Where There's a Willis

It's hard to imagine Pulp Fiction without the key performances of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Yet the two actors never actually played a scene together (although their respective characters briefly crossed paths). Willis and Jackson more than make up for that oversight in the mildly disappointing actioner Die Hard With a Vengeance. The third installment in the Die Hard series isn't terrible by run-of-the-mill action-movie standards, but it's nowhere near as much fun as its two predecessors. Don't expect a bomb, but don't expect a blockbuster, either. The plot, which borrows heavily from previous Die Hards (as well as from Blown Away, Dirty Harry, the Lethal Weapon series, and a burst of Speed), pairs Willis's wisecracking New York City cop John McClane with Jackson's feisty Harlem shop owner Zeus in a deadly game of Simon Says with a mad bomber who jerks the grudging heroes all over the Big Apple as they attempt to defuse his fireworks.

The best film model for interracial teams such as Willis-Jackson is probably 1958's The Defiant Ones, with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier doing the white guy-black guy two-step as a pair of escaped convicts literally chained together at the ankles. But the Die Hard production team obviously had a different duo in mind during casting: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. Welcome to the enlightened Nineties! Nowadays when they talk of screen chemistry in Hollywood they're less apt to refer to a boy-girl romantic couple than a macho salt-and-pepper action-hero set.

Samuel L. Jackson certainly has had plenty of practice playing the pepper side of the equation. His Pulp pairing with John Travolta was probably the high-water mark in Jackson's career, the low being his duet with Nicolas Cage in the so-bad-it-was-offensive Amos & Andrew. Jackson also plays the wounded cop who ultimately comes to David Caruso's aid (this time against Nicolas Cage -- they must have had a falling out over who should take the fall for Amos) in the recent film noir, Kiss of Death. Jackson, it seems, feels an affinity for proud, angry black men who eventually align themselves with the white guys who started out antagonizing them. With mixed results, he goes to that well once more in Die Hard With a Vengeance. Not for a minute did I buy Zeus's (apparently Hollywood has exhausted every regular human name and has turned to Greek gods for inspiration) transition from a honky-hating shop owner to Bruce's best buddy in the multiracial sandbox. The metamorphosis is about as credible as Louis Farrakhan converting to Judaism and joining a kibbutz in Israel. Still, Jackson shoulders more than his share of the dramatic burden. His ceaseless needling of Willis provides some of the film's best lines, such as when McClane, referring to his Christmas Eve sojourn to SoCal in the first Die Hard, mentions having been involved in a highly publicized police action in L.A. "Rodney King?" wonders Zeus aloud.

Jackson isn't the only actor re-creating a role he's done before. Jeremy Irons as a mercenary terrorist with a score to settle with McClane essentially offers a human face and body to match the scheming leonine cartoon villain he gave voice to in The Lion King. Irons lacks the charisma Alan Rickman exhibited in the original Die Hard, but his work here outshines most generic action-movie bad guys. And Willis, of course, is the franchise player, the trademark smirk at the center of the Die Hard facade.

This trip around the block finds McClane down on his luck, drinking too much, suspended from the NYPD for unspecified transgressions, and once again separated from his wife, Holly. She's in L.A.; he hasn't spoken to her in more than a year. In Holly's absence, Willis plays McClane as the prototypical broken-down, alcoholic, cynical loner gumshoe. Willis has his moments, but for the most part it's a workmanlike rendering. Which pretty much frees up Samuel L. Jackson to steal yet another movie out from under his better-known white costar. He does that with aplomb despite the filmmakers' insistence on making his initially cold and jagged character go all warm and fuzzy before the final credits roll. It takes a while to get accustomed to the sight of a mugging champ such as Willis deferring to his costar, and graciously letting Jackson have all the best lines.

Without Holly McClane's life hanging in the balance as it did in Die Hard and its sequel -- Willis only talks about her here; she never appears on-screen -- it becomes much harder to buy the premise that a fuckup such as McClane would stick his neck out just because it's the right thing to do. One of the fundamental tenets of action movies holds that the audience's sympathies for a hero relate directly to the degree to which one (or more) of his loved ones is threatened. The first two Die Hards understood this verity and used Holly to great advantage. You knew McClane still loved her; he had no choice but to go after those bad guys. His wife was in that building or on that plane! But now it's a different story. McClane has become a bitter, self-loathing shell of a man with nothing to live for.

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