If "Die Hard: With A Vengeance" had been a standalone movie, instead of the third installment in a franchise...
...and if it had been made in 1975 instead of 1995...
...and if its second-half hadn't been overstuffed with the cliched tropes of 1990s overstuffed action movies...
...then the movie might be fondly remembered as a great heist movie instead of a middling entry in the Bruce Willis/Samuel Jackson oeuvre, one that's not all-that-remembered and even less-watched today.
But it's shocking how close the movie comes to a kind of "Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (the original) Hollywood greatness. (Here's a synopsis if you need a refresher.) In some respects, it's the best of the "Die Hard" bunch.
* For one thing, the movie stands alone in its real-world texturing. Whereas the first installment took place in a generic LA office building and the second in a generic airport, much of DHWAV is identifiably set on the streets -- and parks, in a somewhat famous race-against-the-clock scene -- in New York City. I'm a sucker for on-location shooting with a minimum of green-screen or CGI; I like my gritty cop movies to be, well, gritty. When the fourth installment came around a few years ago, it had ballooned into CGI ludicrousness -- Bruce Willis on the back of a Harrier jump jet? Really?* -- but this installment was firmly planted in a recognizable reality.
(*No, not really. That's a similar scene in "True Lies." In the last "Die Hard" film, though, Willis does take out a jump jet that's after him. And it's still ludicrous.)
* Before he meets John McClane, Samuel L. Jackson's character -- Zeus -- is established about as deftly as Hollywood can in the span of 90 seconds to two minutes. Two young boys bring a stolen stereo into Zeus' pawn shop and we quickly learn that A) he's no dummy, B) he keeps a watchful eye out in the community, C) he's a strong advocate of education as empowerment and D) he's got a little black power thing going on. Here, in exactly 20 lines, is the exchange that tells us everything we need to know about Zeus:
Zeus: Now, where you goin'?
Raymond: To get educated.
Dexter: So we can go to college.
Zeus: And why is that important?
Dexter: To get es-pect.
Zeus: RE-spect. Now, who's the bad guys?
Dexter: Guys who sell drugs.
Raymond: Guys who have guns.
Zeus: And who's the good guys?
Dexter: We're the good guys.
Zeus: Who's gonna help you?
Zeus: *So who's gonna help you*?
Dexter: We're gonna help ourselves.
Zeus: And who do we not want to help us?
Dexter, Raymond: White people.
Zeus: That's right. Now get on outta here. Go to school.
Is that an archetype? Sure. But it's an expertly drawn archetype.
* If the movie had been made in 1975, too, the racial interaction between McClane and Zeus would maybe go down a little better. Both because, oddly, that era would've treated the subject with a little more frankness -- and it's "we all get along when we work together" ending wouldn't have seemed quite as suspect as it did 20 years later. As it is, there are too many scenes like this:
John McClane: I'll put my foot up your ass, you dumb, mother...
Zeus: Say it! Say it!
John McClane: What?
Zeus: You were gonna call me a nigger, weren't you?
John McClane: No I wasn't!
Zeus: Yes you were! What were you gonna call me?
John McClane: Asshole! How's that, asshole!
It's weird, too, that the movie makes racism seem to be, well, almost entirely Samuel L. Jackson's problem. The white people are all cool! It's the black people who just don't want to get along with their constant prickliness! Maybe the screenwriters felt they needed to get the mismatched-buddy-cop-movie tension going on -- say like "Lethal Weapon." This wasn't an effective way to do it.
* And like I said earlier, the movie -- full of riddles and puns and a heist for McClane and Zeus to solve -- is great fun until it's time to wrap things up. Things get generic: We see run-of-the-mill action, and our first shots of obvious green screen and CGI. A potentially great movie goes off track. And the ending ends up being an noisy bit of violence with some dumb macho wordplay. Unmemorable.
The shame of it is, this was almost the ending:
It's imperfect. Sure, there's a bit of "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" going on here. But a quiet ending to a big Bruce Willis action flick goes against the grain, no? And the game-playing more neatly fits the riddles-and-quizzes action that dominated the rest of the movie.
One more note: It's impossible to watch a movie made before 2001 lightly. There are bombs going off in Manhattan, and scared people fleeing explosions -- and the World Trade Center in the background. It's difficult not to feel an ache.
Oh well. "Die Hard: With A Vengeance" had it within its grasp to be great. It got halfway there. And because of that, it's a better movie than you remember.