Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Heavy Action: A Good Day to Die Hard

Is it possible that A Good Day to Die Hard isn't as bad as everyone says while still being absolutely no good?

The fifth Die Hard sequel is objectively bad. There is no getting around it. Aside from having the words Die Hard in the title and Bruce Willis playing a character named John McClane, there is nothing in it that resembles the original movie, which remains the Greatest Action Film of All Time. But it's being called the worst movie of the year and one of the worst action movies ever made, and it's not. I haven't seen Live Free or Die Hard in a while, but this one didn't seem that much worse.

(At this point, I refer you to Adam Riske's column; he is better equipped to compare each installment, having just sat through all five of them consecutively.)

This installment finds McClane heading to Russia to track down his son Jack (Jai Courtney), who has been arrested for shooting a guy in a sequence that makes no sense but really is (SPOILER) a spy trying to get close to political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who is being targeted by his former parter, a bigshot Russian official who wants a secret file. What's that? Galactic Trade Federation, you say? Within minutes of touching down in Russia, McClane is embroiled in armored car chases, machine gun battles, terrorist plots and even a trip to Chernobyl. Because the movie is set in Russia, and screenwriter Skip Woods knows exactly one thing about Russia.
Listen (LISTEN), I hate the idea of John McClane's son being all grown up and joining the CIA and going to Russia to do spy shit. I hate the idea of McClane teaming up with his son. I actually hate the idea of McClane teaming up with anyone, even though he has done that in more movies than not (wasn't the appeal of the original movies that he was just one guy having to take on impossible odds?). But teaming him up with his son is particularly obnoxious. And, yet, the "son" aspect is the closest the movie comes to justifying its existence, because at least it helps redefine the latter-era Die Hard movies. If both Die Hard and Die Hard 2 are about McClane the husband (in particular the first movie, where he's defined by his relationship with his wife), then both Live Free or Die Hard (in which his daughter Lucy, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, figures prominently) and A Good Day to Die Hard are about McClane the father. Is it a huge change? No, not really, but at least it hints at an idea and tries to place the newer movies in a context that makes sense.

This is lost in bad dialogue, lazy performances, mostly-terrible action directing (seriously, the climax plays out a) in front of obvious green screens and b) entirely in slow motion...IT IS ENDLESS) and non-existent characterization that ruins the things we love about John McClane. He is no longer reluctantly involved or forced into action. He literally picks up a machine gun at the drop of a hat and starts shooting everyone in sight. He is no longer trying to keep bystanders safe and limit civilian casualties; more innocent people are wantonly murdered during McClane's destructive armored car rampage than the entire planeload of bad guys he blew up in Die Hard 2. No attempt is even made to have McClane be an actual character, who is now nothing more than the sum total of Bruce Willis and shitty one-liners. All of the heavy lifting has been done by previous Die Hard movies, so Good Day doesn't feel the need to give McClane a single character trait besides "kind of regretful." Mostly, he's just an asshole and a bully now, running around shouting at THE RUSSIANS IN RUSSIA that they're stupid for not knowing he doesn't understand them. McClane was a smartass. A Good Day to Die Hard turns him into a fucking dick.

The thing is, A Good Day to Die Hard didn't have to be bad. First things first, don't hire Max Payne as the director or Skip Woods to write. No duh. (John McTiernan > Renny Harlin > Len Wiseman > Max Payne.) Don't team him up with his son. Also, maybe don't set the movie in Russia. I'm actually pretty positive that the whole reason for this "creative" decision was because someone thought up "Yippee-ki-yay, Mother Russia" and reverse engineered a terrible script from there (also, don't worry -- aside from a few establishing shots, it's very obvious that the movie was not shot in Russia; Hungary stands in). But even with the son, even with Russia, there's a way to make it work. Don't team them up. Have the movie be about McClane rescuing his son from a bad situation in Russia. It would give him a purpose. A reason for the action besides just this current incarnation of "Yeah, I'm here in Russia, I'll help you kill people." It would also allow the series to evolve -- he started out as the guy who went into action because nobody else could, but now could be the guy who goes into action because nobody else would.
Because A Good Day to Die Hard makes the same major mistake as Live Free or Die Hard: it basically turns McClane into a supporting character. He is stripped of all agency. He's just a bullet -- you point him at the thing you want to kill and he does it. In fact, McClane outright says as much more than once in this movie: "Let's go kill all the scumbags." Was McClane always a stone cold murderer? Or are the rules different because he's in Russia?

