Good Day to Die Hard, A (United States, 2013)February 14, 2013
One hot summer day in 1988, I emerged from a movie theater exhilarated by what I had just experienced. The film in question was the original Die Hard, one of the best thrillers of the decade and, one could argue, an all-time Top 10 entry for the genre. Over the next quarter-century, sequels arrived and, with each one, the sense of exhilaration diminished. Now, with Die Hard 5, a.k.a. A Good Day to Die Hard, it's pretty much all gone. We have entered generic action movie territory and the idiosyncrasies that made the series special at the outset have been leeched out, papered over, or turned into obligatory inserts. About the only thing left that inspires a momentary rush is when John McClane utters his inevitable refrain: "Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!"
If there's one thing to be said in A Good Day to Die Hard's favor, it's that McClane is more of his wisecracking old self than in the disappointing Live Free or Die Hard. Unfortunately, by transplanting the action to Russia (desirable from an international box office perspective), much of the urgency is gone. Worse, age has conveyed a degree of invulnerability upon McClane. The guy whose feet were shredded in the Nakatomi Building when he tried to make his way across a floor covered with glass shards is now able to fall through multiple plate glass windows without getting more than a few scratches. In Die Hard, McClane needed a tether to jump off a high-rise building. Here, no such safety device is needed. I guess the people making A Good Day to Die Hard don't understand that mortality is one of John McClane's most endearing qualities. Turning him into a cyborg with a sense of self-deprecating humor makes this a low point in the series' history. Based on the franchise's trajectory, with each new entry proving to be a little worse than its predecessor, I have no desire to see a Die Hard 6. The studio probably agrees with me, having relegated A Good Day to Die Hard to a mid-February release. This is as solid a vote of "no confidence" as a long-running series can get. Even Live Free or Die Hard was accorded a summer opening.
So what's the dumbed-down, inane plot? John's son, Jack (Jai Courtney), a CIA operative based in Moscow, has been arrested for murder and is awaiting trial. John, beset by self-recrimination about not being a good enough parent, takes a vacation to Moscow. (What he expects to do when he gets there isn't revealed. Speaking no Russian and without any allies, does he plan to engineer a jailbreak?) Before he can reach the courthouse where Jack is about to face Russian justice, all hell breaks loose. In the ensuing chaos, Jack is able to break free. In tow is a political dissident, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who has knowledge of "damaging" discs that implicate important people in nefarious past activities. Jack encounters John in a street near the courthouse and thus begins an uneasy 90 minutes of father/son bonding as the McClanes join forces to bring down the bad guys whose ultimate goal seems to be gaining possession of tons of weapons grade Uranium. Standard action movie save the world stuff.
Strangely, A Good Day to Die Hard doesn't have a real villain. Looking back at the original Die Hard, it was as much about Alan Rickman's incredible Hans Gruber as it was about Bruce Willis' John McClane. Since then, the Die Hard villains have been lacking, but this is easily the worst case of bungling the bad guy - too many henchman and no real boss. When the top villain is unmasked, the revelation is anything but surprising. With no single focus for McClane's righteous fury, this ends up being a story in which he hoists a big gun and mows down minions. Yippee ki-yay indeed.
With Bruce Willis approaching 60 (he'll turn 58 this year - still a babe in the woods compared to Stallone and Schwarzenegger), it was decided to give John a sidekick. This isn't the first Die Hard to attempt that but in the previous two, it was still primarily McClane on his own with occasional buddy movie overtones. The partner (Samuel L. Jackson in Die Hard with a Vengeance and Justin Long in Live Free or Die Hard) was clearly positioned as a second fiddle. In A Good Day to Die Hard, it feels reversed, with Jack being the central figure and John acting as his support. This simply doesn't work. For better or for worse, those who see A Good Day to Die Hard are there because they're willing to suspend disbelief that an old guy can do all these things. They're not there to see John McClane backing up his younger, buff son.
The movie tries to inject a little drama into the John/Jack dynamic. It fails utterly. Worse, the three minute scene in which the characters' drama reaches its climax brings the film's momentum to a screeching halt. The nature of the McClane family's dysfunction, which has already been played out in the earlier films (didn't we see essentially the same thing with Lucy in the fourth installment?), isn't interesting or compelling.
Director John Moore proves to be a competent action director. The chases, fights, shootouts, and explosions are adequately handled although lacking in energy and inventiveness. They get the job done. It's just that none of this feels right for a Die Hard movie. It's what one might expect from a second-rate, throwaway action thriller that no one cares much about. And maybe that's what this series has become. The Die Hards probably should have ended after the original trilogy. Bringing them back after all these years smacks of desperation, of a franchise clinging by its fingertips to the brink of relevancy. With A Good Day to Die Hard, that grip has slipped. Bruce Willis will continue. Action/thrillers will continue. But the time has come to write Die Hard's obituary.
Good Day to Die Hard, A (United States, 2013)
Cast: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Yuliya Snigir, Rasha Bukvic, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cole Hauser
Screenplay: Skip Woods
Cinematography: Jonathan Sela
Music: Marco Beltrami
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox