Harlin: Die Hard 2 (1990)
In many ways, 1990 was a watershed year for the blockbuster sequel. With Die Hard 2, Child’s Play 2, RocoCop 2 and Predator 2 all coming out within the space of six months, there was a new onus on sequels to provide an experience that outdid the original in scale, speed and spectacle. Sometimes, as in the case of Predator 2, that involved reinventing the entire franchise in order to provide its thrills and scares in a fresh way. But sometimes, as in the case of Die Hard 2, it involved restaging the original film in a grander and more expansive manner, and drawing out its tensions and underlying anxieties more acutely in the process.
In Die Hard 2, that’s partly matter of location, with the action now relocated from the West Coast to the East Coast, and from the fictional Nakatomi Tower in Los Angeles to Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C., where John McClane (Bruce Willis) finds himself pitted against another terrorist conspiracy while waiting to pick up his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedero) for the Christmas holidays. Along with all the domestic and international air traffic, a military plane is on its ways to Dulles, escorting General Esperanza, a drug lord and dictator (Franco Nero), who is being brought to the United States for trial. As Esperanza’s plane approaches, a collection of terrorists take control of the airport and threaten to detonate any approaching planes if they aren’t given access to Esperanza when he arrives.
For the first half or so, that plays out almost as ingeniously as the original, as Harlin evinces a true action director’s fascination with all the mechanisms and minutiae of the airport that only become visible in a state of crisis. Juxtaposed with scenes in Holly’s plane – which is forced into a holding pattern, where it gradually runs out of fuel – these scenes often recall the airport disaster films of the 1970s, as well as providing a suspenseful space that builds upon the Nakatomi Tower in quite an inspired manner. In part, that’s because of the way in which they manage to expand and distend the vertical momentum of the first film, with our attention always shifting between the basement and baggage delivery area, the passenger concourse, the control tower and the accumulation of planes forced into a holding pattern in the air above, all of which are connected by a litany of elevators and skywalks. At any one point in Dulles, Harlin shoots things so as to capture the vertical flow of the airport as a whole and to evoke the single upwards movement that connects the taxi stand with liftoff. In the process, the atmosphere becomes more and more science-fictional, as the architecture of the airport is deformed by the terrorist agenda and obscured by a snowstorm of Arctic proportions that intensifies outside.
At the same time, the airport, like Nakatomi Tower, captures a sense of foreignness on American soil that makes the presence of the terrorists all the more visceral and convulsive. In many ways, it was Nakatomi itself, rather than Alan Rickman’s Gruber, that was the real outsider in the original film, a emblem of the Japanese finance capital that was pumped into Los Angeles over the late 1980s, gradually transforming its business precincts into so many enclaves of East Asia. For all his charisma, Gruber often felt like the pretext for McClane to scale, traverse and combat this new and alienating cityscape – actually Fox Plaza, completed in 1987 – and that need to determine the precise space between America and its enemies pervades Harlin’s vision of Dulles as well. Yet where Gruber’s German agenda felt a bit dated and a bit token, Die Hard 2 provides a far more ingenious and idiosyncratic terrorist antagonist, pitching McClane against an even more ambitious and fascinating opponent.
We first meet this terrorist in the opening scenes of Die Hard 2, where he appears in a sun-drenched, stylised space that feels utterly disconnected from the rest of the film. In contrast to the wintry outfits of the Dulles crowd – and McClane’s own daggy Christmas jumper – this terrorist appears naked, perfectly sculpted, perfectly lithe, sleek as a robot and ultra-Aryan. At first it’s unclear what he’s doing, or why he’s naked, but it gradually emerges that he’s performing some kind of spiritual ritual in preparation for the terror plot that is about to unfold, uttering mantras and aphorisms to himself as he does so. If his perfect physique – and the camera’s obsessive scrutiny of it – realls Arnie and Stallone, then this sense of transcendence is just as redolent of Van Damme, turning the terrorist’s body into a kind of summary of the hyperbolic musculature and intensified physiques that had come to dominate the action film over the course of the 1980s. Whereas Gruber was defined in terms of his ingenuity and idiosyncrasies, it’s clear from the very outset that the terrorist in Die Hard 2 is going to be a body type – a particular kind of masculine armature, or musculature – rather than a personality in any conventional or traditional manner.
