Some movie franchises flourish when the filmmakers consistently up the stakes, stunts, and villains. Take the Fast and the Furious movies, which have graduated from simple drag racing to driving a car out of the nose of an airplane. Those flicks are flexible enough to adjust to greater demands from studios looking for new ways to thrill movie audiences. But when you try and cram those same outsized elements into a classic franchise like Die Hard, what you get is a bloated mess.
I come to the latest Die Hard installment having seen only the original, and only recently. I knew that the intervening three movies escalated from one man in a building taken over by terrorists — to one man at an airport — to one man at the FBI. Except that for me, it’s as if these movies suddenly jumped from thirtysomething John McClane (Bruce Willis) crawling through a building ventilation system to sixtysomething McClane playing chicken with a helicopter in a literal nuclear wasteland.
What’s supposed to draw audiences to A Good Day to Die Hard is the novelty of yanking McClane out of his home country of America and dropping him into mother Russia. Whereas in the first movie he was an Everyman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, now he’s the Ubermensch stomping over foreign soil to retrieve his son from the clutches of Russian terrorists. He’s like Guy Pearce in Lockout or Brad Pitt in the upcoming World War Z — “he’s the only man who can save the day.” Except the screenwriters subvert this by having McClane stumble upon a CIA plot like he’s some green rookie.
And it turns out his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) hasn’t developed a drug habit or knocked up some girl, but has been working on an undercover mission for three years. Which McClane blows in five minutes. Considering how much of Die Hard hinges on McClane’s absence from his kids’ lives, it’s no surprise that Jack, now in his twenties, greets him with such derision. Who wants their out-of-touch dad fucking up their job?
Dropping McClane into Russia strips the movie of all personality. It’s compelling to watch a New York cop try and MacGyver his way out of a terrorist plot in Los Angeles. It’s boring to watch the same New York cop hijack a truck, snark about Moscow traffic, dodge machine-gun fire, and jump out of burning buildings like a guy half his age. For crissakes, for most of the first movie he was delirious from bleeding from his feet, and here he suffers nary a scratch!
I also think I’m spoiled for a truly unnerving villain. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber commanded a room; the scene where he and McClane chatted as if neither knew who the other were was the most tense part of the first movie. By contrast, here we get a handful of random, ineffectual villains, as if stacking the deck against the McClanes will make their triumph all the more exciting. But, no surprise, each baddie is one-note: There’s the tap-dancing Russian Michael Fassbender (as I called him in my head), and the father/daughter team who are constantly double-crossing each other.
The parent/child themes are way too obvious, so that you can map the various “twists” by them. Furthermore, the thin plot is supported by absolutely ludicrous action sequences that had our audience literally groaning the way you would at a cheesy joke that doesn’t land. On paper, they sound fantastic: Of course a Russian terrorist movie will include a conspiracy theory about Chernobyl and long-dormant radioactive weapons. From the standpoint of pushing the envelope, these moments are certainly fun. There’s a strange poetry to John McClane flipping off a burning helicopter. But why is he doing it? And will his life just reboot after? Is this just a typical vacation for the McClane family?
My impression of the Die Hard movies is that they’ve always been incredibly self-referential. McClane knows that he has the bad luck to wind up smack in the middle of a terrorist plot every few years, just like Jack Bauer on 24. But having Willis bark retorts to Courtney — who, by the way, makes a completely competent spy — smacks of an embarrassing old fogy who doesn’t realize he’s making crappy jokes.
The movie is a jarring combination of wink-wink-nudge-nudge in some parts, while other key details haven’t been filled in. (Seriously, a simple line like “Gee, sure has been sad since Mom died” would explain away Bonnie Bedelia’s absence.) The one good callback to the original, where the two McClanes burst into giggles in order to distract the terrorists aiming guns at them, works because the audience picks up on it without being nudged to look for it.
Speaking of callbacks, yes, “yippee-ki-yay, motherfuckers” makes its way in. But — without spoiling what’s supposed to be a cathartic moment in every Die Hard installment — Willis sounds so incredibly resigned when he says it. Similarly, the last shot feels like director John Moore (Max Payne, Flight of the Phoenix) didn’t know how to end this movie, so he decided to just slap a freeze frame on it.
A Good Day to Die Hard is not as bad-fun as Battleship or Lockout; it definitely errs more on the side of bad-bad. There are few treasures to be found in the mercifully short running time. Really, John McClane Sr. and Jr. should’ve stayed home — and you should, too.