I had ranked this as on par with Die Hard, but it’s really not. The script’s origin as a standalone film, unrelated to John McLean, is pretty clear in how the quality changes as the film progresses. Things go awry after Simon’s plan really gets underway, which is a shame, as the twist about his identity and his true motivation deserves a better follow-through.
The film gets off to a great start as McLean and Zeus careen all over NYC to meet Simon’s demands. The last half, unfortunately, doesn’t match up to the beginning. The set pieces get bigger and use fewer physical effects, which makes them look less convincing. They also involve too much coincidence. (I’m not saying everything in the first half of the film is believable, but it doesn’t have to be: McLean shouldn’t have survived throwing the bomb off the train, but at least the carriage looks real as it slides across the platform.) And there’s just not enough imagination behind them: Simon’s games are unpredictable, but the tunnel sequence feels rote and has no sense of threat.
Taking the action off Manhattan Island, let alone all the way to the Canadian border, lets down the character of the film’s first half. The handling of the bomb at the school is genuinely tense, and a promising hint at how good the film could have been if it had somehow stayed within NYC.
These flaws aren’t enough to keep the film from being enjoyable, particularly since Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons are such brilliant additions to the cast. The police team also provide solid support, and it looks like a rare instance of colour-blind casting for Graham Greene.
On another note: I saw this on TV in Japan, and the voice actors dubbing for Willis and Jackson both sounded like generic tough guys, which was pretty disappointing when they were substituting for actors with such distinctive voices!