(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on February 14, 2013.)
In 1979, author Roderick Thorp released a novel titled Nothing Lasts Forever, a story about ex-NYPD detective Joe Leland visiting his daughter in her high-rise office building during her Christmas party. The party is interrupted by terrorists with a heavy political agenda, and Leland uses his military and police training to eliminate the terrorist threat and save his daughter. Nine years later, this book was made into a fairly faithful film adaptation called Die Hard, renaming Leland as John McClane (Bruce Willis in his career-defining role), and changing the daughter of the novel into his wife. The claustrophobic pressures of the building and the tight, limited spaces keeping both McClane and the terrorists together kept Die Hard from being a rote action movie; instead, it was a wonderful, masterful suspense film – not quite Hitchcockian, but close enough for ‘80s movies. There was actual danger and a sense of dread, with the audience hanging on for dear life as McClane navigated his way through what must have been the most horrific night of his life. We felt for him when he had to walk across broken glass to escape a firefight, when he got shot, or when he had to confess that he hasn’t been the best person in the world to his wife. He was an underdog hero in the unlikeliest of situations, and audiences ate it up, with Die Hard becoming a beloved staple of American cinema.
25 years later, the McClane ethos has all been undone with the fourth sequel, A Good Day to Die Hard. No longer is McClane the underdog hero; he’s now been rebooted as a near-Superman, seemingly bulletproof and without a care in the world. Gone are the precarious situations where we actually feel that something could go horribly wrong for McClane; now, all we are shown are gunfights and stunt action that don’t mean anything. It’s just eye candy, holding no weight or consequences. You see, in the last several years, we’ve become accustomed to hyper-realistic violence and brutal imagery, but we also want our heroes to go through action movies unscathed, taking out the bad guys with a quip and a smile. What people forget about the original Die Hard is that the quips came at a price, and that there was a lot of meaning and weight behind each decision that McClane made. In A Good Day to Die Hard, the fear has been taken out of the equation, leaving only a swaggering, almost overconfident Bruce Willis (let’s face it – he’s not playing John McClane anymore) to mow down scores of bad guys with fully automatic weapons.
After getting wind of his son Jack (Jai Courtney) misbehaving badly in Moscow, John goes over to try and help, no matter how estranged his son may be from him. Soon, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy involving Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov), a corrupt government official, and Komarov (Sebastian Koch), a political prisoner who has a secret file on him. Not only must John fight off the hit squad Chagarin’s set out for Komarov, but he also has to find a way back into Jack’s life. That’s all the story that you need to know, as it seems that the filmmakers’ sole purpose was to heave loud, large action on us and slap a Die Hard title of some kind on it, trying to shoehorn John McClane into it somehow.
The suspense has gone completely out of the Die Hard movies (and the titles have been getting sillier), starting with Die Hard with a Vengeance, the third movie in the series. We saw McClane move from underdog to action god, mostly through being involved with ridiculous stunts like surfing on a truck through a concrete aqueduct, or falling from a bridge on the Long Island Sound onto a tanker. Also, all dread and claustrophobia were gone, replaced with sprawling cityscapes and an antagonistic partnership with a reluctant Samaritan. Live Free or Die Hard, released 12 years later, completely reshaped the McClane character into a boisterous, seemingly invincible New York cop; he jumps from collapsing bridges onto a Marine F-35B plane and rides it until it explodes, he uses a car as an anti-aircraft weapon, and he’s walking around seemingly fine only minutes after a self-inflicted gunshot wound close to his heart.
A Good Day to Die Hard is the worst offender of the bunch. It lacks any kind of personality, packing as much loud, devastating action as it can into its short running time of 97 minutes (the shortest runtime of any Die Hard movie) without making any good of it. The actors look totally dead, like they’re just there for the paycheck; there’s nothing believable about anything they say or do. The confusing shakycam cinematography makes your eyes bounce, shifting with every quick edit and jarring motion, with very few calm, static shots as respite. Cult fan favorite Robert Rodriguez once advised to not lock down your camera when shooting a movie, as the handheld style adds energy; director John Moore seems to have overdosed on Rodriguez’s advice, as he uses handheld cameras for 90% of the movie, and it made me nauseous. Moore said he wanted the film’s visual style to match McClane’s stranger-in-a-strange-land feeling, but all it does is make the film nearly unwatchable. Skip Woods’ screenplay knocks John McClane into being barely more than a sarcastic, knuckle-dragging ass with a machine gun, and the plot – who cares? It’s just another means to an end, where the end is watching Bruce Willis strut his way through action sequence after action sequence. Gone are the lateral thinking and smarts that made John McClane a force to be reckoned with; all that’s left is a man whose only want is to “kill all these motherf*ckers.”
Of course, everyone’s going to say stuff like “This is Die Hard for the new millennium,” or “This ain’t your daddy’s Die Hard.” You’re right. My daddy’s Die Hard featured a man up against odds that would make a Vegas bookie drop dead of a heart attack; it had a lead character who was likeable, who had you standing up and cheering; it had villains so memorable that they’re still referred to in this day and age as touchstones for the action genre. This new era of Die Hard tilts entirely too much in one direction, winding up with a product so wholly unsatisfying and forgettable. A Good Day to Die Hard is easily the worst of the Die Hard series, making Live Free or Die Hard look like a Steven Spielberg masterpiece. There was at least *some* fun to be had with Live Free or Die Hard; there is absolutely none to be had here.
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