Time for Some Christmas Specials: Die Hard 2

Why does this happen to us every Christmas?

It’s the Christmas season again, which means it’s time for me to kick back with my family and enjoy the movies that get us in the holiday spirit…like Die Hard 2.

Last year, my pregnant wife and I sat down and watched Die Hard together. This year, my wife, our infant son, and I sat down to watch Die Hard 2. Our son didn’t get through the whole movie before falling asleep, which is just as well since I don’t want to teach him the words “Yippe kai yay motherfucker” just yet.

As a film, Die Hard 2 offers more of the same greatness that its predecessor had. Once again, things go badly for the McClane family on Christmas, and once again John McClane is the only competent man around to save the day. We even get some returning characters other than John and his wife Holly, such as a cameo from Reginald VelJohnson reprising his role as John’s buddy Al, and William Atherton returning as a total dick who puts everybody’s lives at risk (does he ever play anything else?). Its history, though, is a little different. Like the original, Die Hard 2 is based on a novel, although this one is based on 58 Minutes, which has nothing to do with the previous novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, which the first film is based on. Unlike the original, this time Bruce Willis was not a little-known comedic actor but rather an established action hero. Nonetheless, Willis still plays McClane like an everyman with a comedic wit – we haven’t hit the point yet where McClane is a superhero. He’s just a normal guy who gets pulled into an abnormal situation and has the balls and tenacity to see things through.

Like most sequels, Die Hard 2 doesn’t quite have the same punch the original had. This time around John is in Washington DC and surrounded by strangers, so there isn’t as much time spent on character development and bonding between strangers. Not that there isn’t some there, such as John dropping in on Marvin the janitor or his banter with Samantha Coleman, the one member of the media who apparently isn’t a total douchebag. But Die Hard 2 spends more time on action and explosions than the original did. On the bright side, those explosions are freaking awesome, so I’ll forgive the gratuitous use of eye candy there.

The greed aspect may be largely removed, but the family aspect, while not as prevalent in this film, is still there. It’s just turned in a different direction. Since John and Holly are no longer estranged, there isn’t the tension of them getting over their problems. There is no doubt in the film that they are happily married. Instead, the big hurdle that the family unit must overcome here is a staple of many, many comedies based around the holidays – being stuck in an airport and away from your family on Christmas. Sure, having terrorists hijack an airport’s landing strips in order to break a captured drug lord out of holding so they can go fight communism is a far cry from, say, the Home Alone movies, the result is still the same: loved ones are separated due to the craziness of holiday travel and must overcome insane odds in order to be together again. While the first film was about external forces forcing John and Holly to deal with the internal troubles of their marriage, this movie is about the two characters overcoming external forces that are conspiring to keep them apart. So when John and Holly get their moment at the end and “Let it Snow” starts playing, it still feels right rather than being just a cheap callback to the first film. The first two Die Hard movies are about family, and they show two different problems that families face.

In addition to the theme of family, Die Hard had a current of greed running through it – not just in the money the criminals were trying to steal from Nakatomi Towers, but also in the way that money had come between John and Holly, with Holly’s new job leaving John feeling emasculated. That theme is mostly gone here, but I’ll forgive that because there’s a lot more of another Christmas-y theme here: basic compassion and human decency. From John nonchalantly waving off flirtatious advanced by showing his wedding ring to the passengers of Holly’s flight, even dickish Dick Thornberg, weeping and praying together as they expect to crash and burn, there’s more time spent showing people caring about other people here. The big moment would be when one of the planes does go down, killing 230 people despite John’s best efforts. He finds a burned up child’s doll and is found weeping in the next scene. That moment is a lot more powerful than you would usually expect in an action movie, where life tends to be cheap.

Despite not being quite as strong as the original, Die Hard 2 is still a good movie. As with the first one, that’s mostly due to the acting. Bruce Willis played a darned good everyman once again. He makes stupid mistakes, he isn’t the best fighter, and he needs lots of help from his friends, but he has the sheer tenacity, thanks to his love for his wife, to see things through to the end. He’s also funny, human, and charming. As the Die Hard franchise went on, John McClane became more and more superheroic, and I think some of Bruce Willis’ more human traits disappeared from the films. Bonnie Bedelia, despite being relegated to doing nothing but sitting on a plane for most of the film, is also good as Holly McClane, showing the snark and wit that reminds us why John loves her so much.

There are a few of other things I love about this movie. First, it involves a lot of airplanes, so I can make Airplane jokes to my heart’s content.

I just want to tell you both, good luck. We're all counting on you.

I just want to tell you both, good luck. We're all counting on you.

Second, it has one of the best fight scenes/explosions I have ever seen on film:

And don’t try to ruin that ending for me by applying realism and telling me that McClane couldn’t blow up the 747 with his lighter. Have you ever exploding a jet leaking fuel after kicking a dude through one of the engines? No. No one has except for John Freaking McClane, baby.

Third, from a writing perspective, Die Hard 2 has an elegant solution to the matter of suspension of disbelief. There is no good reason why the McClane family would get caught in another massive criminal plot, let alone so close to the first one. How does the film explain it? They don’t, but they do have both John and Holly point out how unbelievable the situation is. Having characters point out the broken suspension of disbelief actually gives some credibility to the film, almost like the McClanes are looking at the audience and saying, “I know, right?” It’s a surprisingly effective device.

I personally like to pretend that the Die Hard franchise ends with Die Hard 2. Not that Die Hard with a Vengeance is a bad movie – in fact, it’s actually a better film than Die Hard 2. (I haven’t seen Live Free or Die Hard and don’t plan to, so I’ll leave that out of the conversation.) My issue is Die Hard with a Vengeance is that it does away with the family element almost entirely. Sure, John gives Holly a call at the end of the film, but they’ve split up, John is working in New York again, and the whole thing is more about male bonding with Samuel Jackson (who, admittedly, is one male I wouldn’t mind bonding with, if you take my meaning) than about John and Holly’s willingness to overcome their problems and make their marriage work. After everything they have gone through in the first two films, it bugs me to see their relationship discarded entirely. One strength of Die Hard 2 is that it wasn’t a total rehashing of the themes of the original. John and Holly were married and happy, and the sequel built off of what was established in the first film. Die Hard with a Vengeance is good in its own right, but that one bit bothers me. It’s similar to Blues Brothers 2000, where it turns out that the first film didn’t really matter because the orphanage got sold anyway and Curtis is dead, or Men in Black 2, where we find out that K’s wife who he had his memory erased to be with wound up divorcing him anyway. To be fair, Die Hard with a Vengeance is at least a very good film, while Blues Brothers 2000 and Men in Black 2 are cinematic abortions that I wish had never happened. Still, Die Hard with a Vengeance will always be part of some elseworlds in the Die Hard universe in my mind. I’ll watch it for the awesome banter between Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson, but I’ll still hold it as separate from the first two films.

None of that matters anyway, though. Die Hard with a Vengeance doesn’t take place on Christmas, so it won’t become one of my holiday traditions anyway. I will instead reserve it for whatever holiday it is most associated with a naked Bruce Willis walking through Harlem while being forced to wear a sign saying “I hate niggers.” Hm…Easter, maybe?

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