A Good Day To Die Hard Review Or: Why the downaward spiral of the series is important for Action Filmmakers
By Bret Dorman
Whenever a new Die Hard movie comes out, the topic is always brought back to the original. While this could be/is true of any franchise and its sequels, the difference is NO DIE HARD SEQUEL EVER CAN EVER LIVE UP TO THE ORIGINAL. EVER. So then why keep making sequels? Because this is America. And nothings dies easy.
The Story: John McClane (Bruce Willis) goes to Russia because his son Jack (Jai Courtney) is in some sort of trouble with the Russian law. But it turns out Jack is a spy for the CIA and he has to escort Komarov (Sebastian Koch) to safety so they can take down Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov). Car get crashed, people get shot, and helicopters get taken down. Also, this movie goes back to the R rating, but just barely.
To keep things simple, let’s just say that Die Hard was so influential on the Action Genre, that its sequels (yes, even With A Vengeance) have automatically become generic entries into the genre. Die Hard‘s gravity is like that of 1000 suns. It’s impossible to escape. In fact, its so powerful that other movies that aren’t in the franchise are compared to it. Die Hard on a Bus. Die Hard on a train. Die Hard in a building… that isn’t Nakatomi Plaza. You get the idea…
Die Hard was hugely influential on the genre. Die Harder was a noble, if lackluster, attempt to put McClane through the ringer again. Die Hard With A Vengeance was fun and explosive, which managed to change up a bunch from the original while still keeping the basic stuff the same. Live Free Or Die Hard brought McClane into the 21st century, keeping the character true at heart, even if making him a bit more indestructible. A Good Day To Die Hard attempts to drop John McClane into an average action movie and see if he can’t spruce things up.
What Die Hard 5 does right is get all those little minor homages and references right. McClane is a sarcastic guy! He is grumpy and hates getting shot at! Glass gets shot! Cowboys are mentioned! McClane says “Yippee Kai Yay Mother Fucker!” Hans Gruber reference! Badguys pulling a “bait and switch!” GUNS!!! However the movie seems to be forgetting some basics, such as having an interesting badguy. Or the fact that John McClane punches a completely innocent person to steal his car. Or the fact that McClane really does seem completely oblivious for the first act of the movie, trying to have real conversations while everyone else is shooting at each other. Or the fact McClane keeps shouting “I’m on vacation!” despite the fact that going to Russia was NEVER EVER a vacation for him.
All in all, it surprises me how much people are taking a dump all over this movie. People claim they like to go to these kind of movies (big budget popcorn action movies) to turn off their brains yet jump all over the movie when it makes some logic jumps or does something that requires suspension of disbelief to just get on with things. Here are some negative things I’ve read so far:
“Willis gives a detached, disinterested performance in the series’ fifth film, and the movie skips from scene to scene as if being played from a DVD dragged across gravel.” Russ Fischer, slashfilm.com
“Call me an idealist, but I’m a firm believer in the fundamental goodness of humanity. It’s true that we live in an age of cynicism, but I say people generally treat each right, and civilization keeps humming along based on our mutual trust and affection. This worldview leads me to believe “A Good Day to Die Hard” was created almost entirely by robots. There is simply no chance an editor, director, or studio head previewed the final product and decided to release it into theaters. Any human who watched “A Good Day to Die Hard” could have only said, “My God, what have I done?” and scuttled the project forevermore.” Laremy Legal, film.com
“Die Hard 5 is bad on every level possible, has sex with those levels, gets them pregnant and gives birth to brand new levels of terrible.” skottie young, @skottieyoung on twitter.com
Now I enjoy a good roast as much as the next person. If a movie is bad and you don’t like it, I say go for it. Rip into it. Be creative about it. Have fun with it! But here’s the thing. These people can’t be action fans if they are so willing to rip into Die Hard 5 without offering reasons as to why it is bad? Or if they do they do so without seeing the big picture of what the failures of this movie mean or by JUST COMPARING IT TO THE FIRST. Well in the first movie John McClane was mortal and got hurt a lot. In this one he never gets a scratch! IT’S DIFFERENT!!! I DON’T LIKE DIFFERENT!!!
