Die Hard 2 is one of the best examples of the genre and fully deserves its place in the series.
Let's be clear, Harlin is a workmanlike director - he doesn't bring the style and sophistication of McTiernan. McT understands and commands the artform as well as the finest filmmakers out there. Like Speilberg, he FEELS the medium and understands its musical, temporal quality while also having an eye for realism and a knack for eliciting precise performances from actors (as well as knowing how to blow shït up good). Give him a pulpy but well-crafted screenplay and you get masterworks like Die Hard and, to a slightly lesser extent, With A Vengeance.
Joel Silver is a smart and successful producer. He knew that without McTiernan he could still cook up a good sequel by surrounding a competent storyteller who understands TENSION with talent. The original screenwriters returned to create a script founded on a good page-turner, as with the first film. Much of the supporting cast returned. Master composer Michael Kamen returned. Master editor Stuart Baird was brought in, as well as an additional supporting cast composed of strong players like Dennis Franz, Fred Dalton Thompson and John Amos.
With all that in place, and guided by Silver's shrewd eye, Harlin just had to put it all together. Not only did he achieve that, he peppers the film with some of his own masterful touches. One of his biggest contributions was having the villains crash a full passenger plane (the studio wanted a cargo plane to go down), this change by Harlin brings the film firmly into disaster movie territory and makes act 2 of the story a MAJOR game changer. The film spends enough time showing McClane and others' emotional reactions to the tragedy to honour such a horrific event, and it propels the story into act 3 with charged momentum.
Harlin's other contribution is his excellent handling of tension-filled action. Nifty set-pieces like climbing out of the runway vent in the nick of time before being squished by a landing plane, the gun on the conveyor belt, the cunning ejector-seat escape. These last-second escapes from certain death while being trapped are a specialty of Harlin's and he turns them to high-points of the entire genre. They didn't have the filmmaking technology to quite pull off the ambitious ejector-escape shot convincingly, but the idea itself is inspired (and was copied in Goldeneye).
Inventive deaths which exploit the environment also pepper the film. Icicle-in-the-eye, minced in a jet engine, crushed in a baggage conveyor - the film fully explores the possibilities of its confined location. Harlin, from Finland, relishes the snow-filled black night which becomes a memorable visual texture of the film. He also relishes brutal bloody violence, and ensures that bullet wounds explode with blood and slit throats bleed profusely, as they should - none of the sanitised, safe, bland, restrained, DHINO-style distorted-for-kids take on violence here.
The story's pacing is excellent. The pieces are all set up in an unhurried, assured way, making sure that the playing field and the characters are clear and detailed so that when the shït hits the fan the impact is that much more affecting. Act 2's plane crash works because of this. The confinement works as it did in Die Hard - engrossing us as each new phase of the combat takes us deeper into the night. Die Hard 2 also features arguably the series' best finalé - a spectacular blow up all of the bad guys in one move with a cigarette lighter. It's inspired.
Criticisms of the film's ridiculous similarities to it's predecessor are moot - this is pulp material done well, but still pulp. I wanna see Indiana Jones go on a globe-trotting adventure in pursuit of an ancient artefact every few years. I wanna see James Bond suavely save the world from some twisted villain every few years. And I wanna see blue collar cop John McClane take on terrorists (or robbers if you must) every few years. As long as it's done well, the concept is so strong that it DESERVES multiple interpretations.
As a Die Hard film, Die Harder is a more straightforward and serious thriller, lacking the richness and sophistication of its predecessor, but full of memorable flourishes and genre highlights. Crucially, it retains the spirit of the series, is built on strong foundations, and respects the character of McClane - none of which can be said for the juvenile sellout mess that is DHINO.