As a result, Die Hard 2 feels more emphatic than Die Hard in distinguishing McClane’s “everyman” persona from the hyperbolic bodies of the classical action hero, to the point where it feels as if the classical action hero is his main antagonist (or main anxiety of influence). Whereas McClane’s persona was irreverent and surprising in Die Hard, here it feels more studied and programmatic, thanks in part to the backdrop of the airport, which emphasises his “everyman” qualities by gathering him with the rest of the other holidaygoers, but also by providing a bevy of bureaucratic rules and regulations that allow him to demonstrate his streetsmart qualities as well. In the first film, he defined himself against Los Angeles, in this film he defines himself against an East Coast police force sceptical of his supposed NYPD know-how, but in both cases his persona is essential reactionary. In both cases, too, he’s only away from New York because of Holly, having travelled to Los Angeles in the first place to appeal to her after their divorce, and picking her up in Washington in preparation for spending Christmas with her family. From the outset, then, there is also a sense in which the extreme gender divisions of the classical action film won’t do, with Holly clearly capable of an independent life and independent action, making it difficult for McClane to indulge in any display of bravura too intensely without running the risk of exposing his own redundancy.
Perhaps that’s why the Die Hard franchise is (at least in these early stages) so suffused with wry humour, as if always aware that the threat of emasculation is looming around the next corner. Combined with the increasingly obvious ways in which Die Hard 2 quotes the original, that brings this very close to action comedy, with Willis delivering a series of self-aware monologues that defy you to take things too seriously: “Man, I can’t believe this…another basement, another elevator. How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” While it might not have the original’s frisson of seeing Willis play against type – something that’s hard to recapture now that he’s been so thoroughly typecast as McClane – Die Hard 2 arguably plays more on his roots as a comic actor, in a series of increasingly preposterous sequences that culminate with an extended snowmobile chase across the tarmac in the third act. It’s during this escalation that you really feel the departure from classic action films, one of whose main characteristics was a willingness to indulge in hyperbole for its own sake that paradoxically makes them feel less ridiculous than some of the semi-parodic sequences on display here. Combined with a series of increasingly inert, derivative and uninspired set pieces, it makes for a sequel that tends to peter out into a pastiche as it goes, with much of the momentum dispersing in the third act as Harlin chooses to sacrifice potentially spectacular set pieces for fairly unimaginative shoot ‘em ups.
What prevents it turning into full-blown pastiche, however, is the evolution of the terrorist organisation over the course of the narrative. At first, all we know is that sublime opening body, but after a while it is revealed to belong to Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), an American military official who has gone rogue and taken it upon himself to save Esperanza, on the grounds that he (supposedly) showed more conviction than the United States government in standing up to communism. Observing that “treason is merely a matter of dates,” he often recalls Rambo in his disgust with what right-wing America has become, as well as resembling a whole host of other, subsequent classical action heroes in ways that make Die Hard 2 feel like the definitive shift into a post-classical action milieu. After all, 1990 was the year in which the three main post-classical action outlets started to really emerge – the dilution of action into comedy (Stallone had released Tango and Cash in 1989, Arnie released Kindergarten Cop the following year), the splicing of action with science fiction and the evolution of the classical action body into a fully functioning cyborg (Van Damme had released Cyborg and Universal Soldier in 1989 and 1990 respectively) and the nostalgic tail-end of classic action franchises and figures (Rocky V was released in 1990). In Die Hard 2, it suddenly became possible to be too right wing, so it’s a stroke of genius that sees the terrorist fraternity setting up their base of operations in a small church near the airfield, where it imbues their communion with an Aryan Brotherhood kind of vibe, part and parcel of the film’s discomfort with the kinds of intense ideological conviction that pervade an earlier generation of action films.
