A refreshing setting
Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn't it a pity?
Doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city
This is the song that Die Hard with a Vengeance opens up with. For a film launching in the same year as Seven, the very idea of having a setting that isn't pulpish neo-noir or dripping with Blade Runner, or otherwise just 'gritty', is a challenging thought. Die Hard with a Vengeance chooses to entrap its hero in New York City at the height of its Summer and shows off a side to the metropolis that's never been seen in an action flick since.
The first Die Hard, celebrating its 25th anniversary today, was set in a claustrophobia-soaked air-vented urban sprawl and With a Vengeance presents the antithesis to this. Its open-air environments, small pieces of callbacks and Summery flavor make for one of the most unique visions in the Die Hard franchise. Let's take a good look at why setting and place makes With a Vengeance the best Die Hard to date.
Keep in mind this is without even considering the buddy cop chemistry between Willis and Jackson. This is also not considering the villainous work of Jeremy Irons. With this analysis, I want to take a look at the setting of Vengeance, specifically the presentation of New York, that makes the film much more lively than any of its predecessors. With a Vengeance has some muddled structure, its final scene seems like a forgotten plot thread, its darker (and better) ending was cut, but it's still the best Die Hard because it's able to maximize its setting, place and allow its characters to orbit the environment so fluidly.
See, in many modern flicks, A Good Day to Die Hard included, the city is often a simple 'backdrop'. There's is little care taken to the actual geography. The logic of cities like Moscow, London, Los Angeles and so many other cities are just tossed away in the face of movie magic. Annual summer abuse is reserved for cities like New York and London. When a film uses its city to reflect the actual inner-workings of its characters, plot etc. then it can truly excels; the geography of a city can be used just like arms of cinematography.
If we consider, for example, the image of New York. The Avengers showed an utterly decimated Big Apple, and the City is pretty much the city poster boy of Planet Earth. The Avengers attempted to zoom through its entire cityspace to showcase the widespread efforts, and the entangled teamwork, of its main heroes. Die Hard with a Venegeance does something similar. It has John McClane and Zeus running around Harlem, Central Park and all around the city in a bid to outwit the main villain and his riddles. Jeremy Irons' cold delivery of 'Simon' really sells the puppetry at play, but the very city adds to it. This is a hot and heavy New York City, soaked in civilian lives all going about their lovely Summer day, not a rain-drenched metropolis drained of all color that we've come so familiar with.
Simon orders to duo to walk through the city at various points in the film. They don't suddenly teleport like The Dark Knight or Fast & Furious characters do. The film makes good efforts in showcasing the pounding upon McClane and Zeus' stamina. They fight over their knowledge of the city while solving Simon's riddles. The amount of character-play, in one instance juggling the whereabouts of Yankees Stadium while racing towards Central Park, that is interlinked with the location is incredibly clever. There's a feeling that these two are being pushed all over the city, which enhances their relationship in our eyes. The two men are joined by the fact that they are both tired, beaten and bruised, the environment is used to reaffirm our belief in their evolving relationship.
The film attempts to call back to its predecessors by occasionally diving into dark areas. I can't think of another action film that maximizes the amount of places in New York City. We are shown some underground tunnels, the train station (that's blown up and left with concrete dust in the air) and the interiors of lush, lavish banks. Zeus and McClane are cast across New York, divided at several points, to test whether they can actually work apart. All the while we see civilian life and traffic that gets in their way. 'Realism' isn't the word in a film about blowing up all of the things, but the genre staple of fast-action is somewhat refused by With a Vengeance. McClane is caught in traffic and has to abuse an ambulance service in order to get anywhere.
Having a Summer setting means the film is able to feel fresh and contrasting. McClane's headache and the tragedies of the day are compromised by the gorgeous weather. The very architecture gushes sunlight out in to every scene, and you can, at some points, see the sweat beads as tension rises. Scenes in the cars appear stuffy, conversations without breath and the offices and police stations are congested with people. Even the clothes are right for the season. As Jeremy Irons whips gold out of the bank, blows up and kills hundreds and threatens a school we're left to wonder whether or not the environment can ever indicate the actual feel of a film. Usually we have a dull, cloudy New York, or a gritty, noir Los Angeles, to show off just how dire the situation is. With a heatwave gripped city, however, the very existence of destruction seems misplaced. Nobody expects it. It's what makes the opening so unexpected, it opens like a bubbly romantic comedy and then literally explodes.
New York is effectively employed as a device for surprise. We have schools being raided by police, who are also pushed to their limit, and bridges being jumped. The Summer season doesn't protect our heroes from any amount of disaster. The pacing of With a Vengeance helps alongside the setting too, constantly zooming from McClane to Zeus to Zeus & McClane to Simon to Cobb to some random goons. We get a real feel for the geography of the place, something with McTiernan masterfully did with the original Die Hard. This time we don't just have a guy crawling around vents, but several folks venting and vaulting across an entire metropolis.
It seems like natural progression too. The original Die Hard was set inside one building, Die Hard 2 largely set around a sprawling airport complex and now Die Hard with a Vengeance set inside of an entire City. The film even notes how larger that McClane's heroics are becoming, eventually taking the protagonists to an entirely new, snowy locale by its ending. The growth of Die Hard's geography seems natural with the first three films, only with Live Free or Die Hard did the series get a bit too large for its own good.
Setting in film usually reflects the characters, plot or any other part of the story. It's called environmental storytelling, and the relationship with Zeus and John evolves alongside the geography. As we're left gliding around a New York caught in terrorist turmoil, we find the two slowly joining one another's personal company. No doubt the actual 'logic' of New York isn't found intact, but the NYC we have is one that does obey basic physics and geography. We return to locales from the bank to the train station to the police to the school just as we flip perspectives that weave in and out of each of these places.
Die Hard with a Vengeance is the best Die Hard film because it goes beyond the original in utilizing its place. The Summer City of New York becomes drenched in action, and the contrasts between the terror and the bird-tweeting environment makes it all that much more delicious. The film boasts great characters and some stellar acting chemistry, but its use of setting is what truly propels it as the best of the Die Hard features.