Good Day to Die Hard, A (Review)

(2/14/13; Action)
Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Yuliya Snigir, Radivoje Bukvic, Cole Hauser
SCR: Skip Woods
DIR: John Moore
MPAA: R For violence and language.
1 hour 37 mins
(20th Century Fox)

An open letter to the creators of A Good Day To Die Hard.

I love your series, I really do. So believe me, this is not an easy letter to write. Not every franchise is durable enough to last 25 years. The ones that do – James Bond, Star Trek, Star Wars – did so by either evolving creatively or just being such a strong brand that the films were simply reminders about all the products you could buy.

But Die Hard is different, and has been since that summer in 1988. First off, the first Die Hard is a damn near perfect film and I realize that. Casting Bruce Willis as tough everyman off-duty cop John McClane was inspired. McClane’s motivation – saving his marriage – and the way that internal conflict defined his actions once Alan Rickman’s terrorists showed up is the stuff of screenwriting legend. Die Hard not only created the genre of putting an average guy in extraordinary circumstances but it broke the mold while doing so.

That’s one of the reasons why Die Hard 2 (1990) is considered a failure and Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) was such a breath of fresh air. Sure, a lot of that had to do with the return of John McTiernan who directed the first film, but it was more than that. Vengeance was the first Die Hard flick to show us our favorite New York cop actually being a New York cop.

I even defended Live Free or Die Hard (2007), despite the studio eviscerating the film to score a PG-13 rating, and the fact that the villain was kind of weak. Okay, Justin long was fairly irritating too. But Live Free aka Die Hard 4.0 did something truly unique with John McClane. It made him a sad sack with a fractured family of adult children who wanted nothing to do with him.

Which brings me to the reason why we’re here. A Good Day To Die Hard, the fifth movie, released during the series’ 25th anniversary year. Also a movie of firsts: Good Day is the first in the series not released during the summer, the first one to clock in at just over 90 minutes (the others averaged 130 mins), the first to take place in another country (Russia), and the first not shot in the 2.35 widescreen format. It’s in HDTV-ready 16×9, not necessarily a strength. Thankfully, the film returned to it’s R-rated roots.

But here’s the rub: it’s also the first Die Hard film without a story.

Even if Die Hard 2 was a rehash, and Live Free eventually turned into a “McClane rescuing his daughter” flick, all four previous films were about something. Arguably, Live Free went so far to make sweeping statements about the danger of an over-reliance on technology. Remember the whole “analog cop in a digital world” thing?

A Good Day To Die Hard does a few things very well. It introduces a compelling secondary character, Jack McClane (Jai Courtney), the CIA operative son of Willis’s character. John long believed his son to be a juvenile delinquent, and not the “007 of Plainville New Jersey.” It’s a wonderful dynamic that does more than just introduce a character who could inherit the series. It creates the push-and-pull that allows for the same kind of heartwarming male-bonding tropes that propelled the Lethal Weapon series as long as it did.

But there’s no story.

Sure, there’s a political revolution taking place in Russia that Jack ends up in the middle of, and when John gets word of his arrest, he jumps on a transcontinental flight. And yes, there is a late-in-the-game bad guy twist, but even that becomes obvious after a while.

So what we’re left with is 90 minutes of John and Jack repairing their relationship while dodging bad guys, rocket launchers, and killer helicopters. The movie is, in essence, a series of four major set pieces, each culminating in a big explosion and some sort of ridiculous logic-defying escape. There’s the prison escape sequence which results in the longest car chase since Bad Boys II (2003), the ambush at CIA headquarters (a big abandoned building), the confrontation at a large hotel (another big abandoned building) and the coolest portion of the film, which takes place at Chernobyl, the infamous site of a nuclear disaster.

I liked that sequence. It was creepy and weird, despite unfolding in (ahem) another abandoned building. There’s genuine fear over the radiation, an uncertainty about which bad guy is really in charge, and the ominous presence of that massive helicopter, waiting to be put into action. Also, by this time, Willis and Courtney are completely believable as father and son and we care about them.

Well, I cared about them.

In fact, it was that simple admission that leads me to the greatest critique of your film. As I was exiting, I heard a lot of flippant comments in the theater lobby akin to “Yep, it was another Die Hard movie.” And if you are satisfied enough to simply put Bruce Willis in the middle of a bunch of violent mayhem and “Yippee-ki-yays,” well that’s your prerogative. But I care about these characters and I feel they deserve better.

One word: Skyfall.

Similarly, the James Bond series released a film that coincided with a major anniversary. Sure, they could have given us “another Bond movie,” but instead gave it’s stock characters some real conflicts and issues to chew on, a great villain, and was lauded as the best 007 adventure in decades. It was named the Best British Film at the BAFTA awards.

Oh, it also made a billion dollars at the box office.

Die Hard deserves to be taken back to its roots, back to the characters. For the inevitable Part Six, please, I implore you, let this series have its Skyfall. I believe the actors would be willing and the audience would find it refreshing. Sure, you can still blow things up, but even the Lethal Weapon movies – as bloated as they got – were still all about the characters.

And another thing? It’s okay if you let your movie breathe a little. Do you really think so cynically of your audience to assume that a few moments of character development would bore people? Even Bruce Willis complained in interviews that he doesn’t understand why the few lines explaining the crux of the father-son conflict was cut from the film. Me? I was wondering why half the dialogue in the trailer wasn’t in the final movie, and wondering further why every money shot, including the climactic explosion and last dialogue spoken in the film, was.

And since we’re talking about the end of the film, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that all the good guys live. It was nice seeing Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the reunited McClanes. Would it have killed you to have thrown Bonnie Bedelia a few bucks to show up for 30 seconds?

Die Hard deserves better than this.

If you’re interested, I have a few ideas.


Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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