Summer of ‘90: Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2 at 25

The film’s scribe, Steven de Souza, certainly intended a large degree of this self-referentiality.

Summer of '90: Die Hard 2
Photo: 20th Century Fox

“What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: ‘This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence—and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!’—Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: ‘You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!’” — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882, trans. Thomas Common

“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice???” —John McClane, Die Hard 2, 1990

Most sequels try to hide from their derivative essence. This holds especially true for action sequels in the 1980s and 1990s, where plots, characters, and especially catchphrases are recycled once, twice, even five times, exalting in the security of their cookie-cutter form while pretending their predecessors hadn’t done it all before. The Rambos of the world seemed to fit the latter answer to Nietzsche’s hypothetical; eternal return gave them superhuman power, and big box-office revenues. What’s one more sequel if it means a profitable new Paul Kersey adventure? But Die Hard 2 is no ordinary sequel. In almost every way, it embraces the former answer to Nietzsche’s question. Die Hard 2 and its hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), both revel and despair in the poetic absurdity of the story’s premise.

The film’s scribe, Steven de Souza, certainly intended a large degree of this self-referentiality. He had a highly elegant narrative device in the first film: the enclosed environment of the Nakatomi Tower. Many similar devices from the first film show up in the second: the restricted setting of the Dulles International Airport; a cop who won’t believe McClane and hurts more than helps the cause; a slimy reporter in it for the ratings; a final twist to the escape plan; and, of course, “Yipee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” But rather than take the shortcut and pay only minor lip service to McClane’s past, de Souza and writing partner Doug Richardson dive straight into it.

McClane had his 15 minutes of fame. A reporter first recognizes him in the terminal, then airport police Capt. Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) gives him shit for being a camera-mugging cowboy. Col. Stuart (William Sadler), the rogue right-wing military commander who takes Dulles airport hostage in order to smuggle a corrupt Latin American dictator out of the country, tells McClane that he “seemed a bit out of [his] league on Nightline.” McClane, in other words, is no mere action hero doing his superhuman duty and staying out of the spotlight. He now must engage with a media who latched on to every image of the Nakatomi hostage crisis, and gave its hero his spotlight.

De Souza and director Renny Harlin use the lens of the media to frame McClane as both believing his own myth and subsequently needing to snuff it out. Indeed, once Col. Stuart and his men make their presence known, and Lorenzo proves to be no help at all, McClane charges out, alone. He inflicts some damage, but more than 200 innocent people die in the process. “I wanted to help those people tonight,” he laments. “I was pretty goddamn useless.” The fantasy didn’t last very long. Reality is a much more bitter pill to swallow.

A salient line in Die Hard illustrates McClane’s frame of mind. While in hiding, he witnesses Hans Gruber put a bullet through Joseph Takagi’s head, but instead of charging forward, guns blazing, McClane escapes and starts yelling to himself. “Why the fuck didn’t you stop ‘em, John? ‘Cause then you’d be dead too, asshole.” A Schwarzenegger character would never say this to himself. As embodied by Willis in his star-making performance, McClane can be killed, and he knows it. He’s a man possessed by fear, by guilt, and most of all, pain. His body is a locus of punishment, from the glass with which his bare feet get torn up, or the beatings he takes from numerous German and American thugs. Consequently, he’s constantly aware of his limitations.

Another notable exception to Die Hard 2 vis-à-vis its status as Reagan/Bush I-era action sequel is by making villains of characters who may have found themselves as heroes in another film. Col. Stuart and his band of rogue mercenaries are proud anti-communists who reject what they perceive as American weakness against communist aggression in the Latin American sphere. Gruber’s gang used left-wing terrorism as a smokescreen for pure avarice; this time around, politics are front and center for McClane’s antagonists.

And let’s not forget that this is a Christmas movie, after all. In its own way, Christmas is the ultimate example of eternal recurrence, with its rigid annual rituals arriving every December to either enliven or dampen our spirits. McClane recognizes it: “Just once, I’d like a regular, normal Christmas. Eggnog, a fuckin’ Christmas tree, a little turkey. But, no. I gotta crawl around in this motherfuckin’ tin can.” I recognize it too. Every Christmas Eve, once we’ve eaten dinner and the rest of the family’s retired to their slumber, my aunt and I pour a glass of booze, fire up the Blu-Ray player, and watch Die Hard. But the evening isn’t complete until we circle back and live and relive those moments of Yuletide joy by watching Die Hard 2 immediately afterward. Harlin, de Souza, and Willis put Nietzsche at his most existential into a holiday blockbuster. I think ol’ Friedrich would have been quite pleased.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Evan Davis

Evan Davis's writing has appeared in Film Comment, MUBI, and Decider.

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