A Good Day to Die Hard Review
33A Good Day to Have Low Expectations.
You must have heard the bad news? Dozens of terrible reviews: 'Worst Die Hard movie ever. A Die Hard movie in name only’. The effects make it look like a videogame. Bruce Willis looks bored. It has none of the spirit of the originals.' Most of them are fairly unanimous about the only thing that's actually good about the film: it's short.
Are the reviews unfair? Not really. I'm not going to come out of the underdog corner, fists blazing, trying to argue that this is somehow a good movie, let alone that this is a good Die Hard movie. I do, however, happen to think that low expectations work wonders. They make this disappointing fifth entry a bearable, oftentimes entertaining little spectacle – one which probably doesn’t really merit a full-price trip to the cinema, but one which may well still be enjoyed on its home run.
It’s been a tough start to the year for all the old action heroes. After Stallone pretty-much single-handedly brought them all back to the fore through his Expendables movies, 2013 was supposed to be the year of the action-hero comeback: Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand; Stallone’s Bullet to the Head; and Willis’s A Good Day to Die Hard. The first two have flopped massively at the Box Office, failing to even recover their modest production budget, let alone the advertising surplus. Sure, Bullet was pretty-much slated, but even the reasonably positive, forgiving reviews of The Last Stand didn’t help it. Indeed, despite the relentlessly cold reception, A Good Day to Die Hard will likely – through its brand sequel status alone – be more popular than both of the others put together.
"Do you go looking for trouble or does it always just find you?"
I can understand the fury though. 1988’s Die Hard was an all-time classic. A quintessential, defining action-movie. It established John McClane, the everyman cop in a tough situation. He wasn’t a superhero. He barely survived every encounter. Sure, he had plenty of witty, throwaway lines, but he always took the situation seriously – because it was a serious situation. He was never a flippant, I’m-never-going-to-die-because-I-AM-this-franchise character. Endlessly quotable, infinitely watchable, Die Hard was a masterpiece.
Although it was felt to be something of a copycat sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder carried much of the same magic with it. McClane was still just the wrong guy in the wrong place. Come Die Hard with a Vengeance, they changed it up a notch and attempted to make McClane the target. It worked. Borrowing a script once intended for a Lethal Weapon sequel, they injected Samuel L. Jackson into the mix as a brilliant foil for McClane’s antics, upping the humour and fantastic quotes whilst largely maintaining the action and violence. I say ‘largely’ because it was the first Die Hard that appeared to suffer from ratings politics – and the upper end of the violence suffered as a direct result, particularly here in the UK. Still 1988 – 1995 is largely regarded as the reign of the Die Hard franchise.
After 12 years McClane returned, in amidst a sea of over-the-top blockbusters. In the wake of Transformers – with CG having pretty-much completely replaced real-life stunts and practical effects alike – Len Wiseman’s Die Hard 4.0: Live Free or Die Hard was an enjoyable but somewhat diluted fourth entry. The cyber-terrorist plot attempted to bring the franchise up-to-date, and Willis managed to competently return to the character that arguably made him an action superstar in the first place, but a weak villain and prevalence of CG threatened to diminish the undeniably grand set-pieces and prevalent action.
I happen to be one of the few defenders of the fourth Die Hard movie. Although, whichever version you watch – the PG-13 cut, or the R-rated alternate – you’re likely to feel that it’s less adult than its predecessors, there is still plenty of outlandish fun to be had. And yes, this was the point at which McClane graduated from everyman-cop-in-a-tough-situation to invincible superhero, but there were still sparks of classic McClane. He still got hurt. He still took the situation seriously as if his life was on the line.
Hell, I even enjoyed the juggernaut-vs-fighter plane sequence, which is probably the segment which viewers will most draw parallels with whilst watching A Good Day to Die Hard. It’s that point where you just have to accept that these films are never going to be the same as they once were. This isn’t 1988 (as one villain even points out in the movie). We have to accept grander and grander stunts – that’s just the way that sequels go – and, honestly, if you can swallow John McClane jumping from a crashed truck stuck on a collapsing bridge, onto a damaged fighter plane – and then jumping off it as it explodes in mid-air – then you should be able to handle pretty-much anything that A Good Day to Die Hard has to offer.
