XXX 1/2 ``Die Hard 2,'' with Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, William Atherton, Reginald Veljohnson, Franco Nero, John Amos, Sheila McCarthy. Directed by Renny Harlin, from a script by Steven E. DeSouza and Doug Richardson. Alderwood, Aurora Village, Crossroads, Factoria, Gateway, Kent, Kirkland, Lewis & Clark, Oak Tree, United Artists Cinema 150, Valley drive-in. ``R'' - Restricted, due to violence, language.
The summer's best sequel and most satisfying blockbuster has finally arrived. ``Die Hard 2'' is a blast.
This may also be the year's most expensive movie - the final cost reportedly topped $60 million - and not all of those dollars are visible on the screen. Yet for once the money has been used to create something genuinely exciting. Like ``Aliens'' and ``The Road Warrior,'' this picture is not just a retread but a valid extension of what made the original so effective.
The story line, cluttered with coincidences, implausible explanations and plot holes, sounds preposterous. And it is.
Did the filmmakers really have to give us loner cop Bruce Willis fighting another gang of terrorists during the Christmas season, while he maneuvers around fuddy-duddy bureaucrats and allies himself with unsung working-class heroes? Did his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) have to be placed in jeopardy again, just so he can rescue her? And must he seem as bullet-resistant as Superman?
Nevertheless, the script is so cleverly developed, so slyly conscious of its own absurdities, that no one's likely to mind very much. Based on Walter Wager's novel, ``58 Minutes,'' it creates its own logic, jumping from one action-packed episode to the next as if there were no conceivable options. The writers, Steven E. DeSouza (who worked on the first ``Die Hard'') and Doug Richardson, carefully build up to a spectacular and rather ingenious bang-up finale.
A good deal of credit must also go to the 31-year-old Finnish director, Renny Harlin, who got the job after he directed ``Nightmare on Elm Street 4,'' the most profitable film in that series. (John McTiernan, who directed the first ``Die Hard,'' passed on the sequel and went on to make ``The Hunt For Red October.'')
``Nightmare 4'' wasn't your ordinary horror sequel. Indeed, it played more like a nonlinear collection of avant-garde shorts, in which the villain, Freddy Krueger, became the excuse for a series of increasingly surrealistic incidents - one of them inspired by Buster Keaton's great silent comedy, ``Sherlock Jr.''
Nothing that radical happens in ``Die Hard 2,'' which never strays far from the traditions of the gut-busting action-movie genre. But Harlin gives it a pulse that matches and sometimes transcends the nail-biting tension of the first ``Die Hard,'' and he isn't afraid to play with the formula.
He uses elements of the original - corny Christmas songs, similar dialogue, characters who echo those in the first film, a classical piece that nearly becomes the theme music (Sibelius instead of Beethoven this time) - and turns them into elaborate jokes. Yet just when the movie seems to be turning into a fun-house-mirror reflection of itself, Harlin pulls you back into the story and demonstrates that he means business.
The only major disappointment of ``Die Hard 2'' is that it doesn't have as captivatingly sleazy a villain as Alan Rickman's European smoothie in the first film. The chief bad guys this time are a muckracking television journalist (William Atherton), a Noriega-style Central American drug lord (Franco Nero) and a right-wing fanatic and technological genius (William Sadler) who shuts down a Washington, D.C., airport in order to save the drug lord from prosecution in the United States.
They're all pretty one-dimensional characters, though they get the job done. Sadler in particular is the sort of heartless, self-absorbed madman you love to hate. This kind of movie needs villains so nasty that no fate seems too wretched for them - not to mention a human-scale, wisecracking hero who is only too willing to put them in their place. Once more, Willis seems the only possible man for the job.