A Good Day To Die Hard review

John McClane heads to Russia for the fifth Die Hard movie. Unfortunately, the magic was lost in the long-haul flight...

It might just be a good job that John McTiernan’s heading to prison. If the director of Die Hard and Die Hard With A Vengeance slapped his eyes on the fifth instalment of the series, he might otherwise be tempted to go and pay a few people involved a visit. With good reason too. And we’d give him a lift. Because A Good Day To Die Hard is, and there's no nice way to say this, pretty terrible. It's a bad Die Hard movie, and a bad action movie.

It starts promisingly, with a tease that A Good Day To Die Hard will be far more respectful of the series than its immediate predecessor. The screen is black. Michael Kamen’s take on the music starts to play. This is Die Hard, you think. Excellent.

And then? The BBC News channel delivers a quick Powerpoint presentation introducing the new Russian characters of the film, and Bruce Willis’ John McClane is on a plane to Moscow within minutes. We don’t even get to see Argyle take him to the airport, just a fleeting appearance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead – reprising her role as Lucy, now his ultra-friendly daughter having got over all of her previous problems with her father – before the wholesale disposal of Die Hard DNA begins.

Because once it’s established that John McClane’s son (Jack, played well by Jai Courtney) is in Russia, and in trouble, A Good Day To Die Hard sets about spending most of its surprisingly brief running time making loud noises, and little coherent sense. It’d be wrong to expect a remake of what had gone before, certainly, but in the attempt to outdo previous instalments, the film makers have gone bigger and broader. The opposite would have given them a much better film.

The stakes have escalated certainly, to the stage where Die Hard 6 is left with just outer space remaining to explore. It’s been some time since the Die Hard series was about one man trying to save a handful of people of course. Yet here, there’s the fate of the world at stake, courtesy of a convoluted, pretty much unexplainable and, truthfully, uninteresting plot, that culminates in a wholly unsatisfying finale. It’s unsatisfying because it never feels like it matters or affects anything, nor is there ever any sense of relatable threat to it. Die Hard 4.0’s cyber-terrorism thread wasn’t a massive success certainly, but at least it was interesting, and there was a sense of a dinosaur of a cop in a high-tech world. It also had solidly-written characters in the mix. Here, it’s just more stupid villains, with bigger guns than usual. Then every now and then, Bruce Willis stands in the middle of the screen and fires at them, while the bad guys take it in turns to miss him with their bullets.

To the film’s credit, it fully commits to its Russian setting. In much the same way that Daniel Espinosa was able to evoke a sense of Africa without resorting to national anthems and cheap stereotypes in last year’s Safe House, director John Moore spends a lot of time showing us a grim and gritty Moscow (even if it does play to 80s Russian perceptions a little), and takes tremendous glee in zooming in from afar. Too much glee, as it happens. By the time he does his shaky zoom in from overhead shot for the third or fourth time, you yearn for something else from the playbook. Then, when a helicopter attack on a building is deployed for a second time in the movie too, you can’t help but wonder if the white board of ideas was looking just a little sparse. Die Hard used to lead the genre. Now, it struggles to fill 97 minutes.

What got Die Hard 4.0 (a film I still quite like) just about over the finish line, in spite of its absurdities, was some solid direction from Len Wiseman (particularly in the first half of the film), and Bruce Willis’ skill in the central role. A Good Day To Die Hard, though, struggles on both counts.

It was probably as much a surprise to director John Moore as it was the rest of the world when he got the call for Die Hard 5 (the press notes say that it was his work on Max Payne and the decent Behind Enemy Lines that convinced Fox to give him the job), and while he stages some solid sequences – including an ambitious and prolonged car chase early in the movie - the whole things feels less and less coherent as it goes on. Plus, you never really feel invested in what's on the screen at all. Thus, while the scale of the action impresses (particularly at the start), it never feels as though anyone recognisable is affected by it. The stakes are simply too high, ironically, to ever matter, or convince. It all starts to get really quite dull and ridiculous (not in a good way). At one stage, a villain has the chance to dispose of the McClanes quickly and easily, but instead... well, you’ll see. You wouldn't believe me if I told you.

Going back to the original Die Hard, there was a strong element of suspense thriller about it (even the first couple of sequels involved some tangible detective work). This one’s a full-on action film, not really leaving the kind of space that even the much-maligned Die Hard 4.0 did for narrative, and it suffers as a result.

As for what story there is, don’t even think about trying to hold the plot up to any kind of scrutiny. Heck, the location where the McClanes end up towards the end of the film can’t help but make you wish they’d just found a Nakatomi Plaza-alike building and camped out there. You couldn’t get much further removed from Die Hard of old if you tried.

Perhaps most disappointingly of all, Willis doesn’t even get to spend that much time in full-on McClane mode, instead having to dish out the odd bit of advice, make speeches about parenthood, or shoot people (with just a forced scene in the back of a taxi early on giving any impression that McClane is out of his comfort zone). In fact, he doesn't feel like John McClane at all. Furthermore, the core relationship too between John and his other estranged child (he dealt with Lucy in the last film) is built up to be some kind of chasm, but ultimately, it feels like they just had a row over one of them cheating in a game of Monopoly. Full credit to Jai Courtney though, one of those who emerges from this very much intact. He will get, and deserves, better written roles than this.

Even if you remove Die Hard from your mind, the core problem remains that A Good Day To Die Hard is basically, on its own merits, a piss-poor, unexciting action movie. It’s the Quantum Of Solace of the Die Hard series (although Quantum is a better film). There’s clearly been some welcome effort put into physical action work, but there’s nothing convincing to glue together one noisy scene to the next, the antagonists will be forgotten by the time you get to the car park, and once the novelty of seeing John McClane at work again dissipates (surprisingly quickly), you sadly end up with a movie that never comes anywhere close to earning its place in the boxset.

If Die Hard 6 does, as suggested, go ahead, then surely that’d be the time to make a concerted effort to recapture that aforementioned Die Hard DNA. You think Die Hard, you think of the many memorable supporting characters (Ellis, Thornburg, Al, Hans Gruber), the suspense, the well-staged set pieces and the relatable, contained, scenario and central character. The franchise needs some of those ingredients back, and urgently, because they’re pretty much conspicuous by their absence here, in a film that should be ashamed to wear the Die Hard name. And if all else fails? They should at least wait until McTiernan gets parole before going anywhere near the series again.

A 12A certificate, as it's turned out, is one of the least of this Die Hard's problems.

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14 Feb 2013 - 00:00
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