As he chews on a carrot, one of the most spectacularly least terrorizing henchmen in Die Hard history has a few words for action hero John McClane, but most importantly, McClane’s 2013 audience. “It’s not 1986, you know,” referring to a year that saw such action films as Top Gun, Cobra, Aliens and Raw Deal. A statement as loaded as the gun this henchman holds to a tied up McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard. It’s hilarious, but apparently necessary, especially given the expectations one might have for a fourth sequel to a film originally made in 1988. To conclude his statement, the carrot chomping nemesis reminds everyone, “Reagan is dead.”
Along with this truth about The Gipper’s life status, the henchman could easily have sprinkled a few more grains of salt in the wounds of these Americans he finds to be “arrogant,” especially as their perspective remains locked in days gone by. However backhanded, this statement reminds us of the inescapable effects of time, that living beings do not stay the same, whether they are presidents or action heroes.
This is especially true with regard to the status of the Die Hard franchise. For one, John McTiernan, original director of Die Hard and the man who helped turn a 1988 potential Commando sequel into a genre template, is in jail. Junky video games adapted from movies have now achieved a reverse flow. Most of all, stars like Bruce Willis, along with the other gods of Planet Hollywood, including surname icons like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, are now united in their contemporary status by fluffy action movie parties that carry the title “Expendable.” The hero who once fought terrorists, solo, to save his now absent wife, must combat the larger villain of irrelevancy; especially when movies like Taken are getting sequels and moviegoers are more interested in watching Marvel superheroes without mortality to risk.
While this Die Hard does not smartly adapt its own revered template, it does take advantage of the simplicity that is Die Hard to provide bursts of action that can be as giddy as they are plainly ridiculous. But first: the story, whatever that may actually be. The plot of this film is itself a legendary disaster with the cohesion of stained glass only after the McClanes have blown it to bits with their super rifles. All we can do is describe the movie’s plot in the same way it must have been pitched by writer Skip Woods:
“So, it’s foggy Russia. Like, really foggy. I mean, how else would it look? Anywho, there are these scowling Russian guys, Komarov (Sebastian Koch) and Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov). They’re both bad guys; one of them is even shown playing chess before he goes to meet his fate. Komarov is going to jail, but he threatens Chagarin, who has this power over him, because he has a file on Chagarin that is going to get him in sooo much trouble. Enter Jack McClane (Jai Courtney, another Tom Hardy lookalike next to Logan Marshall Green) John’s long lost son, who has been in Russia for years working for the CIA on getting Komarov out of Moscow, and has been in prison to do so. But, the best part! Here comes John McClane (Bruce Willis), an Idiot’s Guide to Russia in hand, who is here to bail out his son. A bunch of bad guys attack the courthouse and now it’s two McClanes and a Russian guy running away from other Russians; with bigger guns. Mix some moments of backstabbing in there. Oh and there will be a big car chase, a shootout in a room full of chandeliers and a climax in Chernobyl. That’s right, Chernobyl!”
A Good Day to Die Hard proves that while John McClane may not be the same as he was in 1988, this is a character who will be forever owned by the smirks of Bruce Willis and who has not run out of to wisecracks in the midst of the chaos around him. As for his onscreen son, Courtney is nothing special, beyond being the male offspring of John McClane. Most of all, Courtney shows the lack of character that is endemic to the younger, wannabe John McClane heroes. Jack tries to make up for his naiveté with big old muscles and looking like he’s going to explode into daddy rage any minute. Certainly, without his father by his side, this sidekick wouldn’t be that unique of a hero.
Working as a 96 minute extra value meal of action, A Good Day to Die Hard is the making of three individual and entertaining set pieces, the settings of each being blown to smithereens by either weapons or modes of transportation. The film’s first set up is a car chase that would bring a tear to the eye of Grave Digger, if monster trucks could cry. It is a nutty blast in itself, in which the action gorges on its own ridiculousness, budget and the patience of Russian civilians; while aiming to smash every, single car stuck in congested Moscow traffic. The sequence apparently took 78 days to shoot and the sheer quantity of varying camera angles, not to mention the many surprising way cars are thrown into each other, provide a reasonable explanation why. Still, with the story’s stupidity creating a radiation of its own, this potential masterpiece of a sequence is not entirely cohesive, but is best as a cinematic collection of automobiles being crushed, smashed, demolished, moved, broken, scratched and more. As imperfect as this flubbed moment in editing may be, it is a special feat for the genre to witness.
For an action movie spectacle (one that is soon to be found playing through Dolby Atmos sound and/or on IMAX projectors in mass popcorn producing mega multiplexes everywhere), A Good Day to Die Hard has big slices of similarly captivating visual moments, which certainly continue to push the physicality of New York cop John McClane beyond the level of superhuman. The newest addition to this cause comes from John Moore’s video game-esque sequences (“Press ‘X’ to Jump!”) that nonetheless provide dazzling visuals in which McClane defies his physical and personal gravity. The essence of Die Hard is no longer a question of whether our hero will make it through Nakatomi Plaza swiftly with shards of glass sticking into his feet, but how cool will it look to see him fling his body (in slow motion) through an entire window as a helicopter erratically flies around him. To director John Moore’s credit, this moment, along with a few others, makes for an aesthetically arresting extravaganza.
As indicated by the legendary mishmash of its plot, A Good Day to Die Hard is a film that keeps this franchise, based on dumb sequel subtitles like “Die Harder” proudly within perspective of a lunkhead (McClane). It’s “killing bad guys,” while our hero is on vacation (“I’m still jetlagged!” Willis exclaims). This is a blow-‘em-up mostly dedicated to the visuals of “physical change,” in which one piece of glass turns into a million pieces of glass or a Chernobyl factory becomes a war zone. For what the movie does offer as Die Hard thrills, damn if it isn’t a bit of fun; a few sequences did leave me highly amused and laughing at their sheer ridiculousness. While McClane’s “Yipee-Ki-Yay” line comes with softer usage in this film, compared to others, it’s as if that phrase was the Moore and Co.’s mindset as they used McClane to provide nutso action to keep up with Taken’s box office receipts. And if the whole contemporary genre of mainstream action is going to progressively lose its mind to slow motion and implausible stunt work, it might as well be an easygoing hero like John “America, f** yeah!” McClane blasting through the wreckage.