The 1980s action blockbuster movie was dominated by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme (among others) – muscle-bound one-man armies that killed scores of bad guys with guns, brawn and cheesy one-liners. Along came Bruce Willis in 1988 with Die Hard, tweaking the formula by playing a guy perpetually in way over his head, tired, hurt, and using his brains as much if not more than his brawn to defeat the bad guys. Audiences were drawn to his tough yet vulnerable wisecracking character John McClane. The movie was a massive success and the inevitable sequel followed. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) didn’t stray too far from the first one (why bother messing with a good thing?) except to amp up the stunts, the body count and the explosions all the way to the bank, easily outgrossing the original.
“Merry Christmas, pal!” are the words uttered early on in the movie as John McClane’s day starts off on a sour note and will only get worse as his car is ticketed and towed despite his good-humored protests to a cop that clearly doesn’t care about his problems. It’s Christmas Eve and McClane is at Washington Dulles International Airport to pick up his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). This lack of cooperation from local law enforcement is nothing new for McClane who faced plenty of it in Die Hard and it is also foreshadows the interference he’ll experience later on in this movie.
Meanwhile, General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a drug lord and dictator of Val Verde by way of Manuel Noriega, is scheduled to be extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking. However, rogue U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) and a team of mercenaries take control of the airport effectively shutting them down, which leaves several planes, including the one with Holly on it, circling and running low on fuel. Stuart plans to let Esperanza’s plane land and then demands a 747 be prepped for take-off at which point they will use it to rescue the drug lord.
Naturally, McClane receives a ton of grief from head of airport police Captain Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz) who doesn’t like some hot dog gloryhound cop treading all over his turf. Dennis Franz is at his profane best, dropping F-bombs with gusto. Watching him and Willis trade insults inserts some much welcome levity amidst the bombastic action sequences. Here’s a memorable exchange early on:
Lorenzo: “Yeah, I know all about you and that Nakatomi thing in L.A. But just ‘cos the T.V. thinks you’re hot shit don’t make it so. Look, you’re in my little pond, now and I am the big fish that runs it. So you cap some low-life. Fine. I’ll send your fucking captain in L.A. a fucking commendation. Now, in the meantime you get the hell out of my office before I get you thrown out of my goddamn airport.”
McClane: “Hey Carmine, let me ask you something. What sets off the metal detectors first: the lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?”
Franz is that rare breed of actor that can casually insert profanity in his dialogue and make it flow like poetry. I almost imagine him flying in his buddy David Mamet on the studio’s dime to write his dialogue. It has that vibe to it. Of course, McClane spends the rest of the movie making him looking stupid.
This being a sequel, the novelty of the original has worn off and McClane seems a little more invincible in this one, but Bruce Willis does what he can to make his character relatable and have flaws, like when he is unable to redirect a plane that the bad guys intentionally crash. We empathize with his frustration at being unable to save the plane and his dejected, defeated face says it all. The movie does its job (maybe a little too well) of making Stuart and his men so evil that you want to see McClane take them all out.
William Sadler plays yet another in a long line of villains with his rogue colonel being a peculiar badass so comfortable with his own body that he practices his martial arts in the nude, which also happens to show off his impressively sculpted physique. It certainly is a memorable introduction to his character. Sadler plays Stuart as ruthless man not above disciplining failure by pointing a loaded gun at a subordinate’s face or, in a particularly nasty move, cause a plane full of innocent people to crash and burn on a runway.
William Atherton and Bonnie Bedelia return as a smug journalist and McClane’s wife respectively, spending the entire movie trapped on an airplane together trading barbs. Among the mercenaries keep your eyes peeled for a young Robert Patrick (T2), a clean-shaven Mark Boone Jr. (Tree’s Lounge), John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope).
Much like in the first Die Hard, McClane demonstrates an uncanny knack for improvisation as evident in the first action sequence when he takes on two mercenary thugs in the baggage handling section. After he loses his gun, McClane uses a golf club and then a bicycle to take out one baddie and chase off the other. What I also like is that we see the air traffic controllers problem solve their way around Stuart and his men through good ol’ fashioned ingenuity.
