Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Another Christmas Eve, Another Terrorist Incident

Some links to see to first of all. Norma has the opening to her book Superhero In Training available at Wattpad, and the details can be found at her latest post. Yesterday having had been a Friday, Parsnip had a Square Dog Friday. Krisztina had some Christmas decorating ideas.

Now then, as to today. Last year I reviewed my favourite Christmas movie, Die Hard. Therefore, it was time to review the first sequel, which happens to also be set at Christmas time.

"I think Cardinal Richelieu said it best: treason is merely a matter of dates. This country's got to learn that it can't keep cutting the legs off of men like General Esperanza, men who have the guts to stand up to Communist aggression." ~ Colonel Stuart
"And lesson #1 starts with killing policemen? What's lesson #2? The neutron bomb?" ~ John McClane
"No. I think we can find something in between." ~ Colonel Stuart

"Murder on television. Helluva start to Christmas week." ~ Trudeau

"Next time you kill one of these guys, get 'em to enter the code first." ~ Leslie Barnes

"You give me this story and I'll have your baby." ~ Samantha Coleman
"Not the kind of ride I'm looking for." ~ John McClane

"McClane! I assume it's you, McClane. You're quite a little soldier. You can consider this a military funeral." ~ Colonel Stuart

"Oh, we are just up to our ass in terrorists again, John." ~ John McClane

After the success of Die Hard, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel (and three more after that at last check). Die Hard 2: Die Harder was the 1990 film directed by Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger) and bringing back Bruce Willis and Bonnie Bedelia as John and Holly McClane, caught up in another terrorist incident on Christmas Eve. It is based on the novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager, and weaves the characters created by Roderick Thorp into the narrative of that novel, which tells the story of an unseen terrorist taking control of a major airport's air traffic control system. It raises the stakes considerably from Die Hard, as sequels are often prone to do, and brings us a villain who's quite different from the first film's antagonist, but thoroughly ruthless.

Things open up in Washington on Christmas Eve, a year after the Nakatomi Tower incident. John McClane (Willis) is at Dulles Airport, having had arrived a few days ahead of his wife Holly (Bedelia) with the kids for a visit to his in-laws. He's picking up Holly, who's inbound on a plane, and the weather in the area is deteriorating as a major snowstorm is moving in. John's police instincts kick in regarding a couple of suspicious fellows, and an incident ensues in the baggage areas of the terminal. One of the men gets away, the other dies at John's hands, and John's suspicions are raised. His attempts to persuade the airport's chief of police, Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) of what might be happening go unheeded. Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson), the airport chief of operations, and one of his right hand men, an engineer named Leslie Barnes (Art Evans) are trying to cope with the weather and the chaos of holiday travel.

Which of course is when things go terribly wrong. McClane's suspicions are correct. Someone takes control of the airport systems remotely, including communications, declaring his intentions. An inbound military jet from South America is carrying one General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), who will be facing drug traffficking charges in America. He sets down conditions for the General's release and warns the control tower not to interfere in his plans for the evening, or civilian planes will pay the price. McClane recognizes the sound of his voice from a chance encounter: Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), a disgraced former Special Forces officer with ties to Esperanza. With his wife's plane among those at risk in the snowy skies over DC, McClane goes on the hunt to find a way to thwart Stuart and his men.

The screenplay by Steven DeSouza and Doug Richardson took on some of the same elements of the first film- terrorist incident on Christmas Eve, antagonism with authority figures, ruthless villains, sarcastic hero- but then took them in different directions. In setting the story back east, but in a place not particularly his own (as would have been the case if the movie had been set in New York, as it is in Wager's original novel), it puts McClane out of his element, and in a situation where the weather is as much of an antagonist as the terrorists. The antagonism with authority figures plays out very differently from the first film, which was a wise course of action. Where McClane spends most of his interaction with Lorenzo in a state of mutual dislike (at least until late in the film), things are different with Trudeau, who's pragmatic and realistic enough to listen to the concerns of an out of town detective. This is very different, of course, from the first film, where we had Paul Gleason still berating McClane at film's end, and the FBI behaving like a pack of buffoons. 

