[18 February 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What were they thinking? No, honestly, what WERE THEY thinking? John McClane in Russia? Running around Chernobyl to stop a scientist from unleashing his secret stockpile of nuclear grade Uranium on a world flush with rogue terrorist bomb makers? (Oops - sorry…spoiler alert?). Before, our befuddled cop often transplanted to places outside his flatfoot comfort zone, has taken on bad guys in a building, drug thugs in an airport, a bomb-happy heckler from his past, and a computer whiz wanting to destroy the world’s information grid. So nukes aren’t such a bad idea…or are they? Indeed, as the latest installment in the Die Hard series (given the precursory clip “A Good Day to...”) eats up an unhealthy portion of the President’s Day weekend box office, one has to wonder if this was the best approach to keeping a once healthy franchise flourishing.
From a critical standpoint (16% and struggling over at Rotten Tomatoes), the answer is a flat “NYET!” Granted, after the first film proved that suspect TV star Willis could successfully cross over to the big screen, dozens of wannabes more or less ruined the original premise. Speed was Die Hard on a bus. Speed 2 was Die Hard on a cruise ship. There were Die Hards in space, Die Hards underwater, Die Hards in planes, trains, and all manner of automobiles. So finding another outlet for John McClane and his celebrated brand of machismo must have proved difficult. Add in the notion of an incomplete mythology and limited backstory (Is he married? Divorced? Separated? And exactly how many kids does he have?) and it’s hard not to either fail the concept or run roughshod over the audience’s expectations.
Of course, it’s the height of desperation whenever a successful film series introduces children in service of their star. You can just hear the pitch meeting now: “McClane’s OLD now…and his kid has to help save the day. NO! WAIT! The kid, whose now a young adult, gets in trouble, and it’s the old man that has to beat the bad guys! BRILLIANT! ” Like giving Indiana Jones a surly son who wants nothing to do with him (apparently, abandonment issues are extreme when you distant dad is an international man of mystery), John Jr. - as portrayed by a robotic Jai Courtney - is pure cliche: supposedly skilled at what he does (work for the CIA) but bumbling the minute trouble takes a twisted turn. Naturally, the policeman who saved an entire office skyscraper full of hostages has to help out. Even with his USA credentials (though we see the agency abandon him early on), a trained field agent in charge of masterminding a partial prison break in the former USSR apparently still needs his broken down pop to make things right.
And that would have been fine, even with the side trip to Asia’s most radioactive resort. The byplay between parent and child is good for character and camaraderie. In the typical script - and A Good Day to Die Hard is unreasonably routine - the sullen, sour offspring gets to see his or her old man or woman in action, and after having their own sorry butt saved, recommits to the family name and the individual who helped construct the biological link to same. Here, John Jr. gets to see just what senior is made of, and after witnessing one death defying feat after another, reclaims McClane and helps do away with the antagonists once and for all. The last shot has Willis and his two kids (Mary Elizabeth Winstead has an extended cameo as Lucy Gennero-McClane) reunited…and oh does it feel so, so good.
Except, we could care less about the McClane clan. In the first film, scum bucket reporter Richard Thornburg invades the family’s household, startling the newly hired Hispanic maid and turning these two kids into madman bartering tools. After that, we get very little mention of the McClane siblings. Lucy shows up in Part 4, but the occasional dropped hint does not a mandatory backstory salvage make. In order to really care about the suddenly appearing John Jr., we’d have to know him…and the movie does little to establish him as a character we should care about. Again, part of this may be Mr. Courtney’s fault. Whoever cast him as the offspring of Willis’ world weary wise guy must have been listening to The Return of Bruno one too many times.
So we are stuck - stuck with a director who has little sense of what a scene should be. Sure, he can compress the action of a flaming helicopter repelling down the side of an old power plant edifice while two CG figures freefall along with the enveloping fire, but John Moore is horrible when it comes to person on person interaction. Similarly, the script by Skip Woods takes the author’s first name a bit too seriously. Instead of establishing anything - the Russian angle, the McClane family angle, the CIA angle, the whatever ever angle - the screenplay just jumps right on it, ex-Soviet weapons a-blazing. Looking at his work over the years - Swordfish, Hitman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and now this - it’s clear this so called scribe knows explosions…and little else. Even worse, we are stuck with a set-up that promises more, and as of right now, few will be fired up to see John McClane back and balding.
Once the international box office is tallied (and it promises to more or less double the final domestic take) however, we will definitely be seeing Die Hard 6. Willis has even said that he’d like to make said film the final installment in the franchise, at least where his involvement is concerned. If it does happen, those in charge need to remember one thing - we don’t care about the splash, we care about the situation. In the original Die Hard, it was just McClane, a bunch of gun toting bad guys, and an office building on Christmas. In Part 2, it was an airport, a bunch of gun toting bad guys, and the same old holiday feeling. Parts 3 and 4 opened up the arena, but not the approach. It was up to John McClane to do as ‘Simon Sez’, or uncover the secret behind the tech terror hack. In A Good Day… , he’s just another guy with a gun. With Die Hard, the hero is as proactive as he is reactive. Here, he’s just a sideshow, and a worn out one as well.