Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 19, 2007)
When I first saw Die Hard 2: Die Harder during its theatrical release in July, 1990, I actually thought that the original had been outdone. The sequel seemed even more exciting and exhilarating than the initial offering; it appeared to pack greater thrills and spills into its two hours and it came across as a more than adequate successor to a classic.
That's what I thought the first time I saw Die Hard 2. I watched it again a few months later and the film's flaws became much more apparent to me. Eventually, it seemed clear to me that not only did it not approach the consistently high level of the first film, but overall it was a fairly mediocre offering.
During that first screening, the flaws of Die Hard 2 were hidden behind a veil of well-executed stunts and action sequences. The key to the relative failure of the sequel stems from its lack of strong villain who could approach the memory of Rickman's Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). William Sadler plays Colonel Stuart, a vaguely Ollie North-esque character who seems willing to sacrifice any number of civilians in his quest to fulfill what he sees as his duty to protect the United States. I like Sadler; he's a much more charismatic and versatile actor than one would guess from his role here. He seems bound by the nature of the character. Stuart is no charming neo-renaissance man; he's a dispassionate pseudo-zealot, really, and the role offers little opportunity for Sadler to infuse his character with any real personality.
My guess is that the producers of Die Hard 2 knew that they lacked any honest possibility of topping Hans, so they chose the opposite approach. I think they figured that Stuart would stand out simply because he was so incredibly different from Hans. Well, they were wrong. Stuart creates a credible and believable villain, but he lacks any sort of spark that might make him memorable. As a result, he becomes little more than a plot device and the audience fails to feel any real investment in what happens to him at the end of the film; yeah, we want to see him get his just desserts, but we lack any real interest in that result.
Admittedly, this was a “damned if you do” circumstance. If they’d attempted to catch lightening in a bottle and duplicate the success of Hans, they probably would have failed. This also would have made the movie look more like a cheap rip-off of the original. Still, I wish they’d tried a little harder to make Stuart more interesting; he often sucks the life out of the film.
Somewhat more compelling is the movie's subplot that involves John McClane's (Bruce Willis) need to rescue his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). Yes, in essence, the dual plots for Die Hard 2 duplicate those of the first film: 1) Stop terrorists; 2) Save wife. Of course, in both movies, subplot two is what really causes subplot one for McClane; if Holly's not involved in either story, he’d just watch the whole thing evolve on TV. But she is, and he's the only one savvy and gutsy enough to save the day.
While the Holly subplot grabs the viewer a little more strongly than do any scenes with the terrorists, it all seems somewhat contrived. The whole "déjà vu all over again" factor makes it that much harder for the audience to suspend disbelief; really, what are the chances that McClane would be in the middle of such a similar situation again? The filmmakers are savvy enough to poke fun at these extremely coincidental circumstances, but that doesn't really dissipate the inherent improbability.
Strangely, Die Hard 2 also suffers from the fact that it tries to open things up geographically more so than did the first film. Die Hard stood out from the crowd because of the claustrophobic nature of its action; McClane was physically cut off from the rest of the world as he attempted to battle the terrorists. In the sequel, McClane is in an airport and has a large supporting cast who can aid him. Unfortunately, they largely ignore his advice, so he has to go it alone.
Essentially, that plot contrivance attempts to let Die Hard 2 have its cake and eat it, too. We get a much larger stage on which McClane can perform, but we also force him to work against the system once again. While I applaud the fact that the producers tried to make Die Hard 2 something more than just a rehash of the first film, the stretches they take distance the sequel from the greatness of the original movie. For the most part, Die Hard 2 feels less like a continuation of the first story so much as it appears to be an action film that happens to involve many of the same characters.
As far as those characters go, the already-established McClane and Holly no way expand their roles from the first film. These are the exact same people we saw during the previous go-round, except the movie attempts absolutely no character development at all since we already know these folks. Obviously a sequel doesn't require the same care in regard to establishing characters, but I would have liked to see some form of growth in our protagonists. Their relationship was on the rocks in Die Hard; did it just magically cure itself during the interim?
The only other returning characters include McClane's LAPD buddy Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). However, while Powell played a major role in the first film, his part barely rates as a cameo in Die Hard 2, and this brief appearance feels forced and gratuitous. William Atherton's TV weasel Dick Thornburgh receives more substantial screentime. Unfortunately, his inclusion in the movie amounts to an extreme stretch of probability; he's put on the same plane as Holly, and thus can once again endanger her through his obsessive desire for TV journalist fame. This is one area in which the sequel duplicated the original but it really should have gone a different way; it’s absolutely unnecessary for the plot and it becomes silly.
Key among the new supporting cast is Dennis Franz, who plays a tubbier New York version of Paul Gleason's deputy police chief from the first film. Franz is a fun actor and he gets the most out of a weak part, but the role basically serves as a plot device to offer some resistance to McClane; he exists just to allow McClane to become the lone wolf. Fred Dalton Thompson performs competently but somewhat sappily in a similar role as the head of the airport; he was a nicely gruff presence before he got into politics, but he seems oddly emasculated here. Finally, Good Times veteran John Amos hams up the joint as a duplicitous Army commander; yeah, he shows more life than does Sadler, but not in a good way. I like Amos, but he lacked realism as Major Grant.
Overall, the entire cast simply seems to try too hard. Director Renny Harlin knows how to execute some remarkable stunts, but he appears to have no talent to adequately work with his actors. As I’ll note when I discuss his audio commentary, Harlin’s a very cool and technical director, and I really don’t think he knows how to evoke positive work from his actors. He seems to have realized that he could not provide any sort of genuine emotional impact in the film, so we get lots of artificial sentiment and overly emoted drama. The whole project seems imbued with a strangely pathetic aura of synthetic emotion; we see the characters experience joy, sorrow, etc., but we don't really buy it.
In the end, Die Hard 2 amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Viewed individually, it all seems to be there, but as a whole, it leaves me somewhat cold. The filmmakers try so hard to top the first movie that they forget what made Die Hard so great. As a result, that film’s formula shows up here but the sequel lacks the passion or spark of the original.
That's not to say that it's a bad film. While it doesn't hold up to repeated viewings nearly as well as does the first one, Die Hard 2 still provides an above-average level of thrills and excitement. Yes, I recognize that this attitude may seem inconsistent since I just griped about the movie for the last 13 paragraphs, but I like enough about DH2 to make it something that I still enjoy after 11 years. For all its flaws, it remains the best film made by Renny Harlin. Flicks like Deep Blue Sea and Cliffhanger display the same flaws found in DH2 but they fail to include many of that movie’s positives. On its own without comparison to the original film, DH2 can be a lot of fun, and it has enough good moments to stay fairly fun after all these years.
However, the film does little to set it apart from the crowd. Since the original appeared in 1988, many imitators have appeared, and quite a few of them are better Die Hard than is the first sequel. Frankly, I'll always take Speed or Air Force One over Die Hard 2. It’s a generally fun and entertaining film, but a number of miscalculations cause it to be less than the sum of its parts.