Production on a sequel to Die Hard 2 stalled a bit after the entire premise became the template for every action movie of the 90s. Die Hard 2 was lucky enough to have the turn-around time to beat out a rival "Die Hard in an airport" movie (although technically it's really just a canonized "Die Hard in an airport"), but by the time the third movie went into production, the premise had already been significantly mined. How many interesting, confined locations could be used when rip-offs had already had to resort to having terrorists on a bus? Well Fox decided to go back to the old well of unproduced scripts to find one to adapt. One of the early scripts they were interested in was called Troubleshooter, and would have seen McClane fighting terrorists on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. If this sounds like the disastrous Speed 2: Cruise Control... well, that's because the script was the basis for that movie. The Die Hard producers passed on Troubleshooter after hearing about a similar-sounding film called Under Siege (aka, Steven Seagal's entire career), but the script would later be picked up as the basis of Speed 2.
Quite a few scripts were optioned, but the one which would become Die Hard with a Vengeance wasn't even supposed to be a Die Hard movie. A script by Jonathan Hensleigh called Simon Says was originally intended to be the fourth entry in the Lethal Weapon series (it certainly would have been better than the Lethal Weapon 4 that we got anyway...). However, this did not come to pass, and so the script was reworked to fit into the Die Hard mold. That said, there are still obvious parallels between this film and the Lethal Weapon series - in a lot of ways, the film feels more like a Lethal Weapon and less like a traditional Die Hard. The film is also notable for having a heist scheme which was so clever that the FBI investigated Hensleigh to ensure that he wasn't actually planning on pulling it off (because, y'know, turning your plan into a major motion picture is the perfect way to get away with it).
John McTiernan made his return to the director's chair, taking the reins back from Renny Harlin. He had just come off of the rather infamous Last Action Hero with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was looking to get into the studio and audiences' good graces once more. Of course, Bruce Willis also returned as John McClane, although he is the only member of the original cast to return (aside from a very limited vocal cameo by Bonnie Bedelia... although I can't even confirm that it's actually her). Two major new faces were added to the franchise in this entry. The first is Samuel L. Jackson's Zeus Carver, an electrician who becomes McClane's unwilling sidekick throughout the film. The second is the film's villain, Simon Gruber, played by Jeremy Irons. Simon is the brother of Hans Gruber, giving the villain's motivations a personal vendetta as he matches wits with McClane. There are also a host of minor supporting characters, but they aren't really worth noting - this film is held up by its major players.
The film opens with a literal bang, as a bomb unexpectedly goes off in the middle of downtown New York. It's quite a surprising opening and certainly gets the audiences' interest immediately without cheaply throwing us into the action. Anyway, it turns out that the bomber is threatening to detonate more explosives across the city if John McClane doesn't obey his wishes. Along the way, McClane accidentally ropes electrician Zeus Carver to come along with him, and the pair are sent on races across the city to defuse bombs before they can detonate. However, McClane gets the sneaking suspicion that there's more going on here than meets the eye...
As you can probably tell, With a Vengeance throws away the whole confined setting aspect of the series, as the film takes place all across the city of New York. It's not necessarily a terrible decision, but it certainly makes the film feel extremely different than previous films in the franchise. I'm not sure why, but the film also looks very different than previous Die Hards... maybe it's the lighting, the film stock or the lack of confined space... if I were a film student I could probably pin-point it, but the filming technique seems vastly different than any other film in the franchise to this point. I should also mention that I'm kind of annoyed that Holly has separated with McClane at the start of the film, but at least this makes McClane down on his luck again.
Anyway, beyond the intangibles, the realism of previous Die Hard movies is absent as well. At times the movie makes Die Hard 2 look totally plausible. Seriously, people crap on Live Free or Die Hard for being over the top, but that really just carried over from some of the ridiculous stuff on display in With a Vengeance. It starts out fairly innocently: McClane drives like a total nut, but somehow manages to avoid getting in an accident or killing anyone, he jumps onto a moving subway car, etc. This sort of thing is certainly straining believably, but it's not exactly off the rails... no, that comes when McClane surfs a freaking dump truck to safety and then gets shot out of a water main right in front of Zeus (who just so happened to be passing by at the time). It's such a ridiculous scene that it's impossible to take the movie seriously beyond that point. It reminds me of a friend who said that he saw a movie called Escape from LA where a guy chases after one of the bad guys by catching a random tidal wave and surfing onto the guy's vehicle. It's the sort of scene that just sounds so implausible that you can't believe it's real, but it totally is. Anyway, the movie really jumps the shark at that point, culminating with McClane and Zeus surviving jumping from a ship just as it explodes into a giant mushroom cloud... yeah, so much for the grounded action franchise, With a Vengeance basically just moves into typical action movie territory.
