As the summer’s large-scale testosterone thrillers blast their way into view with all the subtlety of Molotov cocktails, it’s worth recalling that the prototype of the modern action roller coaster, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, featured Cary Grant getting crop-dusted and dangling from the presidential nostrils of Mount Rushmore — and that the movie was able to unleash these delirious, world-spinning-out-of-control antics with elegance and wit, and with a spirit of sheer play. The same can’t be said of Die Hard With a Vengeance or Braveheart, the latest megabuck orgies of high-style machismo. Each works overtime to deliver its share of thriller bang, and each features a star who radiates all the essential qualities of a contemporary action hero: brawn, daring, a Zen cowboy ease — and, most important, the uncanny ability to look good in blood. To different degrees, though, both films tread a fine line between exhilaration and exhaustion.
The second sequel to the film that made Bruce Willis a movie star, Die Hard With a Vengeance takes off from a premise fraught with tension and comedy. A German terrorist mastermind (Jeremy Irons) begins to set chemical bombs all over Manhattan. But he’s also a sick prankster who develops a mysterious obsession with Willis’ John McClane. Speaking in perverse Dr. Seussian rhymes, he toys with McClane like a villain on the old Batman TV series, sending him on a mad chase through the city and threatening to detonate more bombs if McClane doesn’t comply.
First, he orders McClane onto a Harlem street corner wearing a sandwich board that reads ”I Hate Niggers.” When our hero is rescued from this ugly-funny predicament by a local repair-shop owner (Samuel L. Jackson), whose gutbucket humanity overrides the fact that he doesn’t much like white people, the two men are forced to team up and unravel a riddle within 30 seconds (with the threat of explosion hanging over their heads). They end up in a hell-bent car chase through Central Park, whereupon McClane proceeds to slither aboard a speeding subway train and toss an exploding bomb out the window, just in time to confront yet another riddle, and then another, bigger bomb. Did I mention the trip to Yankee Stadium and the plot to rob the Federal Reserve bank?
The fun of the first Die Hard lay in the claustrophobic ingenuity with which director John McTiernan confined the movie to that one labyrinthine skyscraper. In Die Hard With a Vengeance, McTiernan stages individual sequences with great finesse (there’s a terrific bit with Willis and five thugs in an elevator), yet they don’t add up to a taut, dread-ridden whole. The plot is a Rube Goldberg machine, a series of interlocked thriller devices that grow increasingly arbitrary as the movie goes on. And talk about action that makes no sense! Willis gets gushed out of a catacomb by an explosion of water — and Jackson just happens to be riding by. (A moment like that is an insult to the audience.) In Die Hard With a Vengeance, Willis and Jackson are turned into 12-year-old boys on a play date, desperate to come up with a new game every 10 minutes. It’s hard not to notice, too, that they’ve been shoved into the buddy formula (they’re doing a more racially charged Lethal Weapon). As Simon the terrorist Eurosnob, Irons is so routinely diabolical he’s like a villain out of central casting. Willis, however, remains a commandingly scruffy jerk-hero. The appeal of McClane is that he’s not actually all that bright, which is why he can act on his kamikaze instincts. One wishes that were true of the filmmakers, who overcook the Die Hard concept until they lose the juice of their own recipe. C+