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A dynamite thriller Third 'Die Hard' is explosive and lively fun

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bruce Willis go BOOM!

"Die Hard With a Vengeance" is an explosive thrill ride. That is its sole purpose, and it succeeds, loudly and breathlessly. And although it parallels the first "Die Hard" -- which destroyed only an L.A. office building, not huge chunks of New York, as this one does -- it doesn't deal with any of that namby-pamby rescue-the-wife stuff.

One wishes it would perhaps evoke more emotions than "Wow, cool!" or that the audience wouldn't cheer quite so loudly when characters are killed in exceedingly nasty ways, but what the heck. It's a cartoon, and it's a good one.

The title "With a Vengeance" gives away only one small angle of the plot. Jeremy Irons plays Simon, a German bad guy surrounded by a well-dressed, cold-blooded entourage -- hmm, could he be linked to the deliciously wicked German villain played by Alan Rickman in the first film?

Simon starts the show by blowing up a department store, just to get cop John McClane's (Willis) attention. Apparently, Simon's got a bit of a grudge, and unless McClane solves a series of cryptic puzzles, lots more stuff is going to go up in puffs of high-tech liquid explosive. (If the Oklahoma City bombing automatically enters your mind, the pure fantasy of this movie is likely to drive it out again. If anything, the film evokes the World Trade Center explosion and even refers to it.)

McClane finds an unwilling ally in Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), an average guy of considerable wit who gets McClane out of his first scrape, in Harlem. Together, they careen around New York, trying to win the psycho's deadly games before subways and schools are turned into toast.

Their psycho, meanwhile, shows signs that he might not be psycho after all. He also shows signs of resurrecting the plot of "Die Hard." But despite some of the obvious twists, there are enough shocks, thrills and laughs in this third "DH" to hurtle the movie forward. "Action-packed" doesn't begin to describe it. It's physically exhausting.

Bruce Willis is up to every minute of it, and he and fellow "Pulp Fiction" star Jackson make a great pair, yelling at each other even as they work together. After proving he could act in "Pulp," Willis goes back to his shoot-first-think-later mode. But hey, he's good at it -- and why not put a few more million in the bank?

After making all the other critters miserable in "The Lion King," Jeremy Irons shows his face this time. He's a decent villain, though when his character mimics an American accent, it's not nearly as convincing as Rickman was in the original "Die Hard." Irons was more sinister as Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune." For the vulnerability he's chosen to display here, he sacrifices charisma. His character's cleverness doesn't quite make up for his almost fragile demeanor.

The supporting cast, which includes Graham Greene, Larry Bryggman and Colleen Camp as cops, delivers its one-liners with aplomb. Especially amusing is nerdy explosives expert Charlie (Kevin Chamberlin).

Notably missing are Bonnie Bedelia as McClane's spunky wife ** and William Atherton as the sleazy TV reporter. Now he was fun.

An interesting addition is pop singer Sam Phillips, who plays slinky, mysteriously mute killer Katya. She was cast after director John McTiernan saw her face on the cover of her album "Martinis and Bikinis." The production notes say the character's voice box was destroyed by a bomb; the movie must have hidden the explanation among all the explosions.

That's right, you won't get all the answers. You won't even get all the questions. But thanks to McTiernan, whose credits include "Die Hard" and "The Hunt for Red October," you'll get a fun ride (especially on that taxi through Central Park). With hints of "Speed" and other mad bomber movies, "Die Hard With a Vengeance" pumps up the adrenaline beyond "Die Hard 2" and delivers the dynamite.

"Die Hard With a Vengeance"

Directed by John McTiernan

Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

Rated R (language, extreme violence)

***

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