[15 February 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There are a lot of paycheck cashers in Hollywood. In the most recent past, Robin Williams never met a script he didn’t accept. When he wasn’t banking on bunk, he was turning said screenplays over to Robert DeNiro, who should have a couple of chalets in Switzerland thanks to his many mediocre money-only choices. And then there is Nicolas Cage. Drowning in debt and the victim of his own eccentric spending habits, he will basically do anything for a buck (like the upcoming mainstreaming of the laughable Christian rapture franchise, Left Behind). But Bruce Willis was never that kind of star. Heck, his international box office clout helped Quentin Tarantino get Pulp Fiction made. In recent years, however, he seems mired in a mix of direct to DVD releases (Set Up, Fire with Fire) and cash grab creative choices (G.I. Joe: Retaliation).
Which leads to his fifth venture as the character of cop John McClane, entitled A Good Day to Die Hard. This time out, instead of saving a building, an airport, a city and/or our technology grid, the hapless hero stumbles upon some Russian political intrigue. His distant son, John Jr. (Jai Courtney) is in Moscow and in trouble. Turns out, he’s working for the CIA and is trying to rescue a persecuted and imprisoned scientist (Sebastian Koch) from execution by a high ranking government official (Sergei Kolesnikov). After a mandatory car chase, father and son head out into the ex-Soviet countryside trying to decipher the connection between the two. Turns out, both were at Chernobyl during the infamous meltdown, and now the big wig is trying to get a file from his “friend” in hopes of clearing his name, or blackmailing him, or something like that. Naturally, McClane and progeny end up at the vacated locale, only to discover something more disturbing…and deadly.
If ever a movie was merely going through the motions, A Good Day to Die Hard would be it. This is pure pathetic February fodder, nothing more or less. You expect more from this franchise - something devious or diabolical. We want a great villain. We want McClane trapped in impossible situations and finding a clever way out of them. Instead, this is Die Hard by the numbers, and said digits just don’t add up. Sure, there are a couple of engaging action scenes - that is, when director John Moore isn’t jiggling the camera lens around in a hyperactive, nervous disorder design. Even when Willis and his co-star are talking, the image bops around like an infant infused with pixie sticks. Such an approach takes away from the feel of the film. Instead of giving McClane a chance to digest his situation and work within it, A Good Day just keeps throwing stuff at him, hoping he can cope.
It’s really Moore’s fault. After the missteps that are Max Payne and The Omen remake, putting him in charge here smacks of stunted studio folly. The script also stinks, jumping right into the fray without preparing us for what is at stake and who is involved in same. We get a cursory introduction to the Russians and then - BANG! - McClane and son are skidding around downtown Moscow, destroying dozens of cars (and our suspension of disbelief) in the process. It has to be said that, when he wants to, Moore can put on good set-piece. There are moments in said auto apocalypse where we get the mandatory sense of “WOW” and the ending is one long descent into over the top action movie heaven. Even the stylized way he approaches the chaos (slow motion, impossible to achieve angles, an overuse of CGI) still works. But unlike previous installments in the series, we are not invested in McClane’s triumph. Instead, we are just antsy to get the whole thing over with.
Willis is also part of the problem. This is Blackberry version of phoning it in. If he says “I’m on vacation” once, he says it seventy times. It becomes the worst kind of running gag, one that even Morrissey would admit is no longer remotely funny. Similarly, Mr. Courtney is nothing more than a statue as John McClane Jr. There is literally nothing of his father in this flailing son. The Australian actor does a good American accent, but he looks (and more importantly, acts) nothing like his super co-star. And when he should be winning, he’s merely wooden. The result is a hollow core that counteracts our expectations and complements the already slight structure at the center. We end up with a series of stunts looking for a movie - and a meaning.
Looking back, the main reason the Die Hard franchise thrived in the first place was that it constantly beat the odds. Willis was nothing more than a snarky TV star when he won the role of the heroic NY policeman. No one thought he would succeed, and yet some 25-plus years later, he’s an international fave. Similarly, John McTiernan’s workman like filmmaking on the first survived a bout with Renny Harlin’s enjoyable excesses, the weird third installment, and Len Wiseman’s PG-13ing of the series. The promise of an “R” signifies nothing here, by the way. A few blood splatters and a wealth of F-bombs do not a ballsy thriller make. It would be easy to call A Good Day to Die Hard a complete failure, but that would impart a level of quality to the film that it never even pretends to attempt. Instead, this is a cash grab for all involved, a financial stopover before the next installment is needed to firm up everyone’s bank account.
Sure, there will be some who see all the familiar Die Hard signs and figure - it can’t be that bad. Others will actually enjoy the pre-school like emphasis on bright shiny things making loud noises and moving around rapidly. But for those who fell in love with this franchise for its creativity and competence, for everyone who scoffed when the latest “Die Hard on a Train” offshoot arrived in theaters, A Good Day will leave a bad taste. Willis might have believed in this project at one time. Unfortunately, whatever faith he did have must have been left on the cutting room floor. All we see onscreen is a big time celebrity slumming for a payout - and the results reek of such artistic apathy.