‘Look around, man, all the cops are into something. It’s Christmas, you could steal City Hall!’
I am a huge fan of ‘penny drop’ moments. A real, unabashed sucker for them. There’s something about a character—whether it’s in a movie, TV show, or book—putting together the pieces of a conceptual puzzle that just presses my buttons and sends shivers up my spine. I don’t know why it tickles me so, it just does.
When the penny drops on screen there’s a number of associated cinematic techniques often used. A canted angle might be involved; a close-up of the character’s face; maybe a little musical cue—a few cautiously plucked harp notes ranking among the more common flavours of the trope. Whether the pieces of the puzzle had up until then been understood to actually be a part of a puzzle or not, and whichever cosmetic way the filmmakers decide to dress it up, it’s always used to help us share the feeling of our heroic protagonist: ‘Holy shit! That’s what’s going on?! I see things clearly now, my third eye has opened.’ All in a sublime instant.
One of my favourite penny drop moments of all time is in one of my favourite movies of all time: Die Hard With A Vengeance. It’s a sweltering summer in New York City, and practically all of the city’s public services are involved in a desperate hunt for a bomb, planted in an unknown public school by a terrorist who happens to have a vendetta against one particular suspended police officer—Lt. John McClane (Bruce Willis). McClane himself is running around on a tangential quest. He and his ‘thrown together by fate’ partner, Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), are trying to disarm another bomb—one in a series of riddle and puzzle-based bombs they’ve been forced to tackle. This one is in a public fountain near a children’s playground. After successfully bicker-solving their way through a water-based puzzle and disarming the bomb, McClane has a little encounter with a bratty juvenile delinquent while Carver follows his conscience and goes back to remove the bomb from the vicinity of a playground:
I love every thing about it. I love the impossibly 90’s New York Movie Kid who makes faces like this:
I hope he’s still out there, just surly-ing his way through life. I hope he became a doctor with a heart of gold who runs free clinics in the inner cities but that’s just how he talks to his patients. ‘Ya got cirrhosis of the freakin’ liver, whadya want me ta tell ya, huh?! Listen I got your back though, Steve, ya dickhead, alright—come back next week we’ll see what we can do ah?’
I love the camera, the way it swirls around McClane’s gawping and grimy face as the music crescendos ominously. All the cops are completely distracted; the little pugnacious brat is right!
Penny. Bloody. Dropped. And then he and Zeus just straight up commandeer the two kids’ bikes and hightail it off to Wall Street, following McClane’s epiphany as Zeus cycles with a briefcase bomb in one hand and the two brats lob stolen candy bars and imprecations at them. I love it.
I really, really love Die Hard With A Vengeance.
Obviously, there is only one Hans Gruber, and Alan Rickman’s superlative performance stands tall as one of the greatest movie villains of all time. But you know what? Simon’s pretty fucking great too!
I love the way he struts around in that ridiculous, skin-tight blue tank top, occasionally changing into disguises (the villain has more than one disguise in this movie!, I love that too) to deliver lines like this:
Simon’s obviously talking about himself, as that’s his planned explosion that’s just blown a colossal hole in Wall Street, but—META META ALERT—that’s totally also about Jeremy Irons. He absolutely sinks his teeth into this role. I love the way that Simon actually feels like he could be Hans Gruber’s brother. Like most of the original Die Hard movies, Vengeance did not start life as a Die Hard property. It was repurposed from a script called ‘Simon Says’ that was originally intended to be the fourth sequel to Lethal Weapon. Despite that genetic disconnect, the writing and (especially) Irons’ performance makes it easy to believe that this is a Gruber sibling: cut from the same basic cloth—smooth, methodical, with just a touch of simmering rage beneath the surface—but with enough variation here and there, just as it is for siblings in real life.
I really, really love Die Hard With A Vengeance. It is not nearly as immaculate a work as Die Hard, of course; the sagging third act being its chief cardinal sin. But when, elsewhere in the movie you have Sam Jackson as Zeus Carver using the Socratic teaching method with two fresh-youngsters, who cares about sagging third acts?