These people seem to not understand how stakes work. The first movie had the luxury of being able to be intimate while we learned who McClane was through the action. His wife’s life is on the line as well as some 30 or so other hostages. The badguy is after a measley 640mil in negotiable bearer bonds. But if you keep the stakes this “low” and this “intimate” time after time than you will get bored. “Ugh, his wife is in trouble, again? We’ve seen this!” The obvious question is why don’t they just end the series after the first and best one? Well, nothing ever ends when it should, at its peak. Unless its a British Sitcom. That’s just how it is. Why? Because we live in America. And when things make money, more things get made to make more money. That’s the truth. To whine and bitch that “Die Hard 5 isn’t the way I would have done it and it should have ended a long time ago!” makes you sound like a dumb 12 year old.
I’m not saying you have to like Die Hard 5. I’m not saying its a great movie. I’m not saying its good because its bad. I’m not saying you need to solve its problems. I AM saying that Die Hard 5 deserves a CONVERSATION about its pros and cons. That it deserves more than just a simple dismissal. Every Hollywood movie that gets made goes through a plethora of people trying to put in their two cents. Could there have been a stronger writer and director? Yes. For sure. But the fact that these people are trying desperately to give us what we think we want is an interesting film in and of itself. Much like how The Room is a “shitty” movie using a weird smashing together of EVERY CONVENTIONAL SCENE/CLICHE EVER in movies filtered through a crazy person’s point of view filterered through a foreign point of view. The Room might be one of the worst movies ever made, but why does it also strangely make sense? Die Hard 5 works in the same way.
(from here on out I’ll try to point out specifics on what did and did not work. I’m also going to play that VERY DANGEROUS GAME of what I would have done differently. However, let’s just get one thing clear. If I could start over from scratch… I would. But I’m going to play within the sandbox of the movie’s intent. I’m going to praise it for some ridiculous things… then scold it for not taking those ridiculous things further…)
The beginning of this movie starts in America as John McClane learns kind of about his son. He then flies to Russia. This is the biggest time lapse of the Die Hard Franchise. Mostly the movies start relatively close to where they need to be. Here, John STARTS super far away. Then we have to get a bunch of by-the-numbers exposition scenes to explain to us what WILL happen.
Die Hard is great because it never tells us what it is GOING to do, it just does it. The badguys don’t lay out their whole plan at the beginning, they slowly reveal it to us. Even a character based section like Al telling John why he became a desk jockey comes at a time when John is taking glass shards out of his feet. They are both vulnerable and bonding over their different types of pain. Al HELPS John through it by offering distraction and context.
Here we just get “Oh this is the scene where we have to have John getting dropped off at the airport and saying goodbye to his daughter. Oh ok now here is the scene where John is on a plane. I need this information to know how he got to Russia (heaven forbid someone doesn’t show that!) and now he is wandering out side of the courtroom.”
However, all of this is about 10-15 minutes of exposition. The Jack/Russian “mob” type stuff all adds some “mystery” to the beginning. But overall it SETS UP what will slowly unfold through car chases and gun fights for the next 30 minutes. THAT IS WHAT ACTION MOVIES DO. Yes, it would have been cool if the movie just ASSUMED we could figure it out if McClane basically started in the cab (a scene I found oddly entertaining. The cabbie provided some legitimate humor). A lot of action movies do this. Even great ones. Yes its awkward and feels choppy at first but its the norm.
“The Courtroom Clash”
For a moment all the elements of John and The Badguys and Jack and The Courtroom all build up with a Hans Zimmer-esque score and the movie feels like a Nolan Batman Movie. A ‘real world seriousness’ approach is taken and explosions happen and buildings are blown up and entered by Mob-Swat teams while spies take people to safety. People on phones talk to people in the field and there is confusion. One problem however is that the badguys have no personality (a big problem throughout the movie). The only reason we get a sense of dread is because of the music and editing, but that dread is telegraphed TO us, not experienced BY us.
“The Car Chase”
John McClane shouts at Jack seemingly oblivious that there is an action scene happening around him. He has no sense of urgency. He just wants to talk to his boy! And he’s his dad, why shouldn’t he!
The beauty of this scene though is that McClane joins in the car chase out of sheer stubbornness. Then he continues in the pursuit out of anger. I don’t like the fact that McClane punches an innocent person to steal his car, but I do like that to flag down his car he gets hit by it. Then crashes through bridges and drives OVER a bunch of cars.
Obviously this chase is over edited and shot on handheld and close up. But despite these flaws/pet peeves you can tell there is a surprising amount of practical effects in this scene. That is something that should be applauded and celebrated. A lot of people are comparing this chase to a Bourne movie, but that seems incorrect. Yes it has shakey cam close ups, but the Bourne movies were about precision. This chase is about DESTRUCTION. And who is the King of DESTRUCTION? Michael Bay. This chase had me thinking Bay way over Bourne.
