Imagine you are watching a generically plotted action film, with a pretty bland hero, and all of the sudden that hero’s goofy dad, who has a knack for killing terrorists, shows up to tag along and do some bonding, while terrorizing Moscow. This is what A Good Day to Die Hard boils down to; as it removes itself even further from what the franchise once meant. Die Hard has certainly never been shy about going bigger with its sequels, but this time around the series really does feel like a shadow of its former self, with problems that people may have had with the last film, Live Free or Die Hard, feeling even more amplified this time around. As a result, there is some decent action and a lot of explosions, but I would be hard-pressed to call this a Die Hard film, rather than just an action film with Bruce Willis.
John McClane: You got a plan?
Jack McClane: Not really. I kinda thought we would just wing it, you know. Running in, guns blazing. Make it up as we go…
A Good Day to Die Hard picks up with detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) traveling to Russia to find his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who has been arrested. McClane believes Jack to be in trouble for something like drugs, but Jack is actually working for the CIA. He is currently on a mission to extract a political prisoner, Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch). An attempt is made on Yuri’s life by a group of mercenaries hired by a corrupt Russian official, but Jack seems to have everything under control. That is, of course, until Jack’s dad shows up and causes a lot more problems for everyone. Jack is reluctant to work with his father, but the two stick together throughout the day anyway, hoping to complete the mission – McClane style (blowing a lot of stuff up and killing a bunch of people).
One of my biggest issues is the portrayal of John McClane. As opposed to the other entries in the series, McClane is less of an annoyance to just the bad guys and more of an annoyance to all of Russia. Each previous film involves John McClane getting into situations basically by chance. In A Good Day to Die Hard, McClane throws himself into every situation. He certainly has his motives – save his son, but the film is presenting a much stranger version of John McClane. This McClane is an ugly American, who happily steals cars, yells at people, because they don’t speak English (gasp!), pushes his injured son to keep going and not be such a cry baby, and performs plenty of feats that this ‘every man’ close to pushing 60 would not have walked away from so simply in Die Hard. McClane is a jerk in this film. He is less of a man who bleeds this time and more of a guy who just needs a Band Aid and a lolli, then it’s off to the next wisecrack. That is quite a shame, because Willis has always held a level of respect for the John McClane character. Live Free or Die Hard may not be a beloved entry in the franchise (though it is much better than this film), but at least it allowed John McClane to reflect, as a human would, on what his status as a ‘hero’ really meant. In A Good Day to Die Hard, Willis just seems to have showed up to set.
The villains of this film are another issue. The previous films all feature colorful villains, or at least ones with an understood evil goal in mind. In this film, we spend time with the bad guys, but none of them have any real defining qualities, besides one element shoehorned in for the sake of McClane having something to call a guy out on (dancing and eating carrots?). The goal is also not very exciting and writer Skip Woods tries to play coy with the audience by adding uninteresting twists in a relatively short film, to hopefully make the actual goal resonate, except it doesn’t. The idea is to basically have a reason to get destruction away from Moscow, so this leads are heroes to Chernobyl (yep, Chernobyl), or at least a set that is less expensive to film at, where we only then realize the true dastardly plan of the evil Soviets involved.
Alik: You know what I hate about the Americans? Everything; especially cowboys. It’s not 1986 anymore, Reagan is dead.
The villains, whose names I can’t even recall offhand, are not the only ones getting short-changed either. Jack McClane is less of a character and more of a thing Bruce Willis can be tough on, while trying to gain its respect. I like Jai Courtney (see Spartacus: Blood and Sand), but he is given very little to work with as a character. He seems very pissed off and mad at his dad, whom he refers to as John, and that’s it. Sebastian Koch, a wonderful German actor (see The Lives of Others or Black Book), is even less significant as a character. So much of the appeal of previous Die Hard films comes not only from McClane being brought into impossible situations, but from the number of nuanced characters that are working with and against him. Die Hard obviously has plenty of memorable characters. Die Harder may be a flawed film overall (I like it), but people like Dennis Franz, John Amos, and others help it out. Die Hard with a Vengeance features Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis having a blast with each other. Even Live Free or Die Hard benefited from Justin Long’s presence. None of that is present in A Good Day to Die Hard.
The film is a lot more like a stripped down version of what someone thought a Die Hard movie was, based on a description by a friend. I joked that the tagline “Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia” seemed like where the writers could have started, but that actually seems to be the case. This seems more obvious upon taking into consideration that A Good Day to Die Hard is 30 minutes shorter than the average Die Hard movie, making it quite apparent that all the substance was taken out, just so we could get to the action quicker. Director John Moore, whose film credits have an underwhelming number of entries including Behind Enemy Lines and Max Payne, proves, once again, that he is far more interested the big set piece moments and fancy pyrotechnics, as opposed to narrative cohesion and character work. I would be fine with that, if this was just another action movie, starring Bruce Willis as some jerk that comes to blow up Russia, but this is a Die Hard movie, which has proven in the past to be just as much about the chemistry between the characters and the overwhelming story that catches McClane off guard, as it is about the action.
Is the action good? That may be a question that needs to be answered for people, who at the very least, want to see some action and forget about what makes Die Hard movies work. The answer is sure, the action is fine. It starts out at its best and lessens as the action goes bigger and bigger though. The ridiculous opening car chase is admirable, because it is at least done in a very practical manner. The mix of some shaky cam stuff, a lot of very long lens work, and a hefty dose of slow motion and CG really makes you aware that the focus was on making this the most interesting looking action of the Die Hard series, even if it is a far cry from the work done by John McTiernan in the first and third film. It really does not help that the whole movie feels tainted because of how unlike a Die Hard it stands as, which makes the action feel less than significant overall as well.
There seems to be a nagging feeling to rate this lower, but it’s tough, as I won’t be surprised that some general audiences can get enjoyment out of this film, I just don’t see that enjoyment coming from the fact that it’s a Die Hard movie. A Good Day to Die Hard is a ridiculous movie, no question. Worse than that though, the series is now in a state that reflects poorly on its former self. I can’t say that I did not have goofy fun at points. If I were to think of this as ‘Bruce Willis is The Ugly American: The Movie,’ then I guess I could be happier to accept this as a just another action movie. It fits into guilty pleasure territory for sure, but that is a shame, because I love the Die Hard franchise and really wanted to enjoy this film AND accept it as a part of said franchise. It is unfortunate that those involved with crafting this film thought that just a wisecracking Bruce Willis and loud explosions brought to you by Dolby Atmos were enough to make a Die Hard movie work. Those ‘mister falcons’ just don’t get it.
[Additional Note: A lot of commotion was made about how this film is back to being R-rated, after the PG-13 Live Free or Die Hard. It makes very little difference in this film and seems more like the studio converted it to an R rating, after realizing that the film was a wash, so blood and language might as well be added to please the diehard Die Hard fans.]
John McClane: Need a hug?
Jack McClane: We’re not a hugging family.
John McClane: That’s right.