Okay, I may be ragging on With a Vengeance for being over the top, but that's not that big a deal in all honesty. To be fair, the film is a ton of fun. For one thing, it recaptures much of the humour of the first film. The whole situation where McClane is forced to go into Harlem with a racist sign is just a funny situation and shows that Simon Gruber is a troll. There's also quite a few occasions where random douche bags in New York interact with the main characters, almost always provoking laughs. Of course, the interplay between McClane and Zeus also is a major source of humour - Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson have a lot of chemistry and it shows on-screen.
Also contributing to the fun factor is the script - for most of the runtime, the plot is very tense, the villain is great and the main characters are a lot of fun. The whole "Simon Says game" aspect of the plot is a very clever way to drive the plot forward and keep it engaging, especially when you consider that about a third of the movie boils down to "John and Zeus drive around New York". Before the "game" can get repetitive, the heist aspect of the story falls into place, and it really is ingenious. Seriously, the master plan of this film more than lives up to Hans' heist in the original Die Hard. It should also be mentioned that Simon Gruber is a great villain in his own right, basically a "bigger and better" version of Hans (although he's not quite as memorable). Seeing McClane trying to unravel Simon's plans is a joy in itself as he kicks quite a bit of ass as can be expected.
That said, while the plot quite fun, it also has some rather gaping holes in it. For one thing, how the hell did Simon manage to get financial backing for his heist? It's sort of implied that a foreign nation is funding it, but I don't think the movie bothers to dwell on it. In any case, Simon's packing some expensive hardware and probably is managing a hundred baddies. There's just so many intricacies that it's hard to think that the plan only ever gets messed up when McClane's involved (eg, they leave briefcase bombs in the open in a busy park, how is it that no random bystanders came along and stole them?). There's also the fact that everyone's travelling all across the city in no time at all due to the magic of editing, much like in Die Hard 2.
While I may gripe about plot holes in the film, I'll be honest - they're all pretty minor. The major issue with With a Vengeance is that it starts to rapidly lose steam around the 40 minute mark. For one thing, you can tell that the film wasn't really figured out at this point. The aforementioned scene where Zeus just so happens to come across McClane shooting out of a water main just reeks of slap-dash editing. There's also the fact that Simon Gruber plants a bomb at the school Zeus' kids attend. When Zeus discovers this, he says that Gruber was doing that to keep him involved in the game. However, this was clearly just thrown in there to try to justify adding some more tension, because it makes no sense whatsoever. How did Simon know Zeus had kids? Are you telling me he didn't plant his bombs until after his plans were already being set in motion? How is secretly planting the bomb in Zeus' kids' school going to keep him in line? Hell, why does Simon even care if Zeus stays involved (he doesn't have a vendetta against him after all)? Anyway, it's contrived and cliched stuff like this which make the final 40 minutes far less compelling than the preceding hour and a half.
Of course, none of that compares to the abysmal ending. It turns out that the original ending wasn't very well liked - originally, McClane's life was going to be ruined by Gruber's antics. As a result, McClane hunted down Gruber to play some Russian roulette... with a rocket launcher. It's kind of a ridiculous scene, but it wasn't liked for how it made McClane look un-heroic. As a result, we ended up with the dud of an ending which we have been cursed with: McClane and Zeus (for some reason) travel to Quebec and make a bunch of wisecracks until Simon shoots down their helicopter. Then McClane shoots a power line, destroying Simon's helicopter. That's it. Simon dies like a total bitch and the whole plan unravels in about 5 minutes. What a major letdown. There's also a really awkward and completely random sex scene thrown in there for absolutely no other reason than they could, which doesn't really help the ending any. Whatever the case though, this is supposed to be the climax of the film, but it's nowhere near as thrilling as the climax of the previous two movies. Hell, pretty much every action set piece in this movie is better than its ending. It's just completely half-assed, and it really shows.
Overall, I want to love Die Hard with a Vengeance. For much of the first two acts, it is absolutely the sequel that Die Hard deserves which lives up to its legacy. However, the final 40 minutes just kill it and the ending in particular leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Die Hard 2 may be a worse film overall, but at least it improves in the last half hour and leaves a better impression - With a Vengeance just makes me feel disappointed when all is said in done. Many fans of the franchise cite With a Vengeance as being the only good sequel to Die Hard, but I think they're being too forgiving - it's about 2/3rds of a good sequel. It really is a shame that they couldn't have worked out a proper third act and ending before commencing filming, because there really isn't all that much holding With a Vengeance back from being a great action movie. As it is, it has to settle with being the film that fumbled it in the third act.
Be sure to come back soon for part four of this retrospective series with Live Free or Die Hard.