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DIE HARD 2 – Michael Kamen


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The career trajectory of sitcom star Bruce Willis was forever changed by the success of Die Hard in 1988. No longer was he the charmingly roguish detective David Addison from the hit TV show Moonlighting; now he was the all-action NYPD cop John McClane, who had single-handedly foiled the gang of international terrorists who had taken over a Los Angeles skyscraper. Demand for another Die Hard movie was high, and so in the summer of 1990 Willis returned as McClane in Die Hard 2, which was released with the suffix ‘Die Harder’ in some territories. The film was adapted from Walter Wager’s 1987 novel 58 Minutes and saw McClane getting caught up in an all-new terrorism plot at Washington DC’s Dulles Airport. A group of disgruntled former special forces soldiers have disabled the airport’s air traffic control system so they can rescue a drug lord, who is being extradited to the US to stand trial. To make matters worse, a number of commercial passenger planes are circulating above the airport, unable to land, all of which are quickly running out of fuel, and McClane’s wife Holly is on board one of them. The film co-starred Bonnie Bedelia, William Sadler, Franco Nero, John Amos, and Dennis Franz, and was directed by Finnish action movie specialist Renny Harlin.

Returning to score the film was American-born London-based composer Michael Kamen, who by the summer of 1990 had established himself as one of film music’s most in-demand action composers, off the back of scores such as Highlander, Lethal Weapon, the original Die Hard, the James Bond film Licence to Kill, and the gritty thrillers Road House and Renegades. To put it succinctly, Die Hard 2 is basically a direct continuation of the music from the original Die Hard, albeit without the wittier approach director John McTiernan allowed Kamen to bring to the first film. Kamen’s score is essentially action and suspense all the way, and is filled to the brim with the unique compositional stylistics Kamen brought to all his action writing. The dense orchestration, the frequent use of pizzicato strings and chimes to offset the heavy power of the punchy brass, the way motifs and little cells of repeated phrases are layered on top of each other; this is quintessential Kamen. Speaking of orchestration, the list of people who worked with Kamen on this score – Don Davis, William Ross, Chris Boardman, among others – is like a who’s who of great Hollywood orchestrators, and probably goes some way to explaining why this score sounds as great as it does.

The score is a little light in terms of recurring thematic ideas, but Kamen does at least bring back the 4-note motif for McClane that featured so strongly in the first film. There is also a motif for the drug lord, General Esperanza, which can be heard prominently on muscular brass in the cue that bears his name, as well as an unusually-timbred woodwind motif for the gang of terrorists which gives them a slightly threatening, vaguely exotic attitude. The Terrorist Motif can be heard most prominently in the cues “Colonel Stuart” and “The Church,” the former of which contains a notable performance on bamboo shakuhachi flutes to speak a little to the character’s monk-like devotion to martial arts, as well as a battery of snare drum licks commenting on his militaristic past. Finally – at the behest of director Harlin – Kamen was tasked with incorporating some of Jean Sibelius’s 1899 classical tone poem ‘Finlandia’ into his score, in much the same way as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy featured in the original. ‘Finlandia’ is glorious, probably the most acclaimed piece of Finnish classical music, and Kamen successfully weaves statements of it throughout his score; the “Snowmobiles” sequence is especially notable in this regard for the way Kamen offsets Sibelius’s bombastic sound against his own music to accompany the scene of McClane pursuing the terrorists through the snow on the titular vehicle.

Everything else is action and suspense, from pillar to post, and the majority of it is really quite excellent. “Baggage Handling” uses little staccato textures for brass and strings alongside increasingly anguished orchestral dissonances to gradually ratchet up the tension, while also incorporating a curious ‘whooshing’ sound which could be percussion, or could be a synth effect, but which gives the cue a unique flavor either way. “The Annexe Skywalk” is the first major action set piece, and emerges out of a set of nervous pizzicato textures to become quite bold and imposing, picking up a martial percussion undercurrent, and strong rhythmic ideas which shift between strings and brass. There’s a hint of tragedy to “The Doll,” underscoring McClane’s anguish at finding a child’s toy in the wreckage of a downed plane with searching strings and emotional woodwinds, and this leads into what is essentially an 18-minute non-stop action sequence from “The Runway” through to the end of “The Terminal,” as McClane vows to stop the terrorists once and for all.

“The Runway” brings a dark, overpowering piano motif to bear on the score, a rampaging pattern thundering its way through banks of swirling strings, enormous brass clusters, and frequent references to both the woodwind Terrorist Motif and McClane’s own 4-mote motif. Of note in this cue – and, really, throughout all cues – is the enormous creative variety in the percussion, which runs the gamut from light chimes and chains to the heaviest drums, anvils, and everything in between. The big staccato finish is clearly modeled on ‘Bishop’s Countdown’ from James Horner’s Aliens, and accompanies this film’s legendary scene where McClane uses an ejector seat to escape from an exploding plane. “Icicle” increases the power quotient yet more, with an even more frenzied attack of percussion, and bombastic brass patterns that leap from horns to trumpets to trombones, accompanied by a bank of endlessly darting, frantic strings, and shrill woodwind accents.