Harlin has a good touch with action, and it certainly shows in this film, and would do so again in other work. He follows McClane's path through airducts and elevators, down frozen runways and in under-construction areas of the airport. Most of the film was shot in various locations such as airbases, and Harlin helms the film in the right way, showing a skill for ferocious action both at a distance and in the immediate up close and personal. He and his crew certainly convey the sense of weather being a factor in the story- anyone familiar with the Washington area knows what a bit of snow can do to cripple the city, and Harlin keeps the snow coming throughout the film, giving us a blizzard on just the wrong night for travelers, but just the right night for the intentions of his villains. He certainly knows how to film plane crashes- we get more than one here, and the sequences are spectacular. Harlin's direction keeps the pacing of the film going nicely; there's no real slowing down here. Instead we're caught up in the sense of the clock ticking down and the dread of potentially thousands of people at risk at the whim of a very dangerous man.

The casting choices are very well made throughout. We have a couple of other holdovers from the first film. Reginald Veljohnson reprises his role as Al Powell in a cameo, speaking with McClane by phone, the two partners keeping the mood light while dealing with a troubling situation. The energy between the two is much the same as with the first film, two men who have become friends and understand each other. William Atherton returns again as the sleazy journalist Richard Thornburg, who happens to be on the same plane as Holly, and who happens to have a restraining order against her (that whole thing with her hitting him at the end of the first film damaged his ego). He's still as self absorbed, irresponsible, and sleazy as he was the first time around, still believing he's destined for great things as a reporter. We despise him, naturally, which he surely has coming. Contrast him, though, with a new reporter, Samantha Coleman (Sheila McCarthy), who's a local reporter at the terminal looking for a story. McCarthy plays her as plucky and a bit ambitious, but with integrity that is utterly lacking in Thornburg. She even proves to be helpful where McClane is concerned, and McCarthy gives her a streak of humour and humanity.

Art Evans plays Leslie Barnes, the communications engineer who seems to be the smartest guy in the room, and who's an ally to McClane. He carries himself like a competent, efficient specialist, and we get to like him. Evans plays him as sympathetic and as a man trying to find a solution to a crisis. Though he's out of his element as a man under fire, he stays calm, and that's a big contrast to the airport's head of police, as played by Dennis Franz. Lorenzo is a profane, antagonistic walking temper tantrum (come to think of it, that pretty much sums up many of the roles Franz plays). He is completely dismissive of McClane (at least until late in the game) and seems to be five minutes from a heart attack (tempers can be such a trigger for those things). He's an unpleasant sort of person... and yet when things change as the story goes along, still a man who knows what his job requires, and does it... even while being terminally pissed off. The third member of the airport authority is the always reliable Fred Dalton Thompson (reliable at least when he's not going into politics). He gives Trudeau a gruff but sympathetic portrayal, another in the list of character roles he's played, and we can believe him as a man of his position. It's a pragmatic character, a man who's in charge and yet sees the control he usually has taken from him. And Thompson also plays the shocked horror the character must feel when a harsh lesson is inflicted on the airport by the opposition.

Franco Nero is an Italian actor with most of his credits in Italian cinema, but there has been work in American films as well in his resume. His General Esperanza reminds us of various Latin American dictators, a nasty, ruthless man who feels quite like we would expect a dictator to be: arrogant and aloof. Even in a fallen state, he's a man accustomed to getting his own way, and Nero brings these qualities across in his performance. 

John Amos gets a complicated role to play as an American Special Forces commander, Major Grant, sent in with his squad to take down Stuart. He has history with the Colonel, and when we first meet him, he's thoroughly believable as a military officer, tough and brash, disgusted by the situation, initially dismissive of McClane. And yet that shifts (and shifts again as we discover new things about the Major) and Grant's purpose changes. Amos really comes across as no-nonsense, something you'd expect out of such an officer. 

Bonnie Bedelia gets to spend most of the film trapped in an airplane, having to put up with the presence nearby of a dirtbag she dislikes. She retains the attitude, the spunk, and the spirit of Holly in her performance, and when she discovers what's happening on the ground, her actions to intervene in the irresponsible self glorification of said dirtbag (hello, Mr. Thornburg) are entirely justifiable. This was her last turn as Holly, and the character is grounded in what at that point is a healthy marriage to John- the two feel believable in their conversations by phone and their reunion late in the film. I've always thought it was a shame that the later sequels ended the marriage. 

