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SYFY WIRE Bruce Willis

In defense of 'Die Hard 2,' an underrated action sequel

The second Die Hard film is mostly about going bigger, and it (mostly) works.

By Matthew Jackson
Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 (1990)

Die Hard, John McTiernan's 1988 classic about a New York cop battling terrorists in a Los Angeles skyscraper, is a near-perfect action movie. It's funny, it's thrilling, it's got great performances, and it still holds up as a beautifully engineered exercise in tension and payoff nearly 35 years after its original release. That means any sequel the film could have possibly received was going to look inferior by comparison, and as a result, we usually think of Die Hard 2 as, if not a bad one, then at least a disappointing one. 

And yes, it's true, Die Hard 2 is not as good as its classic predecessor. That movie is lightning in a bottle, an amazing combination of technical prowess, up-and-coming stars bringing their absolute best, and story elements that fit together like they were just always meant to be there. Die Hard 2, by contrast, is a reaction to everything that Die Hard was and everything that Die Hard achieved at the box office. The mission with Die Hard was "make a good action movie," but the mission with Die Hard 2 was "make a good Die Hard movie," and that's harder to pull off. 

That said, I've always felt like time has been too hard on the sequel, which arrived this month along with several of its fellow sequel films on Peacock. For all its overblown sense of scope and its need to make John McClane into a much more brazen action hero, Die Hard 2 remains a thoroughly entertaining action film that delivers in spite of its flaws, and cements Bruce Willis as an indomitable screen presence. 

Die Hard is famously so influential that it spawned an entire subgenre of action films described as "Die Hard in a...," and its own sequels are no exception. Die Hard 2 is, of course, "Die Hard in an airport," and follows John McClane (Willis) as he stumbles upon a plot by a disgraced former U.S. military officer (William Sadler) to get a disgraced foreign general turned drug dealer (the great Franco Nero) out of the country and back to his cartel empire. Like the first Die Hard, it's a plan full of twists, red herrings, traps, and of course, McClane foiling the terrorists through a combination of tenacity and sheer dumb luck. 

Because this is a sequel, though, and Die Hard was a proven commodity by 1990, all of that becomes a bigger version of what came before. McClane's not just running from room to room in the airport. He's racing snowmobiles against the terrorists in the snow outside, running out onto runways to try and stop crashing planes, and at one point even using an ejector seat to escape an exploding cockpit in what might be the funniest and wildest shot in the entire film. There's a sprawl to Die Hard 2 that the first film just doesn't have, and while director Renny Harlin does a solid job of managing it all, the expanded view of the whole action scenario is what a lot of people find frustrating about the sequel. 

The action does still manage to mostly work, though, in an outsized, less believable sort of way, even as the inherent tension between what Die Hard started as and what Die Hard would eventually grow to be is already showing. By the latter day sequels, McClane would become more of the kind of action hero he was reacting against than the kind of action hero he initially was, and that's already becoming clear by the third act of Die Hard 2. Even with that in mind, though, for my money the sequel manages to hold together because of the sheer commitment and charisma that Willis brings to John McClane.

In a recent video essay over at the always-excellent Movies with Mikey, host Mikey Neumann notes that one of the key problems with the Die Hard sequels is that John McClane has to re-learn the same lesson over and over. He begins the first film as a grumpy man separated from his wife by his own ego, and learns by the end of it that his ego was never the important part of the equation. By Die Hard with a Vengeance, he and Holly (the great Bonnie Bedelia) are once again separated, and he's once again learning that his ego is getting in the way of being a better man. By the later sequels the drama has shifted to his children, but the issue remains. John McClane gets better, only to start the sequels back in the same place yet again. 

That's not necessarily true with Die Hard 2, though. In the sequel, John is once again a happily married man, waiting to pick his wife up from the airport, cranky about modern life (the film begins with him getting his car towed) but generally satisfied with the progress he's made. The impediment here is not his family, or even his own ego. It's something everyone can relate to: An airport shut down amid busy holiday travel, then by a terrorist attack that traps everyone in place, including Holly, whose plane is left circling the airport hoping they can land before they run out of fuel. As John gets deeper into the problems with the airport and the people who've taken it hostage, the key conflict boils down to one expressed in the film's spare, amazing teaser trailer: "How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?"

While this definitely limits some of John's growth as a character, it does provide plenty of fodder for humor and eventual dramatic tension within Die Hard 2, and more importantly, it's something right in Willis's wheelhouse as an actor. Though the plot doesn't necessarily indicate it, he actually does play John with some interesting variations and signs of growth. He's still the cranky New York cop, but this time around the terrorist attack leaves him less prone to stunned amazement and more equipped to deal with the chaos. He's still improvising his way through the action, but with a layer of knowing self-assuredness and put-upon exasperation, like a guy who's had to fix the same problem with his crummy car a dozen times. It's a really fun performance, and the glue that holds the film together.

So, the next time you're looking to pass the time with a fun action movie, give Die Hard 2, now streaming on Peacock, a second look. You might just be more pleased than you think.