Series note: Although the Die Hard films obviously follow one another chronologically in the film's universe, they are not really constructed as chapters in a novel. You could watch them in any order, but to give the characters more depth, and make better sense of a couple minor references, I would still recommend watching them in order.
In my Die Hard 2 (1990) review, I complained (although apologetically) a bit about the lapses in internal logic. It ended up being somewhat excusable, because I read Die Hard 2 as a satire of the genre as much as a serious action film. With Die Hard 3, John McTiernan is back at the helm, as he was for Die Hard (1988), and the result is once again a more serious action film (containing some comic relief, of course) with very taut internal logic. In fact, Die Hard: With a Vengeance is so well constructed, so well acted and so well directed that I like it just as much, if not better, than Die Hard.
John McClane (Bruce Willis) is once again separated from his wife, and he's once again living and working as a cop in New York City. As the film begins, he is on a temporary suspension for some never-specified infraction (it works better that it isn't specified, as it enables us to imagine all kinds of crazy things that this gruff character might have done). After a bomb explodes at the Bonwit Teller department store, a mysterious person calling himself "Simon" calls the police taking credit and asking to speak with McClane--or he'll detonate further bombs in crowded areas. They rouse McClane from the aftermath of a drunken stupor. He shows up at the police station with a hangover, looking haggard. "Simon" is fond of riddles and makes McClane engage in a bizarre game of "Simon Says". The first task is for McClane to head up to Harlem and stand on a street corner in his skivvies wearing a sandwich board that says only, "I Hate Blacks" (using a more inflammatory epithet than "blacks"). Of course, he almost gets killed, but at the last minute, a reluctant savior in the form of a local shopkeeper, Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), helps save his butt. Unwittingly, Carver ends up embroiled in the Simon Says games with McClane, with increasingly serious stakes. Just who is Simon? Why is he toying with McClane?
I should note that I was predisposed to like this film. I like Bruce Willis a lot, but I especially love Samuel L. Jackson. The combination of the two here is simply magical. They have remarkable chemistry and the characters that scriptwriter Jonathan Hensleigh has drawn enable both deep tension and hilarious comic moments between the two.
But the film succeeds on more than the charisma of its two principal actors. Die Hard: With a Vengeance has a fantastic, intelligent plot. Hensleigh ties his villain to the story of the first film in a semi-satirical way that gives the motivation for the "Simon Says" games great depth. The Simon Says games manage to be silly, smart, humorous and great catalysts for dramatic tension at the same time. There are subtle jokes about New York City, New York City cops, "reverse racism", European opinions of American intelligence, and so on. And of course, there are many edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting action sequences involving a wide variety of environments in the New York City area. The wide variety of environments was a nice change over the more limited settings of the previous two films, and gives Die Hard: With a Vengeance a feel almost like an adventure film.
It's remarkable that Hensleigh and McTiernan were able to sustain such a high level of excellence throughout. If you look at Die Hard: With a Vengeance from a broader perspective, the whole is constructed something like one of Simon's puzzles. Every scene leads inevitably, logically to the next scene, even though the film takes many "left turns", and the solution of one dilemma to the next often involves split-second timing.
It's often said that McTiernan and Hensleigh simply ignored Die Hard 2, and in terms of direct plot and dialogue references, this may be true, but they still give Die Hard 2 a nod by having an attendant humor--often almost "goofy" humor--in many action scenes. One of the most direct nods occurs with McClane "riding" something of an explosion (of water this time). This is one of the more hilarious scenes of the film.
As for subtexts, they are similar to those of the first Die Hard, with some interesting additions. There is an intriguing parallel between McClane's disheveled state, the typical New York City chaos, and the attempts to further undermine stability from the villain. Focusing on this aspect, Carver provides more of a dependable, even-keeled balance.
There are also direct references to very contemporary political subtexts--with foreigners having in mind that the U.S. has socio-economic power disproportionately in its favor. They claim to want to redress the imbalance, although in this film, at least, the claim may end up being a false representation--there appears to be corruption undermining it. However, it's interesting that there is yet another "twist" towards the end that shows the claim may not have been as corrupt as we initially believed, even if it still seems a bit mad and/or megalomaniacal. It's also interesting that the resolution is reached on foreign ground.
But the subtexts in Die Hard: With a Vengeance may be even more minor focuses than in the previous two films. Instead the focus is on the spectacle of a tightly told, thrilling action/adventure story. That's all the film needs to succeed as well as it does.