William Sadler has played a lot of character roles down through the years, but his turn as Stuart is one of his best. In the tradition of good villains, he believes what he's doing is the right and justified thing to do... even if it requires doing horrific things. For him, civilian deaths are mere collateral damage, justifiable if it means success for the mission. He's a capable leader too, clearly having the respect of his men, a driven man who happens to be ruthless in his methods. All in all, Stuart comes across as a very dangerous adversary, and all of that comes from Sadler's performance.

Willis of course is good to see back as McClane. He brings back the attitude and the sarcasm from the original film. We can feel his exhaustion as the character is placed into life threatening danger time and time again, somehow coming out despite the odds- we might wonder how he manages to get through the film without a blood transfusion. Willis plays him as very human, not terribly diplomatic, and prone to getting annoyed at a moment's notice. He can take care of himself in a fight though, and we completely get what's driving him- both his sense of duty and his worry about the safety of his wife in particular and countless others in general.

The studio really should have stopped with the second film. It's not quite as fresh as the original film, but it's a well paced, tense action thriller that increases the peril and practically turns weather into a character in a film. The sequels that followed tend to have diminishing returns, both in making McClane regress into a screwed up single guy with family and personal issues and in their story pacing (not to mention having a son grow up to become not a terribly bright Jai Courtney). Oh well, such is life. Yipekayay, and pass the eggnog. Instead of watching It's A Wonderful Life for the fiftieth time, I recommend watching Willis and Sadler bludgeon each other instead. 


  1. I have to skip the review as I've never seen these movies and just might pop one in this year.

  2. Nice job on the review, William. I agree they should have stopped with this second Die Hard. As usually happens even if part 2 is good, part 3 stinks of going to the well too many times. Die Hard would have been best closed out with that superb line from Holly: why does this keep happening to us?!

    John Amos (one of my favorite actors) is a wonderful bad guy in this movie. What a nasty death he gets, hehheh.

  3. Sometimes, I watch a film and then watch it again say 10 years later and it's like I've never seen it before. I know I saw this flick but reading your review was not only entertaining but enlightening. I don't remember most of it so I will, of course, now have to see it again!

    Your writing is superb, as usual. Do you write screenplays in your spare time?

  4. Terrific review !
    Loved the first one because of the most perfect Alan Rickman.
    Die Hard 2 because of the wonderful Franco Nero and William Sadler.
    Your are right they should have stopped here.
    These are much better movies to water instead of that awful "It's a Wonderful Life" Despise that movie ! And yes I know I am the only person it the world who does.
    lalalala la la

    cheers, parsnip

  5. Don't know why whenever I mention "Christmas movie" my guy always puts on a Die Hard!

  6. @Whisk: you should!

    @Lynn: and quite a death it is.

    @Lowell: I haven't written screenplays, but I do write!

    @Parsnip: Oh, I'm not a fan of It's A Wonderful Life either!

    @Cheryl: it's all about Christmas! Peace and love and goodwill towards men, and explosions and gunfights and Santa colliding with a plane in a blizzard.

  7. Great review, as always! I love the Die Hards!

    But I think McClane is jinxed in a major way....

  8. I always like Bruce Willis, and you can't go wrong with John Amos. I will always think of Franco Nero as Lancelot, and that's not a bad thing at all.

  9. I've seen parts of the Die Hard movies, but I've never watched one from start to finish. lol

  10. I saw this one, too, but again don't remember much of it, so your review was helpful in that regard. But I was never enchanted enough to watch the other sequels. Part of that is I'm of the age where I'd rather watch comedy than violence or high drama. I get enough of the latter in my dreams!

  11. P.S. I missed the Colbert take on Walker. Sounds good; I'm going to try to find a clip!

  12. Not a fan of the Diehard movies William.. P loves them so I think they must be a guy thing :) I do like Bruce Willis better in comedies..

  13. Excellent review! Love these movies.


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