Die Hard With a Vengeance has its own storm to weather: timing. Debuting only a month after the bombing in Oklahoma City, No. 3 in the Die Hard series may have audiences wincing with reminders of the tragedy as Bruce Willis’ Detective John McClane tries to stop a terrorist bomber named Simon (Jeremy Irons) from blowing up segments of New York, including a school crammed with small children. Of course, Die Hard With a Vengeance is fiction, an escapist entertainment that was shot before the Oklahoma disaster. The film is off the hook as exploitation, even if some laughs in this comic thriller stick in the throat.
Willis’ cop, separated from his wife, who lives in Los Angeles with their two daughters, is back in the Big Apple with a bad attitude and a worse hangover when the bombing of a department store gets him called in on the case. McClane is a target of torment for stuttering Simon, played with wicked wit by Irons, who sports a blond dye job and a German accent. For starters, Simon sends the aspirin-chewing cop to Harlem wearing a sign that reads, I hate niggers. Rescue comes in the nick of time from Zeus Carver (the great Samuel L. Jackson), a Harlem store owner who wants this crazy white cop out of his hood. For spoiling his fun, Simon links Zeus with McClane for a daylong game of Simon Says. They do his bidding or bombs go off on streets, in subways and at landmarks from Wall Street to Yankee Stadium.
That’s the plot, except we’ll leave Simon’s real identity and devilish master plan for you to discover. The original script by Jonathan Hensleigh had nothing to do with the Die Hard series; it was adapted to fit. What No. 3 lacks is the claustrophobic atmosphere of director John McTiernan’s first film, set in an L.A. high-rise, and Renny Harlin’s sequel, set in a D.C. airport. McClane is all over Manhattan. What No. 3 regains, thanks to McTiernan’s return, is the human touch. Character counted for little in Harlin’s soulless sequel. It does now.
Willis and Jackson — both appeared in Pulp Fiction but shared no scenes — make a rip-roaring, trash-talking pair of jokers. And something more. Throughout this hellish summer day, they develop a grudging friendship. Too many filmmakers forget a basic rule: No matter how good the stunts — and these, to lift a McClane phrase, are “very cool stuff” — the audience needs characters to root for.
Die Hard With a Vengeance supplies those characters without skimping on the roller-coaster ride. It’s a tense, terrifically funny action dazzler with a wow level in special effects that will be hard to top. Just when you think the nail-biting subway sequence is the high point, a giant ball of water chases McClane through an underground tunnel and spits him out on a geyser into midtown traffic where Zeus just happens to be driving by. Dumb coincidence? Nope, it’s summer fireworks played the way they should be, as a great game between actors and audiences and a timely reminder that despite the scare-mongering media pundits, it’s only a movie.