A Good Day to Die Hard
It’s evidently a conscious decision, but a wilfully perverse one, that the canvas of John McClane’s adventures has steadily broadened with each subsequent instalment. The claustrophobia and tension of one man fighting the odds in a tower block has been steadily diluted, first as he transferred to an airport, then a city (New York), then the eastern seaboard of the United States and now a whole country (Russia). A Good Day isn’t quite as terrible as the slating it’s received would suggest, but it’s not very good either. The script is perfunctory and the direction incontinent, but the strangest aspect is the neutering of the series’ protagonist.
Skip Woods’ script is, ironically, the first written specifically for the series. Ironically, because it bears scant resemblance to anything that might be construed as the franchise formula. Die Hard doesn’t exactly have a great legacy to uphold; the first film is an out-and-out classic, but the sequels have all fallen short, to a greater or lesser extent. And the adaptation of significantly differing source material to fit John McClane in has meant that defined “Die Hardness” is difficult to pin down.
Do there have to be terrorists? Well, no, not really. Die Hard 2 is the only film in the series that features bad guys defined by political motives. In all other cases the objective is financial (even this one). Does John McClane need to protect his family against an imminent threat? Well, no, not really. Die Hard with a Vengeance doesn’t feature any of his relatives (although it does hinge upon the brother of the villain of the original film). Does McClane have to find himself cut off, in life or death situations where he constantly wisecracks as he cuts a swathe towards the main bad guy? The tough guy version of David Addison is certainly a key to the first film, but it’s been variably displayed since. Does McClane need to be vulnerable, dodging bullets in realistically unbuffed situations? That’s one of the big charges laid at (in particular) the fourth installment. But Die Harder saw Bruce eject out of a plane that then exploded, and With a Vengeance had him buoyed atop a comedy waterspout. It’s all very well to claim the antics on a jet in 4.0 were a shark jumping point of no return, but it seems like a selective charge. And, does McClane need his hair? Admittedly, his post-Vengeance appearance is a problematic one. Has he become a ladies’ man who takes care to shave his pate everyday (he’s looking a bit stubbly at the start of A Good Day)? We’ve had little insight into his personal life since he came on dishevelled and washed-up in Vengeance (arguably, only the first and third outings make any effort to provide him with an emotional trajectory). Does it need to be R/18 rated? Well, I don’t know. A lot of those who slated Live Free… thought so. A Good Day was an R, and that didn’t seem to help it.
What I’m getting at is the claims that Live Free… somehow permanently tainted the series’ proud legacy are grossly overstated. Admittedly, putting Kevin Smith in a Die Hard movie is something no one should be proud of (and, post-Cop Out, he’s been dining out on what a pain-in-the-ass Bruce is – despite being charm itself on the 4.0 extras), but I liked the movie a lot. It’s a view that gets short shrift with the series’ faithful, who consider the film to be an outright betrayal; it was a Die Hard movie in name only.
Yet, prior to Number Five, Die Hard 2 was the outing I thought of as a bit of a turkey. It’s lurchingly directed by Renny Harlin, who doesn’t do suspense so much as hope that big bombastic action will exert some kind of kinetic pull (with lots of slow motion). The structure is stop-start, undermining the key aspect of McClane’s isolation in the first film (here he checks back in the airport guys at intervals) and defusing any notions of tension. And the “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” announces the series as a parody of itself; the film has to be set at Christmas (again) his wife has to be in peril (again), he has to talk to his cop buddy (again) and the annoying journalist is also there (again). It’s both a sequel by-numbers and one lacking any of the spark (both in terms of script and direction) that made the first so special. It’s been suggested that McClane’s no fun in Live Free… but in Die Harder he has no one to spar with and the bad guys have no wit or weight (which is not to impugn William Sadler; he just had nothing interesting to work with).
So yes, this is the weakest of the five, but I can’t find the opprobrium to condemn it outright. Maybe it’s lowered expectations (I didn’t bother seeing at the cinema, based on the all-round slating) or a willingness to wolf down any table leavings, but the merest glimmer of Bruce cracking a smile or nursing a one-liner is something I’m inordinately grateful for. It would help if he had really good one-liners (you know, of Die Hard or Last Boy Scout quality), of course; his repeated refrain of “I’m on vacation” falls stone dead (apart from anything else, he isn’t; he’s in Russia to find his son). There’s the occasional call-back to the McClane of the first film (the scene with the taxi driver) and solid quip (“You think I understand a word you’re saying?”) but many of his lines seem badly looped, or edited inappropriately to throw the timing off (“We’re not a hugging family” even has a better choice of shots in the trailer than the final movie, which says something about the choices made by the director).
