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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Die Hard With A Vengeance – The 25th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Zeus! As in, father of Apollo? Mt. Olympus? Don’t mess with me or I’ll shove a lightning bolt up your…. A 12-part, 25th anniversary celebration of “Die Hard With A Vengeance”. The third film in the “Die Hard” franchise, found Bruce Willis back in the role he made all his own. Original director John McTiernan also returns to direct with a new producer and screenwriter, to give us one of the best third films in any film franchise. Based on the screenplay Simon Says”, a film that was meant to be for Brandon Lee as a sequel to his film “Rapid Fire”, then being bought by Warner Bros for their mega popular buddy cop franchise. The film was threatened to be pushed back and edited due to the Oklahoma Bombing a month prior before the films release. While screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh was questioned by the FBI regarding his intimate knowledge of the Federal Reserve and the films antagonist’s methods for robbing it. Despite it’s setbacks it became the highest grossing film of 1995. Even if it’s a tried and true recipe, it succeeds at being well crafted, inventive, explosive, fun and adultly funny. Not to mention it’s one of the only action films to make a math problem a major plot point, that still manages to bug you 25 years later. 

Part 1: Where It All Started

“Die Hard” released in 1988 was based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel “Nothing Lasts Forever”. The novel was a sequel to his 1966 novel “The Detective”, which was adapted into the 1968 film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra. When a movie based on Thorp’s sequel went into production, the studio was contractually obligated to offer Sinatra the lead role in what was re-named to be “Die Hard”. 

Sinatra, then in his early 70s, turned down the project. The story was then changed to have no connection to Sinatra’s “The Detective”. Veteran action star Arnold Schwarzenegger declined the role in “Die Hard” offered to him, as he wished to broaden his appeal by attempting comedy in what eventually became “Twins”. Although it was rumored that the project was repurposed to be a sequel to Schwarzenegger’s 1985 film “Commando”, which screenwriter Steven De Souza has denied this. 

De Souza said he wrote the script as if Hans Gruber were the protagonist. De Souza said “If he had not planned the robbery and put it together, Bruce Willis would have just gone to the party and reconciled or not with his wife. You should sometimes think about looking at your movie through the point of view of the villain who is really driving the narrative”. 

After Schwarzenegger, the role was offered to a variety of other actors, including Richard Gere, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Don Johnson, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson and Richard Dean Anderson (“MacGyver”), all of whom, turned it down. Quickly running out of options, demographic data helped persuade the studio, the producers and director John McTiernan (“Predator”) to offer the role to tv star Bruce Willis. 

At the time, Willis was largely known for his comedic role as detective David Addison on the hit television series “Moonlighting” and also had co-starred in the 1987 physical comedy “Blind Date” directed by the legendary Blake Edwards. Willis has initially turned down the role in “Die Hard” due to his contractual commitments to “Moonlighting”. However, after his co-star Cybill Shepherd became pregnant, and “Moonlighting” was shut down for 11 weeks which provided sufficient time for Willis to work on “Die Hard”. 

In fact Willis was originally asked to take the role of Martin Riggs for “Lethal Weapon”. But Willis’ manager advised him that the film was too violent. While Mel Gibson took the role, Willis was paid $5 million to star in “Die Hard”. A figure virtually unheard of at the time for an actor who had, up to that point in time, starred in only one moderately successful film. 

It was a price normally only paid to major stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty. At the time, 20th Century Fox president Leonard Goldberg justified the cost, stating the film was reliant on its lead actor, while other sources within the studio would state that Fox was desperate for a star for “Die Hard”, which was intended to be its big summer action blockbuster, especially since they had already been turned down by so many other suitable actors. As the studio didn’t believe in Willis’s action star appeal. 

Made on a modestly budgeted $90 million, “Die Hard” grossed over $141 million at the box office. It’s small potatoes in today’s market but in 1988 that was huge. The success of the film led to Willis becoming a bankable action star and the film became an inspiration for future action films, in which a lone hero fights overwhelming odds. The film’s success spurred the creation of the “Die Hard” franchise, which includes four sequels: Die Hard 2 (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), Live Free or Die Hard (2007), and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) and a number of video games and comic books. 

Part 2: Die Harder With A Vengeance 

 Two years after the success of “Die Hard”, it was only evident the studio wanted a sequel quick and that’s where “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” came along. Given an even smaller budget than the first film of $60-$70 million. “Die Hard 2” returned an even bigger profit of $240 million. 

