If one were to conduct a scientific study meant to determine what the most successful action movie of the 90s was, chances are pretty dang good that Speed would be near the top of the candidates for consideration. A success both financially and critically, this high-octane tale of a bomb on a perpetually moving bus solidified Keanu Reeves as one of Hollywood’s go-to leading men, launched the gigantic career of Sandra Bullock, and even gave its director, Jan de Bont, a success to add to his resume. All of that should be enough to solidify Speed’s place as one of the most important 90s action movies already, and we haven’t even factored in how it also managed to introduce the phrase, “Pop quiz, hotshot,” into the cultural lexicon.
So, pop quiz, hotshot: Die Hard was the greatest action movie ever made, but its sequel, Die Hard 2, was a derivative bore churned out by one of the most prolific manufacturers of schlock of the last few decades, Renny Harlin. What do you do? You get the director of the original, the inimitable John McTiernan, to come back for the third film, Die Hard With a Vengeance. DHWAV, from what I can tell, isn’t hated. It’s widely considered to be the second-best entry in the Die Hard franchise, it certainly made its makers some money, and it doesn’t get derided as the death of the franchise like the belated fourth sequel, Live Free or Die Hard, does.
But it doesn’t get heralded as one of the best actioners of its decade either. Critical reaction was mixed, leaning toward negative, and when action fans rave about the original they very rarely have anything to say about this second sequel. Whether that’s because the shadow of the original looms so large, or because Speed got released first and had a similar plot is unclear. But what isn’t unclear is that DHWAV is a film that’s much better than its reputation.
What do they have in common?
They’re both about cops who have developed grudges with bomb-toting madmen. In Speed it’s Keanu Reeves vs. Dennis Hopper and in DHWAV its Bruce Willis vs. Jeremy Irons. As the movies progress, the bad guys put the good guys through a series of traps and tests designed to torture them for perceived slights as well as murder hundreds of innocent bystanders in the process. Again, these are really bad guys.
Luckily, the protagonists don’t have to go it alone. Each has a plucky sidekick along for the ride, sassy folk who become instrumental in evening the odds of a stacked deck. Reeves teams up with Sandra Bullock while Willis get Samuel L. Jackson.
Why is Speed Overrated?
Clearly, Speed soars when it comes to building tension and adding new layers of danger to its bus-out-of-control scenario. But aside from that one strength it’s mostly just a generic, bombastic action movie full of clunky dialogue that gets accompanied by a cheesy score. The leads are okay, but mostly they’re just in crisis mode, playing the heroes in distress. The bit actors who play the random cops or the passengers on the bus, however, they’re largely bad to an embarrassing degree. But who can blame them with the unnatural, overly crafted banter they’re given to spit back and forth? From the second Bullock’s character gets on board the bus everyone is clumsily setting themselves up as some sort of archetype, and things only get more forced from there as the script tries to convey to us that tempers are flaring.
The cheesiness doesn’t stop with the dialogue either. Though the bus sequence is generally thrilling, it has its own moments of overstepping its bounds. There’s a chunk early on when Bullock has to steer the bus around so many obstacles that are unnaturally throwing themselves in front of its path that it feels like she’s playing the old arcade game Paperboy. Baby carriages, chains of preschool children holding hands, you name it. Apparently nobody can see an out of control bus smashing its way through traffic at 60 mph. That all pales in comparison to the jump over the freeway gap, however. What’s supposed to be the big climax of the bus sequence falls flat because there’s just no way to suspend your disbelief that a bus jumping a 50 foot gap in a road is possible; and the whole thing ends up losing any sense of grounded stakes in the process. If Dennis Hopper’s performance isn’t the most unbelievable part of your movie, you’ve got a problem.
And speaking of Hopper, there’s another problem with the film right there. Did anybody buy into the reality of his character? He’s a former cop who got turned into a lunatic murderer, because what? Because he was forced into early retirement or something? His mad bomber was way too underwritten for him to go as big as he did with his performance. And the same underdeveloped accusation can be thrown at the heroes as well. Can you describe Bullock’s character in any way beyond saying that she’s sassy? Or Keanu’s beyond saying he’s a hero cop? Speed has a good extended action sequence, but it’s short on story and short on character.
Why is Die Hard With a Vengeance Underpraised?
Somehow, without sticking to the confined-in-one-place Die Hard format, DHWAV managed to be a gritty, authentic, and welcome entry into the film’s franchise. Is there anything better than the higher ups having to track John McClane down and shake him out of a hangover stupor to get him to deal with this citywide crisis? And how great is the scene where the German terrorists infiltrate the Reserve Bank while posing as Americans? A tribute to Hans Gruber’s horrible American accent in the first film that’s this over the top and ridiculous is enough to bring a tear to one’s eye. And just look at how increasingly covered in blood, sweat, and grime Willis and Jackson get over the course of their journey. McTiernan is back baby, and this movie is Die Hard deep down in its DNA.
The pacing is superb as well. From beginning to end this movie is an out of control freight train of awesome action that just keeps building up a bigger pile of destruction. The opening sequence is one of the best ever. It throws you straight to the Die Hard title card and the first licks of that Lovin’ Spoonful song, and then you get a series of what feel like generic establishing shots of New York… until they’re interrupted by a giant explosion out of nowhere. It’s a jarring way to throw you straight into the shit, and within two minutes of the title card the cops are already on the phone with the bad guy, who has us knee deep in crisis. Even later on, when there’s a couple scenes of exposition, they’re made entertaining enough due to McClane and Zeus’ bickering and sass. DHWAV builds its characters, like a good movie should, but it does it on the run, like a good action movie should.
And, good lord, is this a great action movie. It’s got the meanest looking group of German henchmen ever assembled this side of a World War II film. Samuel L. Jackson breaks into somebody’s car with a gold brick he stole from the government. A guy gets cut in half by a heavy-duty cable while firing a machine gun. A security guard gets sloppily slaughtered with a sickle, and by a girl no less. At one point there are so many layers of action going on it’s hard to keep up. You’re cutting back and forth between an exploding elementary school, the biggest bank heist in history, and a Yankee Stadium assassination. You can pick your poison when it comes to action movie thrills, and chances are DHWAV is going to offer it up. Sequel or no sequel, this is one of the most fun action movies I’ve ever seen.
Evening the Odds
We’re coming up on two decades since these films were released, and the legacies they’re going to leave behind are starting to feel set. Speed is going to be remembered as a perennial entry in the action genre, a film that broke through to the mainstream and influenced tons of things that came after it. Die Hard With a Vengeance is going to be a mere footnote under the entry for the original Die Hard. But watching them back-to-back, Speed definitely doesn’t play as a superior film. Just look at the sidekicks.
Keanu got the cuter one, but how do you beat the image of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson standing knee deep in a park fountain arguing with each other? You can’t. It’s ridiculous.