Early on in A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, we learn that the Russians have no concept of the slang term “sucks.” Lucky break for the people behind the latest tired installment of this franchise then. At least there is one country that will have to search for new ways in which to describe how bad A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD really is.
This one starts out with John McClaine (Bruce Willis, natch) trying to find his missing son, Jack (Jai Courtney – JACK REACHER, SPARTACUS: WAR OF THE DAMNED). Apparently, he has been absent from his son’s life, keeping such a huge distance that the two are practically strangers. In other words, the exact opposite of the problems he had with his daughter in the previous DIE HARD film.
He learns that his son is in Russia, where he has recently been arrested on drug and murder charges. The son agrees to give information about Yuri Komanov (Sebastian Koch – THE LIVES OF OTHERS, BLACK BOOK), a criminal who is going to trial in exchange for his freedom. When the bad guys blow up the courthouse, Jack snatches Komanov and takes him away in a truck, dodging bullets along the way. This is where John catches up to his son and starts to pursue him. But hold on, it turns out that Jack is not a criminal, but a spy working deep undercover for the CIA. He needs to get Komanov out of the country, but not before Komanov retrieves an incriminating file that the CIA can use against his opposition.
There are so many things wrong with this film that it would be much less time consuming trying to pinpoint the areas where the filmmakers didn’t completely drop the ball. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything in that area right now so we’re stuck picking apart its many shortcomings instead.
Yes, Bruce Willis is back as John McClaine, but he’s not really, is he? It seems like John McClaine never survived the 1990s and what we’ve gotten in the 21st century is a stoic, squinting guy who can drive any vehicle and fire any gun, but who doesn’t possess any of the qualities that made the original character so endearing. Throughout the film I kept asking, “Where’s the humor?” All the one-liners and winking smile are replaced by the bored line readings. Every attempt at humor seems so forced that it’s no better than when they aren’t trying. This is a film whose idea of wise-cracking is to have John constantly complain, “I’m on fucking vacation!” Not only does this sound like a rejected callback to a CLERKS sequel, it’s not even accurate. John McClaine is not on vacation after all. He’s there to reconnect with his son, who he believed was looking at a possible death sentence or at least a lengthy stretch in prison.
The biggest problem with A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD is director John Moore. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I have never liked Moore very much and I groaned when I heard he was directing this one. In my opinion, Moore is one of the biggest hacks working in film today. He’s 20th Century Fox’s bitch boy, directing projects that the studio wants to usher through production, creating as little waves as possible and saying yes to whatever is suggested, regardless of whether it is in the best interest of the film itself. Since 2004, Moore’s credits have included two by-the-numbers remakes, a video game adaptation without an ounce of originality and now this, the worst sequel of a dwindling series.
As much as I have criticized Moore in the past, nothing could have prepared me for the God-awful job he does here however. I never liked what he did in the past, but he at least seemed to be someone capable of framing a shot. However, working with a nearly $100 million budget, he seems incapable of accomplishing what many first-year film students learn while paying tuition with their Starbucks checks. There are a couple of action sequences that would have been quite entertaining, if Moore had allowed us to see what the hell was going on. But all he knows how to do is cut every couple of seconds at most, using the shakiest shaky cam I can recall seeing. So poor is the work here that it is hard to tell what’s going on. Even static shots of characters are hard to see during the film’s bloated set-pieces.
If there is anything to say in favor of A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD it is that it makes the franchise’s previous mediocre installment, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, look like a near-classic in comparison. Each film shares similar themes. Both films involved John McClaine trying to reconnect with his kid. However, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who cameos here) was actually up to the task. She was very obviously John McClaine’s kid, featuring a sense of humor, take no prisoners attitude and a decent amount of charisma. In comparison, Jai Courtney is terrible. He scowls through his role, sweats and shakes his head. He stops in the middle of the action to repeatedly chide his dad for never being there for him – despite the fact that his dad has traveled half the world in order to help him out. It is a bland character that you not only can’t buy as a member of the McClaine clan, you can’t buy him as a competent CIA operative either. Because the rules of the franchise dictate that John McClaine is always right and everyone else is wrong, Jack McClaine comes off as someone you wouldn’t entrust with your Playboy subscription, much less a top secret mission.
The film also makes us miss the wit and charm of Justin Long (Good God, think about that!) since both the elder and younger McClaine are such wet blankets. This film may be a scant 97 minutes, but you feel every minute tick by like an eternity as the film carts these two sourpusses around. What’s worse than the gunshot interrupting the iconic line “Yippe-ki-yay, motherfucker” line in the fourth film? How about not saying the line at all in the fifth film? Yes, really. Or maybe I just nodded off and missed it, that is also possible with this film.
Every DIE HARD has had villains ranging from exquisite (Alan Rickman) to adequate (Timothy Olyphant). That is, until this installment, which features villains so mundane that I didn’t even catch their names, not that it matters. Even a “surprise” plot twist isn’t much of a twist at all, since it leaves clues lit up like neon every step of the way. The third act takes us to Pripyat and I will say that it uses the location slightly better than last year’s CHERNOBYL DIARIES, if only because this film has the sense to blow part of it up.
I have never been as big a fan of the DIE HARD franchise as most of my red-blooded American male counterparts. However, I do see the value in them and I know what makes them special. The idea of John McClaine was that he was an everyman who had a knack for being in the right place at the wrong time. Yes, he did things that no other human should be capable of doing, but only because he never gave up. He still hurt like hell. This wasn’t a guy who was impervious to bullets. He was a guy who could be felled by glass in his feet.
The DIE HARD films have forgotten what made the character so special to begin with. John McClaine is now someone who can get thrown off the roof of a building and only have a few bloody scratches on his head. Nothing too severe though. After all, that might ruin Mr. Willis’ close-up. And that is the sorry state of the DIE HARD franchise in 2013. ★ (out of ★★★★)