Review: A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD is Dead on Arrival
Bruce Willis revisits old school New York City cop John McClane for a fifth time, teaming up with his son in Moscow to battle some evil Russian terrorists, but the results are far from satisfying.
It's a depressing time for old school Action Cinema in Hollywood right now, with comic book adaptations and superhero flicks scoring big at the box office, and no new generation of beefcake action stars making it into the A-list. Sylvester Stallone's Expendables franchise has only highlighted this point even further, that action stars who could open a film on their name alone - Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone himself - simply don't exist right now (with the possible exception of Jason Statham), meaning these old-timers still get the financing to dust off their tried and tested franchises of yesteryear time and time again. At 57, Willis is the youngest of these three by almost a decade, and with films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Red 2 on the way, he shows no sign of quitting. Fans of the Die Hard franchise voted with their cash in 2007 that they are still happy to see John McClane kicking terrorist butt all over town. Live Free or Die Hard was a huge hit, and we all know that if that was anyone other than Willis in the vest the story would likely be very different. But if the fans keep paying, the powers that be would be fools to stop making more. And so we come to A Good Day To Die Hard.
In this latest instalment, Detective John McClane heads to Moscow, hoping to bring back his wayward son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who is due to appear in court, charged with murder. McClane Jr. is in fact working for the CIA, and committed the crime in order to get close to Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), a political prisoner and potential whistle-blower. McClane Sr.'s arrival coincides not only with their court hearing, but also with an attempt on Komarov's life, simultaneously countered by McClane Jr.'s botched efforts to smuggle him out of the country. Within a few minutes of the McClane family reunion, all three of them are being pursued by a heavily-armed gang of terrorists, who are gunning for Komarov, in the hope of retrieving a hidden disc that could incriminate their boss, bent politician Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov).
With John McTiernan's 1988 original now firmly cemented in the minds of at least one generation as the pinnacle of Action Cinema - not to mention new favourite Christmas movie - opinions do vary on which of the sequels truly work. There is strong negativity towards Renny Harlin's 1990 effort, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, but not only does it have the only truly cool title of any of the sequels, I've always found its wintry airport setting, strong supporting cast of special forces operatives, dastardly villains and stubborn antagonists, to be the most compelling film after Die Hard. 1995's Die Hard With a Vengeance has its moments, and there's no denying the chemistry between Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, but here the series abandons its Christmas setting, as well as its confined space, to the point it barely feels like a Die Hard film. Len Wiseman's Live Free or Die Hard takes this even further, expanding the action to the entire Eastern seaboard, partnering McClane's committed luddite with Justin Long's frustratingly young hacker to combat a cyber-terrorist out to hold the country to ransom. On its own terms it works to some degree, but it no longer has anything in common with the first film. These problems are only exacerbated further in A Good Day to Die Hard.
As we look back over the series, McClane's character has devolved almost beyond recognition. In the first film he's just a regular guy forced to mingle with successful businessmen and refined Europeans, who sport John Phillips suits and tertiary educations. By the fourth film, McClane is forced to embrace the concept that the world has changed while he was hung-over, and his old school methods won't be enough to save the day anymore. He appears reluctant to evolve, but by the end is begrudgingly willing to do what needs to be done. In A Good Day to Die Hard, however, John McClane has become a deranged sociopath, incapable of functioning among normal people in the everyday world. He gets frustrated when his daughter (Mary Elisabeth Winstead) lectures him not to make trouble while in Moscow, and for a moment we are on his side, knowing his healthy disregard for authority is almost definitely going to stir things up. But no sooner has he tracked down his son, McClane is stealing cars, screaming at civilians, demolishing buildings, freeways and other vehicles, without any information regarding who he's chasing or who is shooting at him. When he does eventually catch up with Jack, it comes as no surprise that his son wants nothing to do with him, and is prepared to stick a gun in his face rather than let him help. McClane is unrecognisable from the loveable rogue of 1988, and deserves nothing more than to be committed.
While most of what is wrong with the film can be laid at the feet of scriptwriter Skip Woods (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The A-Team), from McClane's baffling behaviour, to the illogical plotting, and the wafer thin characterisation, Bruce Willis must also be held accountable. This film would not have existed without his participation, and if he was unhappy with anything on the page, you can guarantee he would get it changed before moving forward. That he was willing to appear on screen ranting and raving like Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is both baffling and disconcerting.
Director John Moore's career to-date has hardly set the world on fire, but he does pretty well for his part here, taking into account the man is primarily a visual stylist who cares little for narrative or characterisation. The grand scale car chase sequence near the beginning of the film looks to be almost entirely practical, and manages to be occasionally thrilling, even while you stare in disbelief that any of it is happening at all. Later on, there's an equally loud and exhilarating high calibre shootout involving a military-grade helicopter firing at a building, while the finale at Chernobyl (yes, that one) is eerily similar to that of the previous film, all spinning airborne vehicles as McClane clings on for dear life.
The cast can do little to help the mess. I have already mentioned Bruce Willis' reluctance to make McClane coherent or likeable, while Jai Courtney's Jack is too hard-nosed and one dimensional to be a replacement affable hero. German actor Sebastian Koch, best-known for his roles in The Lives of Others and Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, can offer only brief glimmers of his talent, as Woods and Moore give him nothing to work with and a flimsy character arc. Radivoje Bukvic and Yuliya Snigir play the young, sexy villains, but again, get to do little more than posture, fire automatic weapons and snarl for the camera. Bukvic is gifted one brisk speech about his desire to be a dancer, but the moment grates horribly - a clumsy, desperate attempt to add colour to a character who is otherwise conspicuous only as the least-memorable villain of the series.
Where A Good Day to Die Hard really has the opportunity to do something new and interesting is in the central relationship between McClane and his son. They are estranged, there is history, even bad blood between them, but the film is never able to capture a single "real" moment for them to build upon. Jack insists on calling his father by his first name, but it's never explained why, and they spend the rest of the film either screaming at each other to back off or "bonding" over their family's inability to display affection. What should have been the humanistic heart at the centre of all the violence and bloodshed - what has always made Die Hard special in fact - is entirely absent, and the awkwardness of their moments together only underscores how poorly the filmmakers understand the series.
A Good Day to Die Hard is the shortest entry in the series by almost half an hour, but still manages to do more damage to the Die Hard property in 97 minutes than anything else in its 25-year history. Dumb, crass and tedious when its predecessors were smart, witty and entertaining, A Good Day to Die Hard is far and away the worst of the five films, and even with its R rating restored, struggles to entertain as a piece of disposable action entertainment on even the basest of levels. The film isn't just bad, it's embarrassing, and news that there is more yet to come only gives further cause for concern.
A Good Day to Die Hard opened in Hong Kong and Singapore on 7 February, and hits theatres in the USA, UK and most of the rest of the world on 14 February.