What is it about New York City that makes movie villains want to take it hostage? Is it the chutzpah of the place — that cocky civic grin just begging to be wiped off? Or is it the Sinatra Principle, the notion that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, even if you’re a terrorist?
Regardless, moviemakers keep sending devious international scum up against New York to be dispatched by streetwise cops whose antiterrorist skills were apparently learned in Brooklyn. (Meanwhile, real-life homegrown terrorists seem to be taking their cues from the movies: Witness last week’s conflagration surrounding Money Train.) Die Hard with a Vengeance, the third entry in Bruce Willis’ profitable gravy train, is the latest example of a genre that includes such home-video standbys as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the Sly Stallone action flick Nighthawks.
Actually, it goes further back, if you want to count King Kong. The big guy didn’t exactly hold Gotham hostage, but he did take a bite out of commuters, and his demands were simple: He wanted the girl and a boat back to Kong Island. But he wasn’t a sneering European intellectual — in fact, he was pretty likable if you could get past the body hair and that unfortunate business with the Third Avenue El.
It’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three that lays out the floor plan with wit and craft. Robert Shaw plays a continental mercenary who grabs control of a subway train with three cohorts code-named Mr. Green, Mr. Gray, and Mr. Brown (Reservoir Dogs fans, take note). He wants a million dollars in an hour, and he’ll start killing passengers for every minute the money’s late. Up against him is homely old Walter Matthau as a transit cop who appears to have been interrupted mid-bagel. Even the smaller roles resonate in Peter Stone’s droll script: the craven mayor (Lee Wallace), his able assistant (Tony Roberts), the jaded police dispatcher (Jerry Stiller). Of all these movies, Pelham tawks the tawk.
Nighthawks has Stallone, before fossilization set in, as Deke DaSilva, an NYPD cowboy who gets retrained in counterterrorist tactics. It has Rutger Hauer as Wulfgar, the most feral Euro-baddie of the genre. And it stumbles onto a neat gimmick when Wulfgar takes control of a Roosevelt Island cable car filled with UN diplomats. In other respects, the movie has become more dated than the older Pelham: A long sequence in which DaSilva and his partner (Billy Dee Williams) stalk Wulfgar through a disco has turned into a polyester time capsule. Nighthawks also lacks the jigsaw-puzzle structure that makes this kind of film satisfying; it’s too content to cut to the chase.
Flabby plotting isn’t something of which the Die Hard movies can be accused. In fact, the chief pleasure of the first two entries lay in the clockwork way the pieces of the villains’ plans fitted together, only to methodically become unhitched under the improvisatory gung-ho of Willis’ John McClane. Die Hard With a Vengeance brings the series back to both its geographical roots (the first movie took place in L.A., but McClane was a New York City cop) and its ideological underpinnings (Die Hard 2’s villain was a far-right wing nut, which had a certain resonance with Iran-contra in the headlines).
Unfortunately, Vengeance then falters. The villain, Simon, is played with engaging smarm by a slumming Jeremy Irons, but he’s a little too close to Alan Rickman’s character in the original Die Hard. He’s his brother, in fact, and his motives — pure greed under a patina of revolutionary rhetoric — are identical.
Worse, Vengeance simply isn’t believable (well, neither were the first two, but their logic held up while you watched). It doesn’t make sense that, as McClane jogs desperately about New York trying to defuse Simon’s bombs — while Simon and his minions rob the Federal Reserve — he would team up with Zeus, a cynical Harlem shop owner played by the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s fine, as usual, but his presence isn’t a script choice; it’s a marketing decision. And when McClane is ejected from a water tunnel and falls to earth right next to Zeus’ passing car, the film moves beyond farfetched and into the narratively convenient.
What’s missing, finally, is the antsy pulse of New York City. Vengeance sends its heroes all over town, but we rarely hear the Klaxon voice of the typical Manhattan bystander — the seen-it-all asides that make Pelham so satisfying. The fun of the first two Die Hards was watching Willis save the day with egg-cream sass. Here, he’s just another tourist.
Die Hard With a Vengeance: C+; King Kong: A+; The Taking of Pelham One Two Three: A-; Nighthawks: C-