Silver Screen: A Good Day to Die Hard *
It’s been twenty-five years since Die Hard set the standard for American action movies. The next quarter-century saw incredible advances in camera technology, computer effects, and strong influences from Chinese and Korean moviemakers who often outdo their western counterparts in the action-flick department. Despite all that, few if any shoot ‘em ups have even come close to equalling Die Hard’s thrills.
The secret to its success isn’t much of a secret at all. Star Bruce Willis brought a then-unheard-of everyman charm to the role of a hapless, alcoholic cop inadvertently thrust into the role of superhero. The sharp script based on Roderick Thorp’s novel confined the action to a narrow set of boundaries inside an office building and kept up a rapid-fire spray of jokes to match the barrage of bullets. The deliciously villainous Hans Gruber, played to perfection by the great Alan Rickman, was almost as compelling as the movie’s protagonist.
The first sequel to Die Hard was misbegotten even though it hit the proper beats, but returning director John McTiernan got it right in the third installment, which expanded the confined setting to an entire city without sacrificing too much of the claustrophobic intimacy of the original. (Watched in retrospect, Die Hard with a Vengeance, with its various time-sensitive missions that send McClane zig-zagging around New York, looks a lot like the grandfather of Grand Theft Auto.) The Die Hard formula was so codified, it became the shorthand descriptor of all the various knockoffs: Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a bus (Speed), Die Hard on a plane (Air Force One).
All of this makes one wonder how screenwriter Skip Woods and director John Moore could make such a colossal blunder of a Die Hard movie that it ceases even to be remotely recognizable as another entry in the series. Instead A Good Day to Die Hard plays like any random, generic Bruce Willis action movie. In fact, one of Willis’s own generic action movies, Sixteen Blocks, is a far better approximation of a decent Die Hard sequel.
In A Good Day to Die Hard, all that remains of McClane is an aging mug and a catchphrase. Even the latter he holds onto until the movie’s final minutes, during a climax that’s silly even by action-movie standards, then croaks out a yippie ki yay with all the enthusiasm of a bus driver reading the street sign at the next stop. It’s a poor effort not just from Willis, who still has full access to his talents and often puts them to use in better, smaller movies like Moonrise Kingdom, but everyone involved.
The uninspired plot finds McClane globetrotting to Russia, where he travels to help his son Jack (Jai Courtney), who is being tried for murder after publicly gunning down a well-connected citizen. McClane Jr. is no criminal, though. Unbeknownst to his estranged father, he’s working for the CIA, and the shooting was just a cover to get him into a prison where he could assist Komarov (Sebastian Koch), a former military man who’s trying to ferret out the corruption of his old cronies. The McClanes secure Komarov and go on the lam in an effort to help him prevent his old comrade from hatching a nefarious plot based out of the old irradiated Chernobyl site.
What’s missing from this Die Hard? Everything. McClane, once a glib everyman, has become a charmless, unstoppable killing machine. The fragility that made him so vulnerable and sympathetic in the original is gone. The John McClane who maims himself running across a room scattered with broken glass has been replaced by a guy who falls five stories through a skylight and never stops shooting. The confined setting is traded for overblown car chases and bland indoor locales that reek of soundstage. There’s no Hans Gruber to challenge our hero, nor even his smarmy brother Simon (Jeremy Irons). The Russians catching the bullets here are so bland and indistinguishable that the only one who stands out does so by munching on a carrot during an interrogation for no reason whatsoever.
The fifth go-round is as instantly forgettable as the atrocious fourth movie, Live Free or Die Hard, which was released only a few years ago but is now just a vague recollection of Justin Long and Timothy Olyphant and a car chase over a crumbling interstate overpass. The existence of the fourth movie is the only possible argument for A Good Day to Die Hard not necessarily being the worst entry in a series that should have gracefully bowed out in the 1990s. If only the franchise would die off a little easier.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.