Against that kind of backdrop, McClane’s easygoing, everyman persona can never afford to settle into a complacent mildness, as comically self-deprecating and self-aware as it can be at times. Nowhere is that clearer than in the spectacle of the first plane crash – the plane crash that the terrorists engineer to make it clear that they’re serious. After all this time, this is what really endures: we see old people, children and flight attendants, and not a single one of them survives. Whether because of 9/11, or the more recent spate of air disasters, this sequence still feels shockingly traumatic and visceral – possibly more so than when it first screened – and makes you wonder whether it was actually really necessary. While the stakes need to be raised at this point in the film, do they need to be raised that much? At the very least, this spectacle of atrocity makes for a jarring contrast with the campier and cheesier side of the film, as if a harrowing crash were injected into Airplane!. Outdoing anything to be found in the first film in terms of sheer shock value, I can only understand it as an index of how desperately Die Hard 2 needs McClane to be vindicated and venerated (it’s only at this point that the airport police really start to take him seriously), and there’s something pretty violent about that, as there is about the way in which McClane’s know-how allows him to unilaterally reduce any chain of command to empty bureaucracy and mindless professionalism.
In other words, McClane’s easygoing, everyman vibe betrays a seething and furious anxiety about the kinds of male body promulgated by the classical action film, and a determination to combat their sheer physicality with a physical, corporeal charisma: a series of poses, postures and catchphrases indicative of an intelligence and know-how that doesn’t even need to fall back upon hyperbolic musculature to defend itself. Instead, there is a sense in which McClane’s very relaxation indicates that he has surpassed the classical action body, which also means surpassing the two horizons of the classical action body; namely, the cyborg body and the African-American body. Here, as in so many classical action films, musculature is always on the verge of becoming mechanical, as the terrorists insert themselves seamlessly into the mechanics of the airport with an impersonal fluidity. It’s no surprise, then, that McClane is even more sceptical of technology this time around, nor that he opts to use his fists and his body whenever possible. At the same time, however, the classical action film often envisaged the African-American body as the end-product of this cyborg transfiguration – think Mr. T’s role in the Rocky franchise – and so there is something pointed, if subtly pointed, about the fact that African-Americans are not only placed consistently in positions of authority throughout Die Hard 2 but tend to be the most authoritative and intelligent figures in the film.
To some extent, that feels like a liberal gesture, an indication that we have now reached an action hero who can collaborate with black people, just as we have reached an action hero who can deal with an independent wife with a hyphenated surname. In its own tacit way, Die Hard 2 even goes so far as to concede that African-Americans are the majority class and that it is unfolding in a world that is more or less run by the labour of black people. Yet that just makes the irreducible charisma and know-how of McClane – capable of supervening even the most specialist or informed opinion – seem all the more unilateral. Where the classical action films at least sensed some potency to African-American virility and solidarity, that potential for action is utterly domesticated and contained here, or else relegated to a worldview as unthinkable as terrorism itself. It’s a fascinating final twist, then, that expands the main terrorist into a black-white alliance of renegade right-wing US militia, as it turns out that the squad team brought into the handle the situation have been fighting for the bad guys all along. In these last thirty minutes, both sides claim to be representing the United States in the war against terror, it’s just that one side has a more unequivocal equation of terrorism with communism. Caught between patriotism and extreme patriotism, and positioned at the cusp at which patriotism becomes terrorism, McClane’s situation beautifully captures the schizoid heart of the classic action film and replays it as farce, as Harlin draws on the domesticity and strangeness of airports, and the way both aspects come into relief during the holiday season, to create a holiday film that feels just a little less escapist, and a little less like a vacation, than it really should.
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