Perhaps expectations were wholly unrealistic.
I know that fans want a more old-school John McClane. They want headbutts and spitting blood; swearing at every turn and getting yourself beaten and bloodied up by bad guys. They want the relatable everyman hero; the guy that is more than likely going to survive the trouble he gets into, but still could die. Unfortunately he’s long gone. He’s been replaced by an indestructible clone. And we’re just going to have to live with that fact.
It’s unrealistic to think that they would return to the more adult violence of before. Ratings politics dictates this: it’s necessary. In fact, in some respects Die Hard fans should be pleased that the filmmakers have listened to them: A Good Day to Die Hard returns the franchise to the R-rated status of the first three entries, after the cut PG-13 Live Free or Die Hard (Of course over here in the UK the opposite has happened – after receiving an uncut 15-rated Live Free or Die Hard we unfortunately now get a Studio-cut 12A fifth entry).
Unfortunately the trouble with this latest film is that, whilst upping the violence, it has somehow lost the plot. Literally.
Indeed the premise itself isn’t horrendous: McClane travels out to Russia because he hears that his estranged son has been arrested and charged with murder; there he stumbles, feet-first, into a grand conspiracy involving the CIA, high-ranking Russian Government officials, and political prisoners, and has to help his son face off against seemingly endless heavily-armed bad guys in a bid to get to the bottom of it all. No, the biggest flaws arise in the way that it has been presented.
Director John Moore is best known for Behind Enemy Lines, Flight of the Phoenix and Max Payne. I think that alone scared a lot of viewers. On the one hand, I enjoyed Behind Enemy Lines and thought that Moore managed action sequences extremely well. On the other hand, he directed Max Payne, which single-handedly proved you could ruin a great videogame-based concept no matter how many action sequences you put in it. And Flight of the Phoenix was just plain unnecessary.
Here he once again shows that his strength lies in action. But his management of the plot and characters is anything but efficient, and he doesn’t even make the most of the frequent opportunities for good one-liners.
For starters, where’s a good villain when you need one? After Alan Rickman broke the mould in Die Hard, William Sadler struggled a little bit in the sequel, a fact which was further highlighted by the dominant presence of Jeremy Irons in Die Hard with a Vengeance. Personally, I think that Timothy Olyphant (who seems to fare considerably better in excellent TV shows like Deadwood and Justified) was miscast in the fourth film, but many will be practically singing his praises in comparison to what we get here: a trio of faceless Russian thugs who hardly make the slightest impression upon you before they meet their makers.
“Do you know what I hate about Americans? Everything. Especially cowboys.”
Again, there was some potential here – the parallel stories about fathers and their troublesome children; and the final act twist which was actually made more possible through the use of largely unknown actors – but Moore struggles in delivering the goods. He doesn’t allow the characters to drive the story; hell, he barely allows them to catch a breath between action sequences.
Then there’s McClane and his son (reasonably well portrayed by Jack Reacher’s antagonist, Jai Courtney). Again, a couple of nice ideas (although I would have suspected that the events that brought McClane and his daughter back together a few years ago might have helped smooth a reunion between him and his estranged son too; something which is jarringly overlooked here), but there’s next to no development. Worse still, the director – and the script at this point – doesn’t allow McClane to really take the situation seriously.
I don’t want to see McClane argue with his son over old family disputes whilst an armed assault team are shooting automatic weapons at them, all the while with McClane cracking wise and saying ridiculous things like “we’re not done talking yet” as he sees an armoured juggernaut tank-truck thundering a destructive path after his son’s fleeing van. I don’t mind McClane saying something throwaway like this after he’s dealt with the threat, but saying it at the outset just smacks of whimsy. It’s the first point in the movie where I sat there and went ‘yeah, I can see why people didn’t like this.’ It’s the point where it nearly lost me.
Similarly Moore allows the McClane character to simply go too far in the action: if you’ve seen the preview clip of him driving his jeep off a bridge then you know this silliness already. Sure, the bridge stunt is good; the driving around on the top of trucks is fun; but the subsequent driving across traffic is ludicrous – how many innocents, simply sitting there waiting in their cars, would have been hurt through a needless little bit of extreme driving? It’s something that McClane – the character – would simply have never condoned (don’t even get me started on the pushing-someone-off-a-building execution).