“Die Hard 2”, was adapted from Walter Wager’s 1987 novel 58 Minutes. The novel has the same plot but differs slightly. Original director of “Die Hard” John McTiernan opted to not come back for the sequel, instead newcomer Renny Harlin, who had directed “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” had taken the reigns as director. 

Since the “Die Hard” name and “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” was such a success and the character of John McClane was so beloved by fans. Why stop there? Well they didn’t. John McClane and crew would be back…with a vengeance. 

Part 3: “Simon Says“

Like the first two films in the series, the premise of the third film “Die Hard With A Vengeance”, was repurposed from a stand-alone project. Written by screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh (“Armageddon”), based on the screenplay originally titled “Simon Says” by Hensleigh and on the characters created by Roderick Thorp for his 1979 novel “Nothing Lasts Forever”.

While various scripts were written for the third film, a number of them were ultimately rejected by star Bruce Willis on the grounds that they felt like retreads of the action movies that came in the wake of the first film. One of the scripts, originally titled “Troubleshooter”, had McClane fighting terrorists on a Caribbean cruise line, but was rejected for being too similar to “Under Siege”. The script for “Troubleshooter” was later repurposed for the Sandra Bullock sequel “Speed 2: Cruise Control”.

A sequel was planned to Brandon Lee’s “Rapid Fire” (1992) as part of a 3 picture deal with Fox. The script that was ultimately used for ”Die Hard With A Vengeance” was intended for the “Rapid Fire” sequel, entitled “Simon Says”. While it was optioned for the Brandon Lee sequel, the character of Zeus was written for a woman. When Brandon Lee passed away, Warner Bros. bought the script and rewrote it as a “Lethal Weapon” sequel. But Warner Bros. put the script in turnaround, and it was purchased by Fox for the new “Die Hard” film. 

In the films audio commentary, screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh says that the first hour of the film is his original “Simon Says” script word for word. He only changed the characters from the script, so that it would actually feel like a part of the “Die Hard” franchise.

Part 4: A New Producer and The Return Of John McTiernan 

Similarities between the first screenplay and Steven Seagal’s “Under Siege”, were not the only holdup for the five-year gap between “Die Hard 2” and “Die Hard With A Vengeance”. Personal and financial tensions during the making of “Die Hard 2” and “Predator 2”, led to Twentieth Century Fox severing ties with veteran action Producer Joel Silver. 

In the interim between the two films, Lawrence Gordon founded his own production company, Largo Entertainment. Gordon and Silver had a rift when Silver wrangled Bruce Willis to star in “The Last Boy Scout”, instead of the Largo production “The Ticking Man”, which was never filmed. Willis and Silver ended up having a falling out over the course of making “Hudson Hawk” and “The Last Boy Scout”. 

This prompted Andrew G. Vajna’s Cinergi to produce “Die Hard With A Vengeance”, alongside Twentieth Century Fox and Hollywood Pictures. Gordon and Silver each received seven hundred fifty thousand dollar buy-outs from the Cinergi deal.

As a result, Vajna’s company, Cinergi, acquired the foreign rights to the film. Disney and Summit Entertainment bought Cinergi’s rights in a number of territories, while Fox retained it’s domestic rights. Many years later, Fox had bought back the overseas rights to the film.

While Danny Cannon was approached to direct the third film, he was more interested in making “Judge Dredd” at the time. At the same time, original director John McTiernan had declined to direct Val Kilmer’s “Batman Forever”, in order to make his return to direct “Die Hard With A Vengeance”, after skipping out on the second film. Returning to the “Die Hard” franchise is exactly what McTiernan needed for his career, as his two previous films “Medicine Man” and “Last Action Hero” were box office disappointments. 

Part 5: Zeus & Simon

Laurence Fishburne (“The Matrix”), was originally offered the co-starring role of Zeus, a part that was written for Fishburne, but his fee was too high. Producer Andy Vajna held out on the deal, hoping to still land Fishburne for a smaller fee. Fishburne had also turned down the role of Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction”, which was eventually played by Samuel L. Jackson. Fishburne was talked out of playing Jules by his representatives who wanted him to only accept leading parts, otherwise he would be stuck career-wise as a supporting actor. 

