Guest Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard
The early days of modern action movies were full of not only massive explosions and astronomical body counts, but legendary, genre-building characters as well. Who can forget Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robotic manner as the Terminator, a role that defined his career? Or Sylvester Stallone as the gun-toting Rambo? Or Harrison Ford as the proud original of two legendary characters, space smuggler Han Solo and archaeologist Indiana Jones? The underlying appeal of these characters is that they often surpass their limits and succeed through the most unbelievable methods possible. And arguably the best combination of wondrous feats and blue collar sensibility belongs to Bruce Willis as John McClane, hero of the Die Hard series.
Since 1988, McClane has made a career of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and coming out ahead. He’s faced German terrorists (twice), military extremists and cyber-hackers who have thrown just about every bullet and bomb in the Western world at him, and he has emerged relatively unscathed. And he’s kept a ribald sense of humor through it all, making him one of the most unpredictable modern movie heroes. His rallying cry of “Yippee Ki-Yay Mother$#%*er” instantly became a hugely crowd-pleasing moment. And this past weekend he was featured in the fifth installment of the franchise, whose moniker – A Good Day to Die Hard – certainly attempts to live up to the insane action we have come to expect from a Bruce Willis vehicle.
In the latest entry, John McClane leaves the comforts of the United States for Russia, where his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) has been arrested and is facing life in prison. When John arrives however, he is surprised to discover that his son is no petty thug but an undercover CIA operative tasked with extracting political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who possesses a file incriminating a high-ranking Russian political figure. Naturally, that mission goes sour, and when it does, it’s up to John and Jack to stop World War III before it can get off of the ground.
On the surface, this appears to be just another Die Hard story set in another country, and what’s frustrating is that the movie doesn’t even live up to such limited expectations. A Good Day to Die Hard never finds its balance. Unlike his Die Hard predecessors John McTiernan, Renny Harlin, and Len Wiseman, A Good Day’s director John Moore has never made a good action flick, and he doesn’t start now. In his first major action sequence, which encompasses a chase scene on a city freeway, the excitement never rises above a mild murmur, playing out like a terribly boring video game. Despite the random tossing of cars into obstacles and random destruction, there’s just nothing exciting about sitting through this bit, even with the ear-popping “benefit” of an IMAX theater. That laid-back mood covers the entire movie, as Moore continually fails to engage his audience with ever-increasing gunfights, stunts and explosions.
Normally you can compensate a bit for such a lack of visual fun by infusing your characters with witty dialogue to make things more bearable. Banter has always been one of McClane’s characteristics, but it misfires completely here. The #1 reason is Willis himself; his McClane doesn’t talk to the other characters so much as he runs his own self-congratulatory commentary track. If he’d just shut up for 90% of the movie, it would have been a vast improvement (and am I the only person who thinks they wasted a prime opportunity for Willis to utter the perfectly anachronistic “Dasvidaniya, Comrade”?). Also, there is no chemistry between Willis and Courtney, who certainly has the physical chops (getting beaten up by the diminutive Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher notwithstanding) but lacks any real connection with his fictional father beyond a few scenes. But the actors can’t take all the blame: it’s ultimately Moore and screenwriter Skip Woods (whose lowlights include the silliest parts of Swordfish, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Hitman) who fail to justify their continued employment. They over-complicate their simple story with twists, sub-plots, and sequences that make absolutely no sense and have absolutely no consequences. Worst of all, there’s no weight to the villains, whose plans are never fully realized and who double and triple cross one another with completely illogical regularity. Koch, Yuliya Snigir, Cole Hauser, Sergei Kolesnikov and (especially) Rasha Bukvic have entirely underdeveloped characters, and not even the slight reappearance of Mary Elizabeth Winsted (as McClane’s daughter) can help make up for it.
Again, you aren’t expecting much: it would be okay if this latest iteration simply succeeded in providing the sense of fun fans of the franchise have come to expect. But Moore and Woods fail on a colossal scale. A Good Day to Die Hard is a bad way to spend a couple of hours at the theater, even if you’ve developed that itch for the series and want to see John McClane kicking ass just one more time. If you needed evidence to show that Willis and company should retire the character, the complete creative catastrophe of this latest entry should do nicely. It’s a shame that this kind of failure is so common; so many iconic characters have been prostituted to make as much money as they can, often resulting in the watering-down of everything we once loved about them. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull decimated almost all the good will the franchises had garnered for their characters, and if it can be believed Harrison Ford is in supposedly in talks to return for the new Star Wars film as Han Solo. (Actually, Rambo didn’t do too badly his last time out, but getting back to the point…) Popular heroes can be their own worst enemies when we are subjected to more and more of their stories. The well runs dry, and what’s left is all business and no entertainment. That’s the sorry Die Hard we have on our hands today.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. For more of his film reviews, check out Hello, Mr. Anderson… if you’re curious.