Doug Richardson and Steven E.de Souza’s screenplay has just enough nods to the first movie to let us know that the filmmakers are aware that Die Hard 2 is basically a variation on the original only bigger and louder, symbolized by the iconic money shot (that is equal parts ridiculous and cool) of McClane ejecting out of a plane as it is exploding and him saying at one point, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” The movie ups the ante in many respects as he faces even greater odds and is put in even greater danger.
In 1987, Walter Wager’s book 58 Minutes, a thriller that takes place in an airport, was published and within a year he received a phone call from movie producer Lawrence Gordon over at 20th Century Fox who wanted to option the film rights. As Die Hard was becoming a box office success, the studio had yet to announce the sequel but Gordon knew that it was only a matter of time. To avoid getting solicited by every agent and writer in Hollywood, he hired up and coming screenwriter Doug Richardson in 1989 to adapt Wager’s book with the intention of using it as the basis for Die Hard 2 but not telling the studio until they approached him with the project. The studio’s then-new production chief Joe Roth ordered a sequel for the summer of 1990 with principal photography to start right away in order to meet that deadline.
Wager agreed to the sell the film rights to Gordon and months went by with limited updates until one day he was told that his book was being filmed in a month and was now called Die Hard 2! He was understandably surprised and told that Richardson’s script was being rewritten by Steven de Souza who had worked on Die Hard.
Towards the end of principal photography on The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990), the movie’s producer Joel Silver gave director Renny Harlin a script entitled 58 Minutes and told him it was going to be Die Hard 2. Harlin read it, liked it and asked Silver, “’Oh, who’s directing it?’ And he said ‘You.’ And I said, ‘Really? Like, next year?’ He said, ‘Well, next week, basically.’” Within a week Harlin was filming Die Hard 2 and editing Fairlane at night and on weekends.
The shoot was hardly an easy one. The movie was set during Christmas and was intended to be filmed at an airport in Denver but when the production arrived the weather was too warm. They spent the next few months chasing the snow, moving from one location to another, including stints in Washington, Michigan and the Canadian border. The production ultimately went to Los Angeles and used three refrigerated soundstages rebuilding the entire church, which was originally shot in Denver. Finally, a few more wide shots were done at Lake Tahoe, the last place they could find snow.
Die Hard 2 received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Because Die Hard 2 is so skillfully constructed and well-directed, it develops a momentum that carries it past several credibility gaps that might have capsized a lesser film.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “It will surprise no one who saw the first Die Hard that the heart and soul of the new film is Bruce Willis, who this time is even better. Mr. Willis, with his self-deprecating jokes and his ability to smoke a cigarette while carrying a machine gun, remains a completely wrong-headed choice for the role of a noble, self-sacrificing hero. That’s why he’s so good.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “With flawless technical collaboration, Harlin gets airport control towers and dark New England churches to look rich and brooding for his mostly nighttime action scenes; his fireballs detonate with hell’s own roar, his stunts may be hilarious but they’re show-stoppers, and against all odds, a few of his actors manage a little humanity in all the din.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Though it has more holes than a cheese grater, the screenplay by Steven E. de Souza of Die Hard and Doug Richardson is persuasive braggadocio, a fast-churning, bloodthirsty canticle of mayhem.” Finally, in her review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Carrie Rickey wrote, “Like its predecessor, it is an action movie with a sense of humor – and a human component. It also is a gripping, white-knuckle thriller that keeps you at the edge of your seat and nerves.”
Watching Die Hard 2 again is a potent reminder of a time when Willis still cared about acting and didn’t phone it in like he’s done in the last two movies in the franchise that don’t deserve the Die Hard moniker. Most fans agree that they should have stopped with Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), which was a fitting way to end things on a high note but as long as they make money and Willis is up for it there will be another installment in this tired franchise.
Sullivan, Mike. “Die Hard’s Secret Sequel.” Creative Screenwriting. May 27, 2014.
Wager, Walter. “What Hollywood Did to His Novel…And He Loved It.” Los Angeles Times. July 28, 1990.