Subsequently, “Pulp Fiction” had premiered at the Cannes Film Festival during the same time as Fishburne’s pay negotiations. Vajna attended the event to support Willis who was appearing in the Quentin Tarantino film. Tarantino recalled that Vajna was so impressed by Jackson’s performance that he offered him the part of Carver instead. Fishburne later filed a lawsuit against Vajna’s company Cinergi for reneging on a verbal agreement.

Samuel L. Jackson has said that Zeus “is the closest character to my personality of any that I’ve played”. He based his look after he’d done extensive research on his character by studying books on Malcolm X. Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, would appear in five films together, other than “Die Hard With A Vengeance”. It also included: “Loaded Weapon 1” (1993), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Unbreakable” (2000), and “Glass” (2019).

Sean Connery who previously worked with director John McTiernan on “The Hunt For Red October”, was McTiernan’s first choice for the role of villain Simon. Connery turned down the role, saying that he didn’t want to play such a diabolical villain. David Thewlis (“Harry Potter”) was considered but replaced by Jeremy Irons. As villain Simon, Jeremy Irons does not physically appear until an hour into the movie. To help enhance Simon’s vocabulary and riddles, screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh bought Mother Goose books for inspiration for his lines.

Part 6: The Math Problem

Throughout the film, the villain Simon plays games of “Simon Says” with McClane and Zeus. Giving the two puzzles and riddles to solve in either to diffuse a bomb or find the location of the next planted bomb. Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh puts us in the middle of the puzzle solving and becomes an action film that makes us think. 

None of the puzzles and riddles left more of an impression on us, more than the infamous “jug problem”. Here is how Simon presents McClane and Zeus with the problem: “On the fountain, there should be two jugs: A five-gallon and a three-gallon. Fill one of the jugs with exactly four gallons of water and place it on the scale and the timer will stop. You must be precise; one ounce more or less will result in detonation”. 

This puzzle always bugged me and always made me think (it also bugged critic Roger Ebert that he wasn’t quite clear how it worked). It didn’t help that director John McTiernan doesn’t show the actual solution. He cuts away from McClane and Zeus and when he cuts back they’ve figured it all out. How could they make a math problem a major plot point and not explain how to solve it?

By not showing the solution, McTiernan wants you to keep thinking about that scene (which he succeeds). Here I am 25 years later and that five and three gallon jug still haunts me. In researching the internet, I found the solution. If you ever find yourself up against the clock and Simon says to solve the jug problem. Here is the solution: 

  1. Fill the five-gallon jug.
  2. Fill the three-gallon jug with the water from the five-gallon jug, which now contains two gallons of water.
  3. Empty the three-gallon jug, then pour the two gallons from the five-gallon jug into it.
  4. Fill the five-gallon jug again.
  5. Pour the five-gallon jug into the three-gallon jug until it is filled. The three-gallon jug already had two gallons in it, so the one additional gallon leaves four gallons in the five-gallon jug.

Part 7: Oklahoma City Bombing

On April 19, 1995, exactly one month before the movie was scheduled to be released, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed by terrorists. Several sources later reported that last-minute editing was done to remove a few scenes depicting explosions, out of pity for the victims. This claim turned out to be false. 

Director John McTiernan did at one point consider either editing out the opening bombing of the department store, or moving the release date back, as he felt that the American public might still be sensitive to bombing due to recent events. However, Fox studios decided to go with the original version and release date, stating that the film was a work of fiction, and was already completed long before the real-life events occurred.

During a press conference to promote the film’s release, Bruce Willis pre-emptively told reporters that he would not discuss the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in any way because he did not want to trivialize that real-world tragedy by comparing it in any way to a fictional movie. In the wake of the bombing, Twentieth Century Fox had to take out trade press ads defending their decision to continue with the imminent release of a film about a terrorist planting bombs in public places.

Part 8: The FBI & The Federal Reserve Bank

Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh’s explains in his audio commentary on the DVD and Blu Ray, of the movie’s major set piece, involving the robbery of the Federal Reserve Bank. Hensleigh told the story about him being questioned by the FBI regarding his intimate knowledge of the Federal Reserve and the films antagonist’s methods for robbing it.

