Die Hard” (1988) is required Christmas season viewing for many, but “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” (1990) should not be overlooked. Although both are rightly revered as classics, I personally like the sequel more, and it certainly leans harder into its holiday trappings. This one takes place in Washington, D.C., in a snowstorm, and the terrorists set up camp in a church that’s being shut down to make way for runway expansion.
“Die Hard 2” must rank up there among films that use the most fake snow; it’s like the whole thing takes place in the least peaceful snow globe ever. And is there anything that screams “Christmastime” more so than a crowded airport?
Based on Walter Wager’s 1987 novel “58 Minutes,” “Die Hard 2” widens its playing field beyond a single building yet maintains an impressively tight scope. In a tactic that’s more tech-driven than that of the 9/11 terrorists, this group – led by renegade U.S. Colonel Stuart (William Sadler, later the best actor on “Roswell”) – takes over the communications and runway lights at Dulles International Airport.
Especially with Holly (steady audience surrogate Bonnie Bedelia) – the wife of John McClane (Bruce Willis, still having a blast) – on one of those circling, fuel-burning planes, we never forget the urgency of the situation.
Before McClane can deal with the terrorists, he has to wade through airport bureaucracy, and it’s here that “Die Hard 2” – written by Steven E. de Souza and Doug Richardson – is consistent smile-on-your-face fun if you enjoy swear-word-laden dialog. McClane has to work with (or around) Lorenzo (“NYPD Blue’s” Dennis Franz, giving exactly the performance you think), the chief of airport police. John isn’t sure what sets off the metal detectors first when Lorenzo walks through: the lead in his a** or the s*** in his brains.
Fred Dalton Thompson (later of “Law & Order”) provides measured authority as the control-tower boss, Trudeau. Art Evans is Barnes, the smart ally who quickly realizes McClane can be trusted. Additional color comes from character actor Tom Bower (the “Roswell” episode “The Convention”) as record-loving janitor Marvin, who helps McClane when he pops through the air ducts into his airport basement work area.
Among the machine-gun-toting bad guys, look for a small but notable role by Robert Patrick, who is practically giving a trial run for his most famous role one year later: the T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
The packed airport is a place I like seeing on my screen although I wouldn’t want to be there. It’s chaotic, but de Souza and Richardson nicely communicate what’s going on, starting when McClane engages in a luggage-sorting-room shootout with two of Stuart’s thugs.
Director Renny Harlin nicely ratchets up the action after the initial shootout. The scene where McClane ejects from the parked plane to escape a bunch of grenades is a classic. The film earns its especially unlikely ending – wherein McClane stops the baddies with such a huge fireball that it doubles as runway lighting for all the circling planes – with the goodwill from all the great action up to that point.
Although the theme of U.S. airways’ vulnerability keeps “Die Hard 2” relevant, the movie also has an appealing throwback vibe. McClane has been told he needs to move into the ’90s, so he uses new technology such as a pager and a fax machine.
More nostalgia comes from McClane’s fairly regular comments that he can’t believe he’s going through these situations again – such as climbing through air ducts. I feel like today’s sequels have outgrown the “I can’t believe we’re back” winks at the audience.
Those “Remember the first movie?” moments aside, “Die Hard 2” does throw us without a parachute into a simmering feud between Holly and tabloid TV reporter Dick Thornberg (William Atherton), who are stuck on the same plane. If you haven’t watched the original recently, this will seem like an inexplicable clash that builds from something off screen.
“Die Hard 2’s” view on open communications is a little wonky, as Thornberg – who is trying to get the scoop on what’s happening – is hated by Holly, the stewardesses and other passengers, even though he’s not wildly annoying. And when on-the-ground reporter Samantha (Sheila McCarthy) is covering the happy ending, she blocks the camera lens rather than show the happy McClane reunion to her viewers. Really? The moment tells the story, and it’s from enough of a distance to not be intrusive.
Throughout “Die Hard 2,” the Average Joe in the airport or D.C. at large is kept in the dark, and the terrorists control the main lines of aircraft communications. This is not exactly an ideal backdrop for a commentary on how we should trust the authorities to communicate with the public.
That’s a very minor quibble, though. Relentlessly yet enjoyably paced over the course of 2 hours, “Die Hard 2” is a stone-cold action classic that should be in your Christmas rotation along with the original.