But if there’s one thing Die Hard shouldn’t do, it’s to have John standing around while others take the lead. I do think it was a solid move in principal to introduce his son, and after the Justin Long buddy combo in Live Free… they could only make him a can-do guy. But, once you make his son a superspy, in a Die Hard movie that is essentially a spy movie, you sideline McClane. Add to that, he’s playing catch-up with an estranged son, and there’s no real chance for John to do what John does.
After the extended car chase opening, he’s paired with his son throughout, so there’s no opportunity for extended scraps with villains or cliffhanger escapes. It makes sense to continue the series familial strife, of course, even if the choices are of the most obvious kind (Jack won’t call his pater “Dad” until the end, when they are reconciled), but there’s something very wrong structurally if leads to Bruce being a guest at his own party. The only way to counter this would be to require John to rescue Jack; I can see why they didn’t do this since both Holly (twice) and Lucy have been used this way, but what else are you going to do if you want your lead to remain your lead?
Willis at least has a good rapport with Jai Courtney, although in such a short film (at 97 minutes, it’s nearly half an hour shorter than its closest contender in the series) Jack’s antagonism towards his father again has the unfortunate effect of rendering John much more passive than he should be. The one upside of the drive to Chernobyl is that you get to see Jack believably thawing when faced by his father’s rascally charm. But, despite these significant shortcomings, at least Willis is more like the Bruce of old than the guy walking through films doing his minimalist “serious actor” thing for more than a decade.
It’s also a welcome bit of continuity to have Mary Elizabeth Winstead bookend the film as a returning Lucy McClane (bafflingly, her scenes have been excised from the extended cut – apparently – because they’re just the kind of grounding John needs as a “real” person, particularly in a film that is set piece rather than character or plot-led).
So Woods, like director John Moore, is a (cheap?) Fox in-house guy. His dubious resume includes Hitman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The A-Team. Expectations, rightly, weren’t high. But why did he think this was the way to go? I get that he’d go with a fake-out opening; Jack’s incarceration, so as to bust out of captivity a Russian oligarch whom the CIA has an interest in. It has the whiff of the sort of scheme we’d see from Hans Gruber or his brother. Except there’s no structure beyond that. We get a 20-minute car chase, a showdown with an apparent twist in allegiance (again, it’s nice to see Bruce mocking a bad guy, but the sequence never takes off; it’s neither tense nor witty enough), lots of big guns and explosions in the place of finely-honed action choreography, and then there’s a road trip to Chernobyl. Where is the intricate plan by the villain the McClane has to outsmart? We get a twist, but that’s a reveal and it’s one that relies on far too much luck to be a seriously sustainable plan of action; Woods’ script has even less structural integrity than Die Harder. And how long does it take to drive to Chernobyl?
The climax in Chernobyl is symptomatic of the problems with the film; of course, any US film concerning Russia has to involve Chernobyl in some capacity; it’s either the only awareness that Woods has of Russia/the former Soviet Union or the only awareness he thinks American audiences will have. It still seems rather distasteful to fictionalise the disaster (in this case, two oligarchs caused Chernobyl through their uranium profiteering, but we’ve seen it all too frequently in Hollywood product), but it’s also a dumb, lowest common denominator plot choice. Worse than that, there are no stakes to the finale; McClane and Son arrive with the express purpose of killing a load of bad guys in a big warehouse.
Turning Die Hard into a spy movie wasn’t necessarily a make-or-break issue; there are still bad guys motivated by money, and family members in trouble, after all. But it’s the sloppiness of every aspect of the scripting and execution that topples it. If you can’t go there and maintain John McClane as the core component, you shouldn’t go there at all.
If Woods suggested a “churn out a sequel” attitude on the part of Fox (which has a consistent, borderline tactical, neglect of its brands), the announcement of John Moore as director only confirmed it. His previous two movies, The Omen remake and Max Payne, are dreadful, but for some reason he is a Fox golden boy. Noam Munro was apparently the first choice, but anyone short of Brett Ratner would have been better than Moore (actually, loathe as I am to admit it…). I guess Willis deserves a share of the blame. He had approval and, according to arch-advocate Kevin Smith, only behaves himself when he is working with writer-directors (of course, Smith barely qualifies as either, his talents lie as a raconteur). On a Willis star vehicle, he wants to make his weight known; there are enough stories of his ego at work to lend this some credence, but it doesn’t let Moore off the hook. Additionally, this film is such a mess as to suggest either great chunks of it went missing in the editing room or weren’t shot at all.
The opening has the elements of a decent, well-choreographed set piece. Except, in Moore’s putty-like hands, it’s disjointed and garbled. There appear to be massive gaps between the first- and second-unit footage, with Willis the observer unconvincingly cut into the explosive fireworks. When the car chase begins, it’s borderline inept; there’s absolutely no understanding of pacing or escalation, in spite of the length of the sequence. Elsewhere, Moore’s reported wish to rely on practical effects is undermined by the silliness of what we’re asked to swallow (jumping out of building, falling through scaffolding, all the while being shot at by a helicopter).
