A slippery and entertaining revision of a familiar blood-and-thunder formula, John McTiernan’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance” finds wit, excitement and even a measure of social relevance in the recurring exploits of a tough cop who attracts mortal danger like a hound attracts ticks.
The latest such parasite to attach itself to series star Bruce Willis is a malevolent genius played by Jeremy Irons, who hasn’t been quite this evil since “The Lion King.” Irons’ scam is to launch a personal attack on Willis while dropping clues to a bigger campaign of mayhem. No fair telling who Irons’ character actually is or what treachery he has in mind, but for a hint there is a split-second flashback to the first “Die Hard.”
John McTiernan, who directed that series opener, returns for this clever twist. Where prior installments (1988/1990) have found Willis stumbling into trouble out of his jurisdiction, this new script by Jonathan Hensliegh allows the star to play host to a match on his own playing field, the congested streets and subway caverns of Manhattan.
It starts with a big explosion, and more are threatened unless Willis complies with Irons’ outlandish demands. To tell more would be to spoil many surprises that continue to the very end.
Willis customarily has fought alone, but this chapter gives him an ally in “Pulp Fiction’s” Samuel L. Jackson, who returns the favor of prominent casting by darned near stealing the show. Jackson plays a Harlem merchant who rescues Willis from an early brush with harm and finds himself sharing the rest of the adventure.
Willis, who works best in small-ensemble situations, hits it off most pleasingly with Jackson, even if much of their dialogue lays the race-baiting on uncomfortably thick. The script hardly accounts for Jackson’s sudden leap from black-separatist businessman to amateur crime buster other than to force his involvement, but the actor throws himself so thoroughly into the role that the lapse seems irrelevant.
Willis’ character’s on-again/off-again domestic difficulties get such short shrift that his wife (as played originally by Bonnie Bedelia) is nowhere to be seen. The unkillable cop seems to have become an inveterate boozer in the lull between pictures, and there are at least two “hangover” gags too many.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Die Hard With a Vengeance” Location: East Sprague, Newport and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by John McTiernan, starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irons Running time: 1:29 Rating: R