At one point in the chase the badguys t-bone Jack in his truck thing and Jack extends his arm over Yuri to give the guy driving the middle finger (foreshadowing! like father like son!). This is reminiscent of the first movie and how McClane would REACT to getting shot at. This is what makes Die Hard great.
Once we enter the safe house McClane seems again oblivious to the fact he is in another one of those “wrong place at the wrong time” moments. Jack and his handler spout a bunch of crap then the badguys show up. McClane literally picks up a gun and mows them down as the filter into the room and then the building explodes AROUND him.
This is character development folks. Why would McClane stay the same over the course of FIVE MOVIES? He wouldn’t. He would DEVELOP. Into a guy who just doesn’t give a fuck. Here that is on full display. McClane doesn’t develop through movies over the course of scenes, he develops through the franchise over the course of movies. Quite often his starting point in the movie is the same as his ending point. Its the other characters who change.
1 – He is the reluctant hero. He’s stubborn and his wife doesn’t like him for that. He does learn to say “I’m sorry” and she takes back his last name. Obviously this one is going to have legit character stuff because its the best.
2 – He’s the voice of reason. His wife loves him for getting her on the ground safely.
3 – He’s the reluctant hero again. He starts out alone and pretty much ends the movie alone, before he can make the phone call.
4 – He starts out wanting to get his daughter’s attention. By the end she gives it to him.
5 – He starts out wanting to bring his son home. By the end he does.
Obviously these are over simplified, but McClane over the movies gets more and more tired of it all as he goes on. Is Bruce Willis giving a lack luster performance or is he in character, as his character survives insane day after insane day?
We learn te dude Jack’s been escorting is a badguy after all. Oh snap! There’s that classic Die Hard twist for you!
It’s interesting because Die Hard never really features an ‘escape’ scene where the badguy CLEARLY has the goodguy in his grasp but lets him slip away. If anything, its reverse (Hans and John on the roof, McClane could have blown Gruber away if he really wanted to). It’s only at the very end does Hans have the edge on McClane, who laughs his way to the bad ass hidden gun. Hear, John kind of notices Jack’s knife-gun and awkwardly laughs, starting an awkward laugh-a-thon until they escape.
The villain chews on a carrot, which may be a reference to Bugs Bunny? But Shoot ‘Em Up already did that… The villain really has no personality as he ‘dances’ and states he doesn’t like cowboys.
What I do like is how McClane just jumps out of the window and falls through tubes and boards until he hits the ground. A lot of people have stated McClane is turning into a Terminator of sorts. GOOD. I like that. In Die Hard McClane survives and goes through the gauntlet of glass and bullets. Cool. We see him in actual danger. Cool. But this is the FIFTH movie. Do we really honestly think the movie is going to kill John McClane. And even if it does, HALFWAY through? No. By now McClane has earned his place in Action Movie History as an ICON. A LEGEND. AN IMMORTAL. Why not personify that through THE VERY CHARACTER HIMSELF?! In fact, I’m mad at the movie for not shooting him more. Make more bullets hit him. Have him stabbed through his body with a bunch of pipes and steel rods. Have him get stabbed and sliced by swords. Have an axe sticking out of his shoulder. Have a mace on his back, the handle dangling as he slowly walks toward more badguys unloading rounds into him. THEN HAVE HIM PUNCH THEIR HEADS OFF. Why?! Because that is the next logical step for this character. Don’t shy away from it. Don’t self parody the character or make it cartoonish. MAKE IT LEGIT BADASS. Remember when Bruce Willis, as Hartigan in Sin City ripped off a dude’s dick then punched his head into a pulp. Fuck yeah. Do that times ten.
Why? Because first movie was INFLUENTIAL. It didn’t just RAISE bars, it SET NEW ONES AND SET THEM HIGH TO BEGIN WITH. To be influential you have to be on the forefront of new and exciting. You have to be DIFFERENT. Then when everyone else sees how brave and cool you are they start ripping you off. Then you become iconic. Die Hard didn’t just become Die Hard, The Greatest Action Movie of All Time overnight. Other movies had to catch up to it and be constantly compared to it. Then it became clear that the movie was not just the next step in one particular path of action movies, it was the blue print for all modern action movies.
I like how Jack just decides to basically give up and then McClane makes fun of him. Why? Because once you are stuck in a Die Hard day, you have to see it through to the end. It’s not a matter of “missions” or “justice”. Its a matter of someone trying to kill you and you saying no, then killing them. What I don’t like is McClane outright saying “We kill scumbags. That’s what we do.” I don’t need that hackneyed line to tell me what McClane’s do.