Still, if you can get past these grievances then there is some semblance of a pay-off; there is some enjoyment to be had. Even maybe a few nice Die Hard tributes too.
It’s a funny thing. In all the reviews I’ve read there hasn’t been any note made of the references that A Good Day to Die Hard makes to the original first film in the series. I know that most viewers/critics would have probably been overwhelmed by the flimsy story, underdeveloped characters, disappointing dialogue and in-your-face non-stop action to have bothered looking for the ‘nuances’ on offer here, but director John Moore and screenwriter Skip Woods (the man behind the poor Hitman and A-Team adaptations and the lame Wolverine Origins movie), however bad they are at their respective jobs, clearly intended A Good Day to Die Hard to be simply chock full of tributes to the original 1988 classic.
I somehow wish these ideas had been brought to screen by a better director, in a better way, but that does not mean that I did not notice the intention, and, I have to say, it did make the movie more enjoyable.
It all starts when the two McClanes are facing off against a group of armed villains about midway through the movie. Did nobody notice the bit where McClane Sr starts laughing to distract the villains so that his son can pull a weapon from behind his back? (c.f. the final standoff in Die Hard where McClane has a gun strapped to his back) Or the subsequent decision to shoot out the glass to shred the bad guys? Even the jumping-off-the building bit was a nod to the fire-hose jump in Die Hard – even if it is diminished by the over-the-top jump at the end of the movie – and the aftermath, picking glass and shrapnel out of their bodies? It may be 12A-style diluted violence – who knows how much was in the uncut version, or will be in the now-mooted director’s extended cut? – but the thought is still there.
Perhaps my favourite direct reference is when the McClanes confront a suspected antagonist towards the end of the movie, and he – in classic Alan Rickman / Hans Gruber mode – fakes his innocence (quite convincingly), all the while making steps towards a gun lying a few steps behind him. Sure, these scenes aren’t anywhere near as effective as they were in the first movie, but it’s a nice tribute to the original classic, and one which shouldn’t go unacknowledged.
Then there’s the action. Looking at it purely from an action standpoint, fans of the start of Expendables 2 should thoroughly enjoy A Good Day to Die Hard from start to finish. Fans of the juggernaut vs. fighter plane sequence in Live Free or Die Hard should feel the same way. It’s practically non-stop action.
The juggernaut vs. van vs. truck vs. jeep chase is pretty good fun. There’s lots of crashing and bashing – and one particularly nice sequence which follows the carnage after the beast uses another vehicle to pummel its way through traffic. Sure, it’s pretty long – arguably too long – and the final climax of the sequence isn’t captured as clearly as I would have liked, but it’s undeniably thunderous fun. Did I fully buy McClane going toe-to-toe with a juggernaut in a jeep? No. Did I enjoy the frivolous over-the-top nature of the scene? Yeah, I have to say I did.
And whilst John Moore may show little interest in his characters or his story, he does know how to blow stuff up with large rounds of ammunition. I still remember the scenery-shredding mayhem in Behind Enemy Lines, and there’s definitely some focus placed on the same here. Sure, it would have been nice if he'd paid better attention to establishing the scale and scope of the sets (that's what hand-held shots will do; leave you wondering whether you're in Russia or actually some Hungarian film set), but, as action set-pieces, they do very nicely. When the McClane’s first spot the Mi-24 Hind helicopter heading in their general direction, you know you’re in for some fun, and Moore delivers, tearing up the set as the heavy weapons rounds perforate the building. The entire sequence is fun. Again, frivolous, but fun.
Even the climax, involving another Russian beast-of-a-helicopter, the Mi-26 Halo, is pretty good fun. Yes, it does have a hint of this-looks-like-a-videogame when Willis’s McClane is seen dangling from a truck dangling from the helicopter, but what did you expect? A real stunt? And it’s pretty-much the only part where you could see right through the effects – the CG is actually fairly well done throughout the rest of the sequence, even including the Trailer-prevalent moment where McClane is thrown through a window. Even that later effects-heavy shot (again in the Trailers, grrr you’ve got to hate Trailers!), where we follow our two heroes as they drop through a floor whilst a helicopter explodes parallel to them, was a daring attempt to provide a breathtakingly different action sequence and, whilst it didn’t quite work, it’s another one of those moments where you can see Moore’s forte.