Maybe it's too much to ask that A Good Day to Die Hard retain anything that was once great about Die Hard (and before I get accused of being too precious about the series, let me reiterate what Adam Riske said in his Die Hard marathon writeup: we're really talking about one perfect movie, one decent one and three subsequent messes). It's not a matter of suspending disbelief; that went out the window a long time ago, when we were forced to accept that one New York cop continues to find himself in these situations (which at least Die Hard 2, a movie that's getting unfairly shit on a LOT in recent weeks, tries to acknowledge). Trouble keeps finding John McClane. Got it. The problem with the sequels isn't that they keep repeating the same scenario. The problem is that they abandon what made Die Hard special: the character of John McClane. Also, the intelligence. Because this movie is very, very, VERY stupid.

There's a beat that could have almost been good ( --Patrick Bromley, F This Movie!) right before the big action climax. McClane is about to do something completely reckless and possibly suicidal (only we know it won't be, because he does not die easy). Right before he does so, he says "The shit we do for our kids!" Ok, not great, but I'll take it. Not only is the line in keeping with trying to couch A Good Day to Die Hard in the McClane-as-father context -- it's essentially the thesis statement of the movie --  but it's trying to do something unique inasmuch as it gives him a new one-liner. Then, seconds later, he says "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!" and that infinitesimal bit of goodwill turns to poo. Screenwriter Skip Woods is so determined to make A Good Day such a "greatest hits" for Die Hard that he shoehorns in any and every goddamn reference he can, even when it makes no sense.

Think about the logic of this: why would McClane say that? It was something he tossed away once 25 years ago, and it was in response to being called a "cowboy." See? It made sense. We, the movie audience, have quoted the line for years, and so it has lived on in pop culture. McClane the fictional character is not aware of the line's longevity. So why does he keep going back to it? Did he really decide, in the days after thwarting common thieves (sorry...exceptional thieves) at Nakatomi Plaza, that he was pretty proud of that line? "Shit, do my feet hurt. In fact, everything on my body hurts. But remember when I said that "yippee-ki-yay" thing to Hans Gruber? That was pretty funny. I'm going to use that should I ever find myself in a similar situation! Ow. My feet." Yes, I know that this is a sin committed by several other Die Hard movies (except for Live Free or Die Hard, where he stops himself from saying any dirty words and just says "Yippee-ki-yay, mother!"), but now seems like the right time to talk about it.

There's another scene that stood a chance at being not the worst. I think I can say this without it being considered a spoiler, but at one point Jack McClane sustains an injury (SHHHHHHH -- NA NA NA NA NA I CAN'T HEAR YOU). Here's a great opportunity for John to show genuine concern for his kid. It could have been a nice moment of real emotion, as opposed to the forced beats of reconciliatory dialogue that are jammed in elsewhere. Instead, the movie is incapable of dropping the lazy banter and wiseass tone for TWO SECONDS, opting to have McClane just make fun of his injured son and call him a pussy. This does not seem like the way to get back into someone's good graces. McClane was once a flawed but noble and decent man. Now he's just an asshole who's way more concerned with always being cool. And if there's one thing I don't like in my action heroes, it's their need to always be cool.

The dynamic between McLanes Senior and Junior is supposed to be the driving force of the movie. I guess that it is, even though it's absolute garbage. This is a movie with basically two scenes: big, dumb, destruction setpiece, and badly-written bickering in which the son complains about the father doing a bad job raising him (he worked too much, I guess, so it makes sense that Jack would join the CIA and follow in the EXACT SAME FOOTSTEPS). One moment, in which Jack overhears a heart to heart between McClane and Kamarov, is so tone deaf and embarrassing it belongs on an episode of Full House, not in a movie with the words DIE HARD in the title. These are all bad scenes, but they're the ones that come closest to giving the movie its own identity.
The other thing that gives A Good Day to Die Hard its identity is the lameness of the action. Director Max Payne has no interest in doing anything he hasn't already seen in 10 other movies. Here is a movie so hacky that when three characters ride an elevator, "The Girl from Ipanema" is playing on the soundtrack. You know, in Russia. In 2013. He stages action either by shaking the camera incessantly (the next director who shakes the camera should be punched in the fucking neck) or by doing everything in slow-mo, because a lot of people liked that 300 movie from SEVEN YEARS AGO. It's like Max Payne has an actual phobia towards originality.

