About half an hour into DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, there is a scene in which New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) and his reluctant civilian partner Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) race through the middle of Central Park in a commandeered taxicab, desperately trying to get across town before a maniacal terrorist detonates a bomb and kills hundreds of innocents. As people scramble to get out of the path of the speeding car and Willis and Jackson trade antagonistic wisecracks, a smile crosses my face, and a voice in my head says, "John McClane is back!" Though the third film in the popular franchise falls just short of the fun and spectacle of the first two entries, there's just no denying that it's DIE HARD through and through.
After blowing up a department store, a madman named Simon (who somehow knows McClane) calls the NYPD and demands that the suspended Officer walk down the streets of Harlem wearing a sandwich board sign reading "I Hate Niggers!" or he will detonate more bombs in the city. Roused from a bad hangover, McClane complies and narrowly escapes death at the hands of an angry street gang with the help of Carver, a neighborhood electrician/locksmith who is not exactly fond of white people. Simon then forces the two men to play a sadistic game of "Simon Says", leading them by phone on a grueling chase around the city to defuse several bombs before he will reveal the location of a massive explosive device he has hidden in an elementary school. However, when McClane realizes that every cop in the city is busy searching for the big bomb and the financial district is left basically unguarded, he begins to suspect that Simon's goals may have less to do with terrorism and revenge than with monetary gain...
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE is probably the least satisfying film in the series. Gone are Bonnie Bedelia, the Christmas setting, and Beethoven's rousing "Ode to Joy". In their place are a group of largely unremarkable supporting characters, a mid-summer timeframe, and the Civil War anthem "When Johnny Comes Marching Home". Though the new de facto theme song is pertinent to the New York setting (McClane had transferred to Los Angeles in DIE HARD 2), none of these new elements feel quite right. The plot (which began as an original spec script, and was later considered as a possible LETHAL WEAPON sequel, before being optioned for this franchise) forces villain Jeremy Irons to remain hidden through nearly half of the film, and his Simon is a rather weak substitute for Alan Rickman when he finally does appear. Without sufficient time to develop the character, Irons appears to have trouble deciding whether to play him as suave Euro-trash or vengeful psychotic. In the end, much of the tension that should have derived from Simon's true identity is lost in the bombastic action and his uneven performance. Worst of all, the film has a flat finale which was shot quickly and tacked on when the original ending (involving McClane shooting an unarmed Simon at point blank range with a rocket launcher) was deemed too vicious by studio executives. The new climactic sequence is an improvement over the scripted ending, but lacks the spectacle and face-to-face quality of the closing confrontations in the other three movies.
Still, being the weakest DIE HARD film is a bit like being the fourth fastest rollercoaster in the world - it's still a hell of a ride. Willis and Jackson are both in good form here, developing an excellent rapport with one another and providing plenty of funny banter to ease the considerable tension. The bomb puzzles and chase scenes are suspenseful, director John McTiernan makes excellent use of the Big Apple locations, there are some mind-blowing action set pieces (including a subway explosion, a gunfight inside an elevator, an escape from a rapidly flooding aqueduct, and a breathtaking drop from a suspension bridge onto a barge), and it's impossible to deny the grin-inducing slickness of the obligatory "heist reveal" scene. This is a lesser effort only by comparison to the series' other entries. On its own, it's a first-rate, edge-of-your-seat thriller.
With its charismatic leads and rousing action, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE is a flawed but wholly worthy continuation of the bullet-riddled saga of John McClane, the heir apparent to Sam Spade, Dirty Harry, and Indiana Jones. A likable lout with a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time, he is an everyman hero facing impossible odds and, through toughness and street smarts, winning the day. When it comes to thwarting both terrorists and celluloid monotony on the U.S. side of the Atlantic Ocean, nobody does it better than John McClane.