‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’ 25th Anniversary: Bruce Willis Breaks His Own Franchise

Die Hard with a Vengeance was the best title for a sequel ever. It was just fun to say. “I’ll take two tickets for Die Hard WITH A VENGEANCE!” It would have made other sequels more fun too, if they’d do The Avengers With a Vengeance or The Fast and the Furious with a Vengeance! It’s too bad Bruce Willis never says it in the movie, although he’s already got his catch phrase. They could’ve given it to Samuel L. Jackson though.

 [Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Die Hard with a Vengeance.]

L-R: Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

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The title would be surpassed over a decade later by the same franchise with the patriotic bombast of Live Free or Die Hard. To be fair, Furious 6 is a pretty good sequel title too. Die Hard with a Vengeance came out May 19, 1995 and represents a franchise in transition.

Bruce Willis’s ‘Die Hard’ dilemma

Die Hard reinvented action movies and Christmas movies in 1988. It turned TV’s Willis into an action hero, paving the way for more everyman types. It coined the “one man against a group of terrorists in a confined location” genre that thrived in the ’90s. Frankly, that subgenre should make a come back.

Yet, Die Hard 2 is one of the less successful entries in that formula. After John McClane (Willis) saved a building from terrorists, he faced more in an airport. Die Hard 2 holds up better with distance, not comparing it to the perfection of the original. It’s a solid action movie that, on its own, would not have started a franchise.

The airport is just sprawling enough that it feels too big, but they were also working against uncooperative weather, so many of the issues could have come from splicing together locations that weren’t as seamless as the controlled Nakatomi Tower sets.

Die Hard with a Vengeance: Bruce Willis
Bruce Willis | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

So, what do you do with Die Hard when just repeating the “John McClane trapped with terrorists” formula isn’t enough? After Die Hard 2 there was already Under Siege, Passenger 57, Cliffhanger and Speed (although only one terrorist, not present on the bus).

‘Die Hard’ in New York

It took five years after Die Hard 2, but Die Hard with a Vengeance eschewed the formula completely. Five years seemed like a long time to wait for another Die Hard. 25 years later there are now five of them, most of which we seem to take for granted.

One could say the city of New York is the confined location of Die Hard with a Vengeance but that’s kind of a stretch. The whole point of it is that it’s more sprawling than the first two. A bomber named Simon (Jeremy Irons) asks for McClane by name to put him through a series of riddles around the city. That turns out to be a ruse for his big heist, just like the robbery in Die Hard.

McClane’s first task takes place in front of Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson)’s locksmith shop, and they team up for the rest of the movie. He’s not the sensitive Al Powell partner, but then Jackson was never the Reginald Veljohnson type anyway. Veljohnson was still busy with TV’s Family Matters, though his return to the franchise is now long overdue. 

Die Hard with a Vengeance: Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L Jackson | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

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McClane and Carver race around New York trying to solve Simon’s riddles in time to prevent bombs from going off, for the first hour of the movie at least. Once they catch onto Simon’s real plan, they pursue him and his gang. 

What makes a ‘Die Hard’ movie?

Any McClane adventure makes it Die Hard by default. He needn’t be trapped in a location, although if another hero is trapped in a location with terrorists, they might be in a Die Hard movie. He is still on a mission to stop the terrorists and he outsmarts them, even when Simon comes up with puzzles he thinks McClane won’t be able to solve.

Die Hard with a Vengeance gives McClane a partner with whom to banter. That would continue with Justin Long and Jai Courtney in the sequels. Maybe Die Hard 2 didn’t give him a partner, although he did have the airport mechanic for a while. McClane does things his own way and doesn’t let his boss get in his way. That goes for the police chief and FBI in the original and airport security in the first sequel. 

Simon turns out to be Simon Gruber, brother of Hans from the original movie. That gives this revenge plot a connection to the franchise too. 

A sequel in flux

As the filmmakers were trying to find what a Die Hard sequel should be, some things work better than others. Director John McTiernan returns, but the open spaces of New York make it more difficult for him to control the flm’s visuals like he could inside a building. Some chase scenes feel choppy and sloppy, and once the characters split up, the film can go too far cross cutting between them, breaking the flow of action.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard with a Vengeance
Bruce Willis | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

The riddles don’t ultimately go anywhere, and a lot of them happen so fast that you don’t really get to see how McClane and Carver solve them. It’s probably besides the point, since they’re very basic children’s riddles. The point is to see McClane in over his head but stepping up to save the day anyway. This time, he and Carver get to run around the city yelling at each other.

Back to Basics

Die Hard with a Vengeance also got McClane back in his signature dirty white undershirt. Die Hard 2 took place at Dulles Airport at Christmastime, so it’s also a Christmas movie but they had to put him in a sweater and thick jackets. A New York summer got him back in his Die Hard uniform.

This was also the first movie to sideline McClane’s wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). At least this one keeps her spirit alive, as throughout the movie McClane reveals why they split up again. The movie ends with him making a call to hopefully patch things up, but the sequels show he has not yet. 

The most important thing a Die Hard 6 could do is get McClane back together with Holly. Bring back Bedelia. Their marriage and McClane learning to swallow his pride and say he’s sorry is the heart of Die Hard. So With a Vengeance has the overcoming his stubbornness part.

Did this pave the way for 21st century ‘Die Hard’?

It would be 12 more years before Willis returned to the franchise. Live Free or Die Hard is perhaps the most controversial of the sequels. Its PG-13 rating did not sit well with fans, although the profanity and blood never seemed like the elements that made Die Hard special. By 2007, action movies were PG-13. The Bourne movies had brutal violence where they just didn’t show blood so somehow that was okay. 

Live Free or Die Hard took the franchise into the then modern age. It showed how McClane would respond to the sort of threat that would soon face Marvel superheroes and all their CGI glory. That makes it feel too far removed from Die Hard for some people, but since With a Vengeance McClane had broken his mold and started trying out new molds. This is the movie that showed McClane could do other genres, and grow with the evolution of action cinema. 

It’s not the best ‘Die Hard,’ but it’s not even a contender for worst

A Good Day to Die Hard took the 2013 aesthetic of shaky cam cinematography to the franchise. It’s visually incomprehensible, just like the movies Paul Greengrass was making. For better or worse, Die Hard with a Vengeance probably paved the way for adapting to modern trends, so even the bad ones were available.

Bruce Willis | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

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In 1995 it was special just to have another John McClane movie. There’d only been two. We needed more! Now that there are five, Die Hard with a Vengeance its in the middle of a franchise spanning 25 years itself (35 if they ever make 6). For fans who like the first two, it’s the last step before the new millennium had its influence. For those who lament where the franchise went, perhaps this is where it all started unraveling.