“Russian Mob Trunk Guns”
So McClane and his son are able to easily restock on guns using a ridiculous approach. So what? Oh no. An action movie uses some convenient short cuts to keep the action coming faster. What a crime!
The only disappointment is that once they get guns… they spend too much time talking. About each other and fatherhood and sonhood and junk. Also the badguys spend too much time doing what they do. We get it. Move on.
Mother. Fucking. Chernobyl.
This is the rest of the movie. I love it.
But Chernobyl is X-miles away from Moscow the logistics of- oh shut the fuck up. Like you automatically knew that. You had to go look that up. Congrats. You looked up a fact to help prove that A Good Day To Die Hard is silly. Guess what? McClane couldn’t have done what he did in Vengeance or Live Free, geographically speaking. The precedent was set within the franchise. Your point is invalid.
Oh but the radiation- Fuck off. Like I said, McClane needed MORE excuses to show his immortality. This is one of them. Chernobyl, the location itself, carries the sort of iconic weight behind it that McClane does. It feels like a good spot for a badass action hero to fight a helicopter.
Oh but the radiation de-sprayers are totally – oh fuck. Yes its dumb. But like with finding guns in trunks, who cares. I want action. If you need radiation de-sprayers to do it, then do it. Die Hard is realistic. Action Movies strive for realism all the time. If you want to go crazy I so GO FUCKING CRAZY. Like Daffy Duck stuff. Movies need to take more chances. Especially when it results in moving the plot forward.
Also, McClane sets off a grenade in Chernobyl to set off an explosion. A Cherblosyion. Fuck. Yes.
“Yippee Kai Yay”
The seen seems to just come and go. Its a little lackluster, but it makes sense for when McClane says it, like “this is when I do something crazy, so…”
The final shootouts are a bit chaotic. The sense of geography is a bit underwhelming as people just shoot off screen. However, I do like some of the CGI and how it is used. CGI itself is not the enemy and when done right can be pretty cool. In fact, Die Hard features some awkward looking effects. But people have taken that in as part of the “charm” of the movie. Why is this any different.
Also, McClane gives the girl the finger as she kamikazes her on-fire helicopter in the building to try and kill the two McClanes. That. Is. Fucking. Awesome.
The movie doesn’t end on a wide shot right after the bad guy is killed, instead opting for the first time a cut in location and a “second” happier ending to give some more definite conclusions. This is non-Die Hard like.
Yes, this movie ATTEMPTS to have comedy but is not that good at it. But are John McClane’s OUTRIGHT attempts at comedy in Die Hard really comedic gold? “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.” Hardy har har. The first movie definitely has charm. And Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson is genuinely hilarious (“We’re gonna need some new FBI guys I guess”). My disappointment isn’t that the movie tried for comedy and failed. It’s that the comedy was forced into EVERY aspect, instead of just McClane’s REACTIONS to the violence and situations around him.
Also, the “I’m on vacation” attempt to make a Clerks-ish “I’m not even supposed to be here today” (oh no, Kevin Smith reference in a Bruce Willis movie!) is SUPER DUPER dumb. McClane is NOT on vacation and even if he were he says it WAY too much.
Die Hard 5 moves into full blown “set piece” mode where you definitely know what is an action scene and what isn’t. And when it isn’t it is painfully obvious that the movie is trying to connect you from point A to point B. The problem is that it’s much more interesting to be in a giant action scene the entire movie that has its ups and downs. The ups being actiony action and the downs being characters working through the consequences of their actions or working towards their goals. Anytime you need to stop the movie to talk about something you could be showing, you start losing the audience. “This is the scene where John and Jack become friends again. Okay.”
But… the action set pieces of this movie are impressive. And in an action movie, that is the bare minimum I ask for.
In Conclusion, A Good Day To Die Hard is dumb fun. I wish it were smart fun. I really do. But the fact that it gives me an opportunity to talk about action in general is enough. The Die Hard Franchise will always be that. It will be a comparison for other movies, even if its what not to do. This movie has some good as well as some bad. Its not like the action genre is in bad shape. There are still movies out there raising the bar and even setting new ones. I’d love for one of those movies to be a Die Hard movie again. But until then, I’m happy to just dissect the new ones and see how they apply to the future of the genre regardless of quality and impact. I think that franchise evolution is an interesting thing and hope that the next step of Die Hard takes even more chances.
Final Grade: B