Die Hard 2 (1990) – Directed by Renny Harlin – Starring Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, William Sadler, Art Evans, William Atherton, Franco Nero, Dennis Franz, Fred Thompson, Tom Bower, Sheila McCarthy, John Amos, Robert Patrick, Colm Meaney, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Reginald VelJohnson.
“What sets off the metal detectors first? The lead in your ass or the sh*t in your brains?”
– John McClane to Captain Lorenzo
Yes, the final 20 minutes or so of DIE HARD 2 stretches credibility. Seeing John McClane jump onto a moving plane and taking out two trained military soldiers on the wing as the plane speeds towards takeoff is a step too far because it superhumanizes McClane – until then, the stunts he performs are largely plausible. Yeah, sure, the amount of trained bad guys he kills is pushing it, but taking out four bad guys in an otherwise empty airport terminal isn’t something you can’t conceive of him doing.
Jumping on the wing of a moving airplane from a helicopter in the middle of a snowstorm, though? Yeah. Pushing it.
That’s only the final act in what’s otherwise a thoroughly satisfying sequel. DIE HARD 2, with Renny Harlin taking over the director’s chair from John McTeirnan, is a rock-solid action movie that manages to hit all the right beats from the original DIE HARD while twisting expectations just enough that the story still feels fresh and urgent, instead of stale and repetitive.
The first thing that DH2 does right is that it acknowledges the repetitive nature of McClane (Bruce Willis) once again finding himself in a crazy hostage situation. Since the film has a good humor about what’s going on, we are invited to laugh at seeing McClane again crawling through air ducts, stuck in basements, and arguing with authority. The film wisely doesn’t repeat all of its beats, however. Where the last film had McClane teaming with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the sequel has John calling Al early in the film because his “sidekick” cop this time around serves as an extra antagonist rather than an ally. Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) is the head of Dulles International Airport’s police squad and some of the films best smiles come from watching him and McClane verbally joust with one another. DH2 further inverts the McClane/PD structure by having Trudeau (Fred Thompson), Dulles’ Head of Operations, sympathetic to what McClane is trying to do. While Trudeau isn’t an ally who gives McClane free run of the airport, he is willing to listen to the semi-famous cop from the Nakatomi incident of two years previous, always to the consternation of Lorenzo.
DIE HARD 2 also makes an effort at the start of the film to humanize McClane. The first film showed that he was afraid of flying, and this time around he’s getting his car towed from outside of Dulles as he waits for his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) to arrive for the Christmas holidays. McClane is living and working in LA now, but they’re spending the holidays in DC with Holly’s parents. By putting Holly on a plane, it repeats the first film’s use of Holly as a hostage, though this time it’s because she’s trapped in a plane the terrorists refuse to let land.
I could have done without the plane angle in terms of having Holly and reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) back for a second go-round in familiar roles. All of the plane scenes are effective, so they’re not a huge negative in the film, but it would have been nice to see an alteration of the formula. I thought it was coming. It’s Thornburg who realizes something is wrong when he sees a number of planes flying near the plane he and Holly are on and it’s Thornburg who gets his assistant to monitor radio frequencies, which leads to them learning the truth about why they’re in the air. It would have been a perfect opportunity to have Holly and Thornburg put aside their differences and work together, but the film is determined to keep Thornburg as a jerk, even if Thornburg does real reporting. Sure, he’s a glory hog, but he does his job and gets the story.
DIE HARD 2 introduces a new reporter that is cast as the “good” alternative to Thornburg. Samantha Coleman (Sheila McCarthy) is at Dulles to cover the story of the arrival of General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero). Esperanza is being extradited to the United States because he’s a drug lord, but for some reason the government agents in charge of the swap are sitting in the airport like they’re two chumps waiting for their flight to Charlotte and offer blah “No comments” to Coleman. (They could at least have said, “Merry Christmas.”) Coleman generally makes a pain of herself through most of the film as no one wants to talk to the press (the level of anti-press hostility in the first two DIE HARD movies is pretty extraordinary), but she redeems herself in the hand when McClane needs her help to get to the airfield, and then prevents her cameraman from filming more than a couple seconds of John and Holly’s reunion.
Through it all, though, it’s still John McClane’s show. His main ally this time around is Leslie Barnes (Art Evans), the airport’s communication director. Like Al, Barnes is lower down on the totem pole, but unlike Al, Barnes can affect real change in the narrative because he’s inside the airport and involved with the action. Barnes represents same common sense approach, however, that McClane demonstrates and it’s why the two men bond. Where Lorenzo sees McClane as a threat and Trudeau can’t fully accept McClane’s help, Barnes sees that McClane is their best shot for stopping the terrorists.
The terrorists are largely just here to give McClane someone to fight. Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) has none of the charisma of Hans Gruber, but he is coolly effective. It’s a smart move, to be honest, again varying up the formula. The political motivations of the terrorists are real this time, as Stuart’s group is attempting to rescue General Esperanza, and when he and Major Grant (John Amos) align with him, there’s … well, there’s still not much antagonistic personality.
There’s not as many great lines or even great scenes this time around, but it’s hard for me to think of DIE HARD 2 as a disappointment. I rewatched it the day after rewatching DIE HARD and at no point in the viewing was I bored. Renny Harlin keeps everything moving, and substituting McTiernan’s technical proficiency with Harlin’s frenetic energy works to the film’s advantage. I enjoyed little touches, too, like the abundance of snow naturally raising the stakes and changing up the visual palette, and I love behind-the-scenes sequences, like we get here in the baggage area and in the basement beneath the runway. Perhaps the scene that best represents DIE HARD 2 comes when McClane proves his point to Lorenzo that Major Grant was playing them. Lorenzo doesn’t want to hear it, so McClane “opens fire” with the automatic machine gun he took from Stuart’s mercenaries. Everyone freaks but no bullets are fired, and Lorenzo is won over once he realizes he hasn’t been turned into pulp.
That scene turns the movie’s main structure on its head: McClane is right, the people in power don’t listen, he makes a big scene. Usually that scene involves killing someone or blowing something up, but this time, it’s the lack of death and destruction.
DIE HARD 2 has aged very well. I did not buy the new Blu-ray box set because while I love 1 and 3, my memory was lukewarm on 2 and 4, so I settled on buying the original for $10. I kinda wish now I had bought the box set because I’m absolutely certain I’ll watch DIE HARD 2 more over the next 23 years than I have in the 23 years since it was released.