Third Time, Semi-Lucky

When an action movie proves to be a success, there's almost inevitably a sequel. And hey, if it works twice, why not try for three? Unfortunately, the formula that worked in the original tends to become hackneyed in the process; attempting to stage a three-peat usually results in tarnishing memories that would have best been left alone.

Hollywood greed has already bastardized the Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop and Rambo franchises, three series that should have called it quits after number two. And Die Hard seemed set for similar problems. After all, 1990's Die Hard 2 proved to be an uninspired recycling of 1988's original. And over the last five years, there've been a number of successful wannabes, including Under Siege and Speed, making the task of pulling off a third Die Hard all the more difficult.

Thankfully, though, Die Hard With a Vengeance is different enough from its predecessors to be fresh, yet retains just the right amount of its formula to qualify as a sequel.

Things aren't going so well for our hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis). Since the last film, McClane's gone back to his old job as a New York City cop. His marriage is once again on the rocks; in fact, his wife is on the other side of the country, and thus not in jeopardy (or even present) for a change. And if family woes weren't enough, McClane is on the verge of becoming an alcoholic.

This time around, rather than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, McClane is the focus of a terrorist mastermind named Simon (Jeremy Irons) who seems to have a large bone to pick with the detective. Unless McClane does exactly what "Simon Says," high-tech bombs will claim the lives of innocents around New York. Early on in Simon's twisted game, a Harlem resident named Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) saves McClane's life; as a penalty, Simon says that Carver must play the game along with McClane.

Unlike their predecessors in Die Hard one and two, the police and FBI guys in Vengeance aren't simply stupid characters who serve as fodder for McClane's wisecracks. For that matter, McClane doesn't seem to be his usual smart-ass self; the little humor that's involved in this film rests in the interactions between the cliff-jumping cop and his unwilling partner. The on-screen chemistry between Willis and Jackson makes what few laughs there are good ones, but the film as a whole lacks the whimsical nature of the earlier Die Hards.

Humor isn't the only series standard the film's shy on. There's surprisingly little gunplay as well, making one wonder if the movie was affected by the ban on assault weapons. Further, little attention is paid to the bad guys with ulterior motives. Simon is so shallow that the extremely talented Irons could have played him while suffering from the flu; and while singer/songwriter Sam Phillips is mesmerizing in her movie debut as a mute terrorist named Katya, she gets less screen time than the previews shown before the movie.

This Die Hard covers a much larger area than the previous adventures, taking place all over New York City as well as beneath it and on the adjacent waters. The action is kept taut by director John McTiernan, who starts things off with a bang and keeps them going at full-throttle. It's just a shame that the thrill ride gets derailed by an out of sync finale -- surprising, since McTiernan's execution of the original Die Hard was practically flawless.

Still, Vengeance is better than Die Hard 2, even if it can't touch the original. Unlike most sequels, it works just fine as a stand-alone action movie, and a good one at that. Nonetheless, John McClane should consider early retirement after this one; even his luck is bound to run out at some point.

Die Hard With a Vengeance.
Directed by John McTiernan. With Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons.

Rated R.
128 minutes.


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