Hensleigh said “This is now the incursion into the basement of the Federal Reserve. These are Jack De Govia’s designs. All of this was built on a stage — these cages here, with the gold behind it. This is very, very much the way the basement vault of the Federal Reserve in New York actually looks. This actually looks a little sexier, a little more interesting, but it’s kind of like that. It’s kind of low-tech hallways. It’s not all chrome or stainless steel. It just looks like regular hallways and corridors. The vault itself has those cages. It really does look like that”.

Hensleigh’s knowledge of what the Federal Reserve Bank’s basement vaults look like, or at least his confidence in the matter, seems to take risks. Sure, Hensleigh is a professional writer and filmmaker, and the more research he does, the better. But don’t you think something like a government bank would have better control over its layouts? But that’s what the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation thought, too which is why the FBI pulled Hensleigh aside for questioning during the film’s pre-production:

“When the script was being vetted by all the authorities in New York, obviously the New York Police Department had to read the script for a number of reasons. One day I got a call from the FBI. They were extremely concerned about how I knew so much about the Federal Reserve, and how the Federal Reserve’s vaults were really close to a subway spur, and logistically about the aqueduct tunnel, etc”.

So, not only were the authorities worried about how and why Hensleigh had such intimate knowledge of the Federal Reserve Bank’s schematics, but they were also interested in his antagonist’s plan of escape. Aqueducts being used by massive dump trucks in and out of Manhattan? How would he even know that was feasible?

Hensleigh Said “Well guys, the reason why I know what the vault looks like in the Federal Reserve is because they let us down there. They showed it to us. The reason why I know that a subway spur is very close to the vault and that you could actually tunnel through it is because they showed us the plans and the layout. And the reason why I know there is an aqueduct tunnel coming down through Manhattan that you can drives these trucks through is because I read about it in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. So I’m really not employed by Afghani terrorists. I really don’t have any kind of secret proprietary knowledge that I shouldn’t have”. 

Hensleigh didn’t take the episode lightly. At one point in the commentary, he admits the interrogation “kind of scared the sh*t out of me for about 10 minutes” because he “thought they were going to arrest me.” But at the same time he was frightened by it all, the FBI’s response to the script gave him confidence in the film’s success. It even made him a little proud:

During one scene, our FBI consultant said, “You know it sounds crazy, but somebody could actually pull this off. We’re going to actually have a sit-down [meeting] and talk about how we can improve the facility so that it could never happen.” That pleased me, actually.

Part 9: Alternative Endings

An alternative ending to the theatrical version sees Jeremy Irons and Bruce Willis, set some time after the events in New York. It can be found on the DVD and Blu Ray. In the alternate version it is presumed that the robbery succeeds, and that McClane was used as the scapegoat for everything that went wrong. He is fired from the NYPD after more than 20 years on the force and the FBI has even taken away his pension. Nevertheless, he still manages to track Simon using the batch number on the bottle of aspirins and they meet in a bar in Hungary.

In this version, Simon has double-crossed most of his accomplices, gotten the loot to a safe hiding place somewhere in Hungary, and has the gold turned into statuettes of the Empire State Building in order to smuggle it out of the country; but he is still tracked down to his foreign hideaway (this version is very similar to Alec Guinness’ character’s situation in the British heist film “The Lavender Hill Mob” made some 45 years earlier in which the stolen gold was turned into Eiffel Tower paperweights).

McClane is keen to take his problems out on Simon, who he invites to play a game called “McClane Says”. This involves a form of Russian roulette with a small Chinese rocket launcher that has had the sights removed, meaning it is impossible to determine which end is which. McClane then asks Simon some riddles similar to the ones he played in New York. When Simon gets a riddle wrong, McClane forces him at gunpoint to fire the launcher, which fires the rocket through Simon, killing him. 

McClane had been wearing a flak jacket (which was the answer to the final riddle: “What could he have brought to the meeting to save his life?”), so even if Simon had pointed the launcher the right way, it is likely that the relatively low-velocity rocket would not have caused McClane enough injury to prevent him from shooting Simon.

In the audio commentary, screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh claims that this version was dropped because the studio thought it showed a more cruel and menacing side to McClane, a man who killed for revenge rather than in self-defense. The studio was also displeased with the lack of action in the scene, feeling that it did not fit as a “climax” and therefore chose to reshoot the finale as an action sequence at a significant monetary cost. 

Hensleigh’s intention was to show that the events in New York and the subsequent repercussions had tilted McClane psychologically. This alternative ending, set some time after the film’s main events, would have marked a serious break from the “Die Hard” formula, in which the plot unfolds over a period of roughly 12 hours.

