This is traditionally where the plot synopsis goes, but by simply listing the events that take place in this film, we would be showing more concern for the plot than did the screenwriter of A Good Day to Die Hard. As a (to sidestep the obvious pun, let’s just say “confirmed”) fan of this series, it breaks my heart to see it devolve over the last two films into generic action fluff. It is inevitable that the review of the fifth Die Hard movie would feature a reheated recital of the facets of the original that engendered such an enduring affection, and thereby chart the shortcomings of the latest installment. A Good Day to Die Hard has actually made it easier to avoid the fanboy trap, as each of its many offenses against the franchise are part and parcel of its failure at far more basic components of filmmaking and storytelling.
In AGDtDH, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is no longer a put-upon wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time Hithcockian hero; Jimmy Stewart with a badge. A movie ago, he crossed into absurd superhero territory, but that not even who he is in the fifth installment. Well, he is that as well, but that’s not the unfortunate attribute that defines him. Instead, he is the supreme ugly American. He is the guy who punches innocent Moscow citizens because he can’t understand what they are saying. He drives a truck over the tops of civilian traffic throwing a flippant, “sorry, lady” to the woman he’s presumably crushed to death. He interferes with military operations and bonds with his son over how much they both like to kill people. The fundamental lack of understanding of not only this character, but also of how to create any semblance of amiability in any hero is staggering. Congratulations to the screenwriters here, they’ve now made it embarrassing to watch Bruce Willis play John McClane for reasons that have nothing to do with his age.
A relatively new trope of the series, as introduced in the third film, is McClane’s teaming up with a partner. He had always been aided by comedic ancillary characters, but Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus in Die Hard with a Vengeance was the first to graduate to legitimate sidekick. Once again, we need not use franchise past to gauge the success, or in this case faltering, of franchise present. A Good Day to Die Hard doesn’t fail in this regard because the chemistry between John and Jack McClane (Jai Courtney) isn’t as good as the chemistry between John McClane and Zeus. It fails because there is absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. Courtney is an insufferable block of wood who harbors an inexplicably hostile grudge against his own father for having a demanding job (so it seems). A young man resenting his father for not being around is nothing new, but pointing a gun at him and threatening to shoot him over it seems, what is the word, idiotic. But even when their contrived differences are set aside, the best the two actors can muster is standing near each other and constantly stating their familial relationship aloud for the audience.
This also brings up the woeful lack of comedy in A Good Day to Die Hard. Do we need McClane to quip the exact same jokes as he did while battling scumbags in the Nakatomi highrise? No. However the hackneyed, incessantly repeated non-jokes of this latest sequel drop like a Gruber from a thirty-second floor window, and land with a similar thud. McClane won’t let you forget, for example, that he is on vacation. Apparently so were the writers. Half the time, Willis is barking these lines with such shrill awkwardness as to be indecipherable…the only thing worse is actually hearing them. The dialogue in general here is atrocious, and bad guys often toss out quips that don’t conform to any sort of logic whatsoever.
The claustrophobic nature of the first Die Hard is a trademark that contributed heavily to its renown; a trademark long since abandoned. When it was announced that McClane would be tearing through the streets of Moscow in his latest adventure, we were fairly convinced his domain of destruction was again moving outward. Again, this expansion is nothing new so we need only judge A Good Day to Die Hard on how it makes use of its action arena. Unfortunately it flails and flops through a series of boring set pieces via some truly awful cinematography. Nearly every shot is captured on hand-held camera, with an apparent aversion to the passe notion of, you know, an establishing shot. Car chases are composed in such a way as to cut immediately from the outside of one car to the inside of another to the crashing of a third. Advancing enemies are so out of focus as to appear shot in unfinished 3D. At one point, no joke, a safety mattress is visible under Willis as he blasts open a skylight. The goddamn movie ends on a freeze frame that isn’t even centered correctly!
Hans Gruber and his brother Simon were brilliant criminal masterminds, and indeed superbly constructed characters. Does every foe with whom McClane tangles need to match that lofty intellectual standard? Not necessarily, though it would be nice if the audience were not asked to swallow irresponsibly high doses of utter stupidity. Once again, the hero who was once sidelined for a considerable amount of time by shattered glass from a cubicle divider is crashing through multiple stories of flooring before landing unharmed in a pool. And then there is the moment in which our villains enter an archive building in Chernobyl, wave a magic wand in the air, and then claim the radiation has been neutralized. “It neutralizes radiation, trust me,” spouts a baddie who then, as if part of the crew of the Prometheus, removes all protective covering. No thank you, brain-dead script, I think I’ll trust science, or at least common sense, instead.
A Good Day to Die Hard does include some visible homage to its own canon. Near the opening, it makes several references to Frank Sinatra, the man who was first approached to play John McClane in the first Die Hard. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” turns up as a ringtone on John’s phone. It also features a shot of an antagonist falling from a roof in slow-motion, a la Alan Rickman’s seminal plunge. It also returns to the narrative device of the turn-about; something that defined all of the movies until the abysmally one-dimensional Live Free or Die Hard. However, arguably apart from the latter, these nods are ill-earned and unsatisfying. Making a bad Die Hard film is objectionable, but being too lazy and apathetic to even prove competent in the fundamentals of filmmaking is criminal.
The Upside: Lots of stuff sure does blow up.
The Downside: The movie that takes place in the explosion interim.
On the Side: This was the first Die Hard film to not be based on some sort of written source; three separate books provided the basis of the first three entries, with Live Free or Die Hard coming to us based on a Wired article by John Carlin.