At 97 minutes long – the shortest, by far, of all the Die Hard chapters – the action is perhaps the one thing you can rely on in A Good Day to Die Hard, and should be seen as its biggest selling-point.
What realistic-to-expect things would I have liked to make this a better Die Hard movie? A more substantial villain. They made the same mistake with Die Hard 2, and didn’t fare much better in 4, but things have never really been as ineffective as here. Also, a decent physical fight between McClane and any of the villains’ henchmen (I’m thinking of, in particular, that tough looking animal who is so tough he doesn’t even need a shirt!) would have been nice. Clearer dialogue and more punchy one-liners from Willis would have been far more in-line with the predecessors (even the fourth film); the problem wasn’t just the lack of swearing, there just aren’t any good one-liners, and some of the supposedly witty lines felt more like either throwaway mumbles – the score and effects drowning out the dialogue – or incorrect attempts at humour (did you really ever expect John McClane to say “Where’s your little Solzhenitsyn?”?! And, if he was going to reference the famous Russian political activist/author, wouldn’t he at least know that Solzhenitsyn was male?!!). And honestly, after the fifth time, John McClane shouting “I’m on vacation!” at Russian villains just isn’t very funny.
I’ve still got hopes that a better version will emerge on home formats in a few months’ time. For starters, the film was pre-cut for a 12A in the UK, so I already want to see the US R-rated version. Secondly there are plenty of lines of dialogue / scenes from the Trailer which have been changed for the final cut (including a considerably funnier moment in the Trailer where McClane’s son says “don’t encourage him!”, which has been replaced by the frankly awful spoilt-brat “well I could have done that!”). And thirdly, the director has only very recently announced that he is working on an Extended Director’s Cut – perhaps the early bad reviews made him want to do some damage limitation and give audiences some light at the end of the tunnel.
Whatever the case, I’ll definitely be revisiting A Good Day to Die Hard when it gets a decent release later in the year. Who knows, maybe it’ll even scratch up an extra point on the score. At the moment, though, I can’t recommend it as a cinema trip unless you’ve seen all of the other, better, movies on offer at the moment (from Django to Zero Dark Thirty to Flight) and unless you’re desperate for an action fix. I guess there aren’t exactly many better pure action movies out there which are any better. And which have the generally very watchable Bruce Willis in them. If you do take the hit, then definitely go in with lowered expectations – if you think it’s going to be awful then you may well be more open to enjoy it on the frivolous escapist fun level that it actually works upon.
“Is that your best shot?”
And Die Hard 6? Yes. Count me in. Call me a glutton for punishment, but all these last two movies have needed are better directors, more witty dialogue and better villains. It sounds like a lot to ask for, but they still consistently deliver on the action front – which is actually pretty rare these days – and they still feature one the greatest action icons of all time: Bruce Willis’s John McClane. Hell, even if McClane is a shadow of his former self, Willis is still in great shape and hopefully he and his next filmmaking team can learn from these mistakes and fix three simple things: director; one-liners; villain. Then maybe we can get another good Die Hard movie before this cowboy hangs up his hat. Cause I certainly don’t want it to end here.
VerdictI'm not going to come out of the underdog corner, fists blazing, trying to argue that this is somehow a good movie, let alone a good Die Hard movie. From an action standpoint, fans of the start to Expendables 2 and the end to Live Free or Die Hard should be thoroughly entertained. Unfortunately the characters - in particular the villains - are woefully underdeveloped and the story takes a distinct back-seat to the non-stop spectacle. Even the one-liners are disappointing. Still, low expectations work wonders. They make this disappointing fifth entry an easily bearable, oftentimes even enjoyable little actioner – one which probably doesn't quite merit a full-price trip to the cinema, but which may well still be enjoyed on its (uncut, maybe even extended) home run.
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