The Big Three action stars -- Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis -- have all released movies in the last month. That's a good thing. The dark side of it is that A Good Day to Die Hard is considerably worse than both Bullet to the Head and The Last Stand, but it's going to make way, way more money than those movies. Part of that is because Bruce Willis is still more of a movie star than Stallone or Schwarzenegger. A much bigger part is because of the Die Hard name. Well, the joke's on you, America: A Good Day to Die Hard is Die Hard in name only.

Bruce Willis has already said there's going to be a Die Hard 6. Here's a thought: don't do that. People already resent what you've done to the legacy of this series. You have nothing to gain. Better yet, take whatever script you get for Die Hard 6, change the name of the main character and don't call it Die Hard. Make it seem like an original action movie. Even if it sucks, we won't hate it as much.

Got a movie you'd like to see highlighted in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below.

10 comments:

  1. Please don't tell me he actually say "Yippee-ki-yay Mother Russia" - I don't think my brain could take that.

    I guess this is just a symptom of a bigger issue - that "smart" consumers of entertainment (and pretty much everything) just aren't a big enough demographic to cater to anymore. "We don't need to spend much time thinking about this script - does he say 'yippee-ki-yay' at some point so we can show it in the trailer? Good, let's get it out, the dumb bastards will watch anything with splosions."

    "But sir, it wouldn't be THAT hard to give people a little more than that - let's go back to the first one and see what worked - we just need to find some new ways to show those old ideas. It could practically write itself!"

    "You're fired."

    Why is this so hard? Especially with franchises that have a built-in fanbase? They probably could have Googled "Die Hard Movie Ideas" and come up with better shit than this.

    If there HAS to be a Die Hard 6 please call it Died Hard and put that poor bastard out of his misery.

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  2. Turns out Skip Woods actually knows nothing about Russia, because Chernobyl is in the Ukraine!

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  3. What does it say about me when I understand how bad this movie is (I have not seen it, and won't until blu-ray) but am still way more interested in this than anything nominated for a best picture award this year?

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  4. It very almost comes across as insultingly awful, but there's worse out there, I am certain of that much. However, being a part of the Die Hard franchise: it is a huge and total disappointment. Good review Patrick.

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    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. It's not the worst action movie, but when you compare where the series started to where it is now, it just seems SO MUCH WORSE by comparison.

      The only good news is that the sequels have all gotten progressively worse, so the bar was gradually lowered. Imagine if Die Hard had come out in 1988, and then this came out in 2013. We would be rioting in the streets.

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  5. Would this movie have been saved by more Cole Hauser? For some reason, I perked up when I saw he was in the credits and then... If only he just played a grown up version of his Good Will Hunting character then we would have something.

    Also I can go the rest of my life without hearing about weaponized uranium or plutonium etc in any other movie. And I'm pretty sure you can't run around with your shirt off in Chernobyl. It's in the Birnbaum's Walt Disney World guide book and the Bible. You're not supposed to do that.

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  6. Wait, am I missing a running joke about calling directors after their movies? Cause I would love to start calling James Cameron TRUE LIES but I'm not sure it makes sense.

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  7. you are a fuckin awful critic, you started off by saying this wasnt as bad as people said it was and then you shat on it more than everyone else. and yeah this movie had its faults but you picked the dumbest ones to highlight. "yipee-ki-yay" is his catch fraise if they take that away the movie isnt complete! and they have to make another to bring them back from this whole they dug themselves into your a dumbass for not wanting another.

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    1. Getting mad at me for not liking you like is a waste of time. Just keep on liking it. If you don't agree with me, don't pay me any attention. We will both be happier.

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