Another alternative ending had McClane and Zeus floating back to shore on a makeshift raft after the explosion at sea. Zeus says it is a shame the bad guys are going to get away; McClane tells him not to be so sure. The scene then shifts to the plane where the terrorists find the briefcase bomb they left in the park and which Zeus gave back to them (in this version it was not used to blow up the dam). The film would end on a darkly comic note as Simon asks if anyone has a four-gallon jug. This draft of the script was rejected early on, so it was never actually filmed. The rocket-launcher sequence was the only alternative ending to be filmed.

Part 10: McClane Lives Free & Has A Good Day

“Die Hard With A Vengeance” was one of the very first R-rated films I saw in theaters. I went with my parents and we saw it at the now closed Kukui Mall Theaters for a matinee showing (in fact I still have the movie ticket). It was my introduction to John McClane and what a feeling it was running around my house ducking behind walls and coffee tables imaging myself as McClane. 

I thought McClane was the coolest and I’ve always had the same love for his character as I did with Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs from “Lethal Weapon”. In “Die Hard With a Vengeance” it was the last time John McClane felt like John McClane. While I loved “Live Free or Die Hard”, Bruce Willis just seems to have found the fountain of youth as he walks away from every major stunt without a scratch (check out that F-14 scene for starters). 

I’ll accept “Live Free” as a “Die Hard”, film because it’s really not terrible at all and the action scenes are some of the best ever. As the fourth film in such a iconic franchise, “Live Free” is more than anyone of us ever really expected. 

Please don’t even get me started on “A Good Day to Die Hard”. While it has it’s moments they should have officially stopped after “Die Hard With A Vengeance”. The John McClane of “A Good Day to Die Hard”, isn’t the John McClane that I’ve grown to love over the years. He is no where to be found and both the “Die Hard” name and John McClane deserves better.

While the McClane of “Die Hard With A Vengeance” feels like a hybrid of the McClane, we have gotten to know and love from the first two movies. Over the course of the movie he gets the life beaten out of him; harder than in the previous films and by the finale, his whole right side is drenched in blood. 

Part 11: An Influence To Many

“Die Hard” established itself in what would be a common formula for action films over the next few decades. Featuring a lone everyman against a colorful terrorist character in an isolated setting and using the structure of “Wrong Place and Wrong Time”. 

Several of these films that followed this formula were often referred to as “Die Hard on a…”, as prime examples are “Under Siege” (1992, “Die Hard on a battleship”), “Passenger 57” (1992, “Die Hard on a plane”) and “Speed” (1994, “Die Hard on a bus”). The trend would continue until films like “The Rock” (1996, also dubbed “Die Hard on an island”).

Other 1990s action films featuring the “Die Hard” scenario include “Cliffhanger”, “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory”, “Sudden Death”, “Broken Arrow”, “Executive Decision”, “Con Air”, “Speed 2: Cruise Control”, and “Air Force One”.

Part 12: “Delivering What It Advertises, With A Vengeance”

“Die Hard With A Vengeance” is the second best of the franchise, right behind the iconic original and “Die Hard 2” close behind. Although the original trilogy is what arguably defines the “Die Hard” franchise. 

It’s a terrific buddy cop film, the best since “Lethal Weapon”. The script is endlessly funny as Willis (who has his role down so effortlessly) and Jackson Samuel L. Jackson (who makes one of the great action-movie sidemen), trade endless quips and one-liners, with sparkling chemistry and a strong on-screen partnership. 

The “Die Hard” villains have always played like a James Bond villain. Jeremy Irons villain Simon is no exception, he is not only a mad bomber. He is a mad bomber with a purpose behind his behavior and the motivation behind Simon’s plan is ingenious.

Director John McTiernan’s return to the “Die Hard” genre is a triumph. The longest run time of any film in the franchise, of more than two hours containing blitzkrieg action, extraordinary stunts and explosions, and more climaxes than the previous two movies combined. 

Using the tried-and-true recipe and succeeding. “Die Hard With a Vengeance” is a grand slice of bang em’ up action, purely Hollywood style. It succeeds at being well-crafted, inventive, explosive, fun and adultly funny. Roger Ebert said it best in his review back in 1995: “It delivers what it advertises, with a vengeance”.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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