The aforementioned “Snowmobiles” includes Christmassy sleigh bells in the percussion mix of the thunderous orchestral onslaught to give the piece an appropriately snow-bound, wintry feel. The six minute finale, “The Terminal,” is a neat summation of everything that the score contains, once again placing McClane’s motif and the Terrorist motif into a rich, complicated set of action music forms. The brass writing in this conclusive piece is especially notable for its relentless hammering, for its quintessentially Kamen-esque phrasing, and for the near-operatic last 90 seconds or so, which contain some soaring passages of thematic consonance, and a roaring finale. The album concludes with a spectacular performance of “Finlandia,” a new recording performed by The Los Angeles Motion Picture All Stars Orchestra, conducted by Kamen.

The original album of the score for Die Hard 2 was released by Varese Sarabande at the time the film was came out, and contained a touch over 40 minutes of music, including the performance of “Finlandia”. I always thought this album was a neat and complete package containing the score’s most important thematic ideas and action set pieces; this is the version I have reviewed here. Nevertheless, Varese released an expanded version of the score in 2012 as part of their limited edition CD Club series, which increased the running time to more than two hours and included various alternate bonus cues and not one but two versions of “Finlandia”. Die hard (ho ho ho) fans of the score will likely want to pick up the expanded version where possible, but I have always been satisfied with the original album presentation.

Die Hard 2 is one of Michael Kamen’s most bombastic action scores, and was written during the period where his action music was successful and ubiquitous in Hollywood. As I have written before elsewhere, I never felt that action was Kamen’s strong point. For me, his true genius was revealed when he composed from the heart rather than the bicep; his beautiful dramatic and romantic scores offered a much more revealing portrait of who he was as a person. Despite this, Die Hard 2 offers more than half an hour of Kamen action music at its best, and will offer a perfect illustration of why he was so in demand for so much of the late 1980s and 1990s.

Buy the Die Hard 2 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Colonel Stuart (1:28)
  • Baggage Handling (3:48)
  • General Esperanza (2:13)
  • The Annexe Skywalk (3:10)
  • The Church (1:14)
  • The Doll (3:50)
  • The Runway (3:57)
  • In the Plane (1:37)
  • Icicle (2:53)
  • Snowmobiles (2:39)
  • The Terminal (6:12)
  • Finlandia (written by Jean Sibelius, performed by The Los Angeles Motion Picture All Stars Orchestra, cond. Michael Kamen) (7:29)
  • Nude Tai Chi/Marching Through the Hotel Corridor (1:28)
  • Colonel Stuart (3:05)
  • Could We Have A Few Words Please (1:04)
  • Into the Baggage Area/Baggage Flight (5:16)
  • Snowfall on Blueprints (1:15)
  • General Esperanza (2:12)
  • Dead for Two Years (1:57)
  • Powering Up (6:29)
  • Kicked Out of the Tower (2:07)
  • Marching to the Annex (3:26)
  • Skywalk Shootout (3:34)
  • Skywalk Aftermath/Looking for a New Miracle (2:34)
  • Attention Dulles Tower (1:27)
  • Crashing the Jet (5:56)
  • John Picks Up Doll (2:36)
  • The Army’s Arrival/The Idea (3:49)
  • Colonel Stuart’s Speech (1:14)
  • Landing Esperanza’s Plane (3:00)
  • Meeting Esperanza (4:33)
  • John Punches Esperanza (3:18)
  • Little Problems (1:40)
  • Fight With the Sentry/Fight at the Church Continues (3:12)
  • Shootout and Snowmobile Chase (6:48)
  • Dick-Head (6:53)
  • Chasing the Jet (3:08)
  • Fight on the Wing (5:19)
  • Fight on the Wing Continues (4:04)
  • Finlandia/Finale (written by Jean Sibelius, performed by The Los Angeles Motion Picture All Stars Orchestra, cond. Michael Kamen) (4:04)
  • The First Killings (Alternate Version) (1:51) BONUS
  • Baggage Flight (Alternate Version) (4:17) BONUS
  • Powering Up (Alternate Version) (4:16) BONUS
  • Attention Dulles Tower (Alternate Version) (1:30) BONUS
  • Crashing the Jet (Alternate Version) (2:14) BONUS
  • Colonel Stuart’s Speech (Alternate Version) (1:12) BONUS
  • The Doll (Album Version) (3:54) BONUS
  • Finlandia (End Titles Version) (written by Jean Sibelius, performed by The Los Angeles Motion Picture All Stars Orchestra, cond. Michael Kamen) (7:29) BONUS

Running Time: 40 minutes 30 seconds – Original
Running Time: 122 minutes 11 seconds – Expanded

Varese Sarabande VSD-5273 (1990) – Original
Varese Sarabande VCL-1012-1138 (1990/2012) – Expanded

Music composed and conducted by Michael Kamen. Orchestrations by Michael Kamen, Chris Boardman, Bruce Babcock, William Ross, Don Davis, Mark Koval, Phil Giffith and Ron Gorow. Recorded and mixed by Armin Steiner. Edited by Christopher S. Brooks. Album produced by Michael Kamen, Stephen P. Mc:Laughlin and Christopher S. Brooks. Expanded album produced by Mike Matessino, Nick Redman and Robert Townson.

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