Die Hard: With a Vengeance ★★★★½

John McClane, along with smart, wily and perpetually pissed-off citizen Zeus Carver unwillingly play along to the most elaborate and deadly game of "Simon Says", in perhaps one of the greatest sequels of all time. John McTiernan made many smart decisions in taking an original idea from screenwriter Jonathan Heinsleigh and transforming it into a solid continuation of his earlier film, as well as one of the most daring and expansive action films of the 90's.

The key word being "expansive", because for the first time McClane's ordeal took him all over New York City, as opposed to being confined to a skyscraper or airport. It's one of the few action films I know of that used the actual city as a backdrop, as opposed to faking it in Canada or God knows where else. Perhaps the most exciting sequence takes place on busy streets, McClane speeding through them (and even cruising through Central Park as a shortcut) in a hijacked taxi.

In many ways this is very much the true sequel to McTiernan's original film, but it also is it's opposite in very crucial ways which compliment the story. First and foremost, is that McClane is shown working alongside actually competent police officers. Larry Bryggman as his superior is the complete opposite of the bumbling caricatures from both previous films (though to their credit, Paul Gleason and Dennis Franz turned in performances which hold up for what they set out to achieve). On top of which Colleen Camp and Graham Greene's characters, in a tense sequence of the third act, have their own heroic moment here as well which is quite earned. And early on they’re shown as quite capable of keeping up with McClane’s smart-ass attitude.

The other way in which this diverts from the original is that it is much more of a classic buddy picture than anything from the franchise before. Samuel L. Jackson as Carver is not exactly antagonistic to McClane, but they consistently test their nerve even when working together. The issue of race between them is something that isn't glossed over as it might be in other films, which helps ground the film into a reality that digs deeper than perhaps even in the original.

The violence and plot are still over-the-top enough as not to dwell on anything as serious as that. This is made obvious by the use of nursery-rhyme language by Jeremy Irons, as a villainous plot device. But he even has some more serious motivations behind antagonizing McClane. My favorite moment in the whole picture is when he says "life has it's little bonuses", hinting that this was revenge for his brother instead of the revenge as a cover for the heist he was pulling off. I don't know why, but it works.

It doesn't all work. I think the ending is a little underwhelming. Even the one for the previous film had a much more splashy and gruesome ending for the villains. This isn't helped much by the fact there was a better alternate ending on the DVD, and another ending that wasn't filmed but would have even been better than that, discussed on the commentary track. Even considering all that, this is much better than a lot of third films which either lose steam or just don't come together as easy as this did.

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