There’s further use of the helicopter during the Chernobyl climax (repetition is never a good idea), and the digitally enhance action is even more ridiculous here. It results in a disconnect with the action, since there’s no tension anyway. And presumably the truck that explodes contains the weapons grade uranium… Are we sure that the McClanes are in no danger whatsoever from radiation poisoning? If Jack says so, I guess it must be true. He’s CIA. (Jack: “You might lose your hair”, John: “Laugh it up, kid. This is you five years from now” almost justifies the half-assedness of it all).
Moore unwisely opts to shoot mostly with handheld cameras (to express John’s surprise and confusion at his unfamiliar environment; right…), rarely used with any degree of acumen when filming action sequences. He also employs distractingly inconsistent cuts between close-ups and wide shots and clumsy crash zooms; the viewer really has to fight to understand the spatial geography, but it’s a losing battle. Then there’s the murky, unappealing colour palate; it’s an ugly film and like all of Moore’s work has the veneer extensive post-production colour correction that makes it look as artificial as the digitised explosive action. Being an adherent of shooting on film is to no avail when you get results like this (he also chose 1:85:1 aspect ratio, lending the landscape of the film definably cramped when compared to the series’ predecessors).
Also, I don’t know why the first thing they do is give Bruce an oversize gun; I want to see McClane with a Beretta (and since it’s a key ingredient of the series, I can’t recall a single “cool” Brucie kill, or a gripping life-or-death struggle with an opponent). It’s this kind of wrong-footedness that Pierce Brosnan noted when Bond was provisioned with copious automatic weaponry; the greater the firepower, the smaller the stakes.
There are a number of call backs to the original film, including the Bruce laughing while captive to unnerve the villain, a slow motion fall approximating Alan Rickman’s (with a bit of Last Boy Scout’s climax to spice things up), the obligatory “yippee-ki-yay” reference (the lack of swearing suggest a PG-13 was being aimed for again) and Marco Beltrami’s music cues (his second film in the series, he does an unobtrusive job of picking up where Michael Kamen left off). But none of it is very engaged or diligent.
The supporting cast is also ill-served. Cole Hauser has one scene, Sebastian Koch does his best but he’s utterly undernourished; even the father-daughter dynamic with Yuliya Snigir is undeveloped. Rasha Bukvic attempts to inject some oomph into his henchman but has only one scene to shine (the one where Bruce laughs at him); needless to say, Moore fails to make the most of it.
Even given Woods and Moore, I still wonder what went so wrong here. Did they really intend to make a Die Hard lasting just over ninety minutes? There’s a suggestion that thirty minutes were excised, and that producers recut Moore’s work. But there’s no doubt that there isn’t a hidden masterpiece in there; Moore just isn’t that kind of director. But still, I’m curious. Based on at least one trailer, and being ever optimistic, I hoped for the best for this DH5. In general, it’s closer to a series-ending bomb than a “could’ve been” underachiever. But as I say, I did enjoy the father/son dynamic for the most part, and just seeing those brief glimpses of Bruce being McClane again.
It’s curious that Willis’ Red franchise has him acting far more the Willis we loved when he first found fame. Die Hard has now lost its way as badly as Fox’s Alien/Predator films when they went down the “vs” route. Reportedly Bruce wants to see Bonnie Bedelia back as Holly in the sixth and final instalment. It looks like it will happen, since A Good Day was a reasonable-sized hit internationally, despite the brickbats. I’d at least hope to see the series exit in the recovery position, rather than face down in the mud.
My Die Hard rankings:
Die Hard (1988) *****
The best action movie script ever? Certainly the best villain (Alan Rickman), the best dialogue and the best action (courtesy of an at-his-peak John McTiernan). The traditional American values ending is a bit repellently cosy (a problem with Last Boy Scout also) but other wise it never puts a foot wrong.
Live Free and Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0 (2007) ****
Much derided for turning McClane into a humourless superman, it’s the only sequel that manages to stay the course in terms of plot and spectacle. By some distance Len Wiseman’s best work as a director, and blessed with a memorable cast including Maggie Q and Timothy Olyphant. Even Justin Long’s okay. Kevin Smith gets the booby prize.
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) ***1/2
An outstanding, distinctive first hour (better than anything in Live Free… ), John McTiernan’s return to the series balls-up in the last third (once the heist has happened). From there, the action is underwhelming and the plotting clutches at straws (not helped by reshoots).
Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990) **1/2
Chilly repeat of the first film, complete with parodic gestures toward all the copying. The villain’s a bore, Bruce isn’t in any sustained peril, and Renny Harlin’s direction is ill-suited.
A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) **
A frequently incoherent mess, only (slightly) salvaged by the chemistry between Willis and Courtney.