I really, really love Die Hard With A Vengeance. I love Carver and McClane together. I love their dynamic and I love the way that Carver initially wants nothing whatsoever to do with the deadly white people problems scheme that he gets roped into. He’s only on Simon’s radar as the ‘good Samaritan’ because he saves McClane from a beating (or worse) that’s coming to him for walking around in Harlem with a—let’s say somewhat aggravatingly phrased sandwich board—around his near-naked self, as per Simon’s instructions. And why does he save him? Well:
McClane: Hey, why’d you save my ass?
Carver: I didn’t. I stopped a white cop from gettin’ killed in Harlem. One white cop gets killed today, tomorrow we got a thousand white cops, all of ‘em with itchy trigger fingers.
I mean… ‘nuff said right?
I love the fact that the interactions that Carver and McClane have throughout the course of the movie provide a fairly astute—for the 90’s especially—running commentary on racial dynamics in urban America. And that they do this without preaching or making it A Message. It’s character work first and foremost, foregrounded against a social reality. And, despite a fairly rocky, tempestuous start that features exchanges like this—
Carver: Why you keep calling me Jésus? I look Puerto Rican to you?
McClane: Guy back there called you Jésus.
Carver: He didn’t say Jésus. He said, “Hey, Zeus!” My name is Zeus.
Carver: Yeah, Zeus! As in, father of Apollo? Mt. Olympus? Don’t fuck with me or I’ll shove a lightning bolt up your ass? Zeus! You got a problem with that?
McClane: No, I don’t have a problem with that.
—the two get to like each other. Their relationship develops gradually, and realistically, in response to the challenges that they have to face. Sam Jackson once said of Zeus Carver that he is the role that is, ‘the closest character to my personality of any that I’ve played.’Die Hard With A Vengeance is a very well written movie, and I really, really love it.
I love that it was directed by John McTiernan, one of the great action directors of the 80’s and 90’s. The man is somewhat of a craftsman, and filming well-staged, destructive action with a solid grounding in character was once a bit of a speciality of his. What he often gets less credit for is how well he handles suspense. The quieter interstitial moments that give weight and meaning to the loud stuff. Case in point: the elevator scene.
Look again at the way that’s put together. The shifting power dynamics at play as McClane marches into what appears to us to be certain death. The enclosed spaces, the looming figures, and then McClane’s quick realisation and lightning reaction to what he suddenly knows is a life-threatening situation. He sees that badge, that number on it, and he knows that the hulking mute bearing it is not the man to whom it belongs. He whips out his trademark blue collar patter, just enough to stall and to think and to put his would-be killers at ease; and then acts. The movie’s filled with moments like these.
I really, really love Die Hard With A Vengeance.
I love the soundtrack.
I love that, outside of being a nearly flawlessly filmed action spectacle, the movie also has time to be goddamn funny. Whether it’s McClane turning a stolen cab at the last minute and gunning it through a verdant shortcut—I didn’t say “Park Drive.” I said “through the park.”—or the way Carver gives a bloated, entitled banker more than he bargained for when he mistakes him for a cabbie, the script is packed full of light touches that have over the years elicited from me everything from light chuckles to outright guffaws. I love the vainglorious way that Gruber, upon successfully breaking into the Federal Reserve, says: ‘Fort Knox. Bah! It’s for tourists!’ And that his plan is to escape through an aqueduct, and then into Canada. And that he pretends, like his brother, do be doing it all for noble reasons. I love the riddles and the the way McClane has to be struggling through an absolute hell of a day while being ‘really fuckin’ hungover’. I love the almost puzzlebox-like construction that the first two acts of the movie adopt; I love the way that there is very little flab on this movie: characters and their affectations introduced seemingly just for color come back in surprising, important ways (that badge number, the kids who show up in Carver’s shop later adding heft to the school bomb situation).
I think what I’m trying to say is: I really, really love Die Hard With A Vengeance. It’s a near-perfect time capsule of a particular era of American action filmmaking, and it is glorious.