first half of the movie is delicious -- especially so, I suspect, for New York audiences, who are treated to a terrific paranoid fantasy set in familiar locations. One great scene involves a pay phone and a trash can at 72nd and Broadway, and another shows why the quickest route downtown is through Central Park. It's a little disconcerting to see Willis wandering through Harlem in his underwear and a sandwich board boasting a racial epithet -- the bomber's first attempt at humiliating him and perhaps getting him killed -- as though Quentin Tarantino has now made movie houses safe for slurs. It's not so much the use of an ugly word as it is the feeling that the scenario was borne from laziness, a need to jump-start a script (by allowing pawn-shop owner Jackson to save Willis's life) that takes a few halfhearted NYC-style swipes at racial issues.

Fortunately, DIE HARD 3 has inventive performers backing up Willis's star turn, since they have to make up for Jonathan Hensleigh's script, which is lacking in almost every regard. Jackson extracts a real soul from Hensleigh's Angry Black Man (With a Heart of Gold) paper doll, and becomes the high- strung nerve center of this movie in the same way that he was the pumping heart driving Tarantino's PULP FICTION. Irons -- ever the trooper -- has it even worse, in a role that should be clever and snide but is instead reliant on Hensleigh's rote dialogue. Worse, we're never sure whether his stated intention of revenging himself on Willis is a red herring, since the connection between them is so incidental and contrived that it matters not one whit to the story (which was not originally a DIE HARD film). Irons never has the good sense to have his adversary shot in the head when the opportunity presents itself, but at least the script never puts him and Willis together in a little room to beat the crap out of one another. That's something.

But let's face it. The script, tepid as it is, is just a coat hanger for Willis's bloody, grimy, T-shirted exploits, and the exploits are pretty fantastic. DIE HARD director John McTiernan, brought back alive after his foray into megabomb territory with THE LAST ACTION HERO, takes some interesting chances with straightforward material. The best scene by far is an ultraviolent set piece in an elevator that shows the clear influence of Hong Kong crime films, perhaps by way of (him again) Tarantino. The culmination of one long scene in an aqueduct is a cartoony coincidence that qualifies oddly as dream logic. Editor John Wright undertakes some energetic crosscutting as the New York police force and Willis, many miles away, both work to defuse an especially nasty bomb, and we get some artsy time compression in the weirdest places, courtesy a series of jump cuts and funny dissolves.

The verdict? What we have here is a pretty good movie that falls apart as it moves toward its episodic conclusion, as though whole sections of the story were dumped. The story and especially the dialogue are major liabilities (as is Michael Kamen's stupid, militaristic score), but we're treated to the work of performers who can pull it out in a pinch. Did we mention Bruce Willis? Anyone who still has the chutzpah to argue with Willis-as-working-class-hero just doesn't understand American action movies -- and his solid performances in PULP FICTION and the wonderful NOBODY'S FOOL prove that he is, indeed, very talented. This one's a good, exciting flick, and it probably bodes well for the future of action movies that have a little more there there, if you know what I mean. And I hope these folks understand that we really, really, don't need to see DIE HARD 4.


DEEP FOCUS (formerly The Flicker Archive)
http://www.deep-focus.com/index.html
Reviews by Bryant Frazer
bryant@deep-focus.com