Thursday, March 03, 2016

Die Hard on a Blog: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

The final Die Hard movie -- so far anyway -- proved a giant hit at the box office, and yet drew the worst reviews of the franchise.  A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) also returns Bruce Willis to his most famous role, cop John McClane, and sends him, for the first time, out of the United States, for one of his demolition derbies.

The fish-out-of-water aspect of the series is left intact, then, as John goes to Moscow to save his grown son, Jack (Jai Courtney), a spy, from danger. The “buddy” element of the franchise, which shows up in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2007) is thus satisfied,, too with a resentful son trading caustic quips with Daddy McClane.

The plot is also familiar in terms of other long-standing Die Hard conceits. A man who appears to be a legitimate political dissident, Koromov (Sebastian Koch), is actually just a glorified thief.  

As McClane aptly notes during the film’s action, it’s “always about the money.”

A Good Day to Die Hard is the weakest of the Die Hard films, despite its nods to series standards, for a few crucial reasons. The first involves the action.  It is quite impressive and spectacular at times, especially a car chase on a Moscow highway. And yet the action seems to possess the least visceral impact possible. There's something distant and remote about it all. Sure, there is plenty of shooting, jumping, crashing and exploding in this sequel...yet somehow it seems totally routine and un-engaging.

The routine, ho-hum nature of the violence actually made me miss McClane surfing on a jet plane, in Live Free or Die Hard. That's how un-impactful it all feels.

A part of the problem be the aforementioned epic or spectacular scope, actually. As I’ve written in my other reviews, the Die Hard aesthetic altered the path of action films for a generation. Before Die Hard in '88, action stars were muscle-bound goliaths like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. The characters they often played seemed downright indestructible.

Die Hard flipped the script and gave us a very vulnerable -- but determined -- every-man hero in Willis’s fit but not steroidal John McClane.  He wasn't a muscle-man, he was one of us.

Yet the sad path of the franchise -- as I hope I have demonstrated in my reviews -- is a slippery slope towards mitigating the protagonist's defining characteristic: his mortality.  

In this film, McClane survives crashes, fireballs, collapsing skyscrapers -- and the radiation of Chernobyl -- with just light scratches.  Willis is also the most restrained and unemotional he has ever been in his trademark role, and taken together, it’s a lethal combination.  McClane might as well be a smirking robot at this point.

Actually, A Good Day to Die Hard is a lot like a Bourne movie: international in its locations, epic in its stunts, and featuring a kind of inscrutable figure as its star. 

But John McClane isn’t suffering from amnesia and searching for his identity, like Bourne was.

Unfortunately, the screen writers seem to be suffering from amnesia. They appear to have forgotten which franchise they are writing for.

“Well, it’s confusing…”

When John McClane (Willis) learns that his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney) is in some kind of legal trouble in Russia, he hops a plane to Moscow to help out.

In truth, Jack is a U.S. spy working to extradite a dissident named Komarov (Koch) who possesses a data file that could provide hard evidence that the Russian defense minister is conducting illegal business.

Jack and John reunite, and rescue Komarov, but learn that he is in league with his daughter, Irina (Yuliya Sniger) on a daring heist.  In particular, they plan to rob a vault in Chernobyl, and procure weapon-grade uranium for sale on the black market.

Now -- without back-up or allies -- John and Jack must put their differences aside, travel to Chernobyl, and stop the Russian father-daughter combo from making the uranium available to terrorists.

“You’re out of your depth, John.”

The first truly international Die Hard is a disappointment. 

Throughout its history, the franchise has featured sharp writing and real clarity (not to mention brevity) in terms of crafting memorable characters. Sadly, this film gets mired down very quickly in Russian politics and power struggles, generating a feeling of boredom and ennui with the proceedings. 

I can understand choosing to pick up and run with the idea of John as a fish out of water again (as he was in L.A., in the 1988 original) but I can’t imagine why the decision was made to inject him into the thoroughly uninspiring business with Russian gangsters. We get long scenes here of Russian competitors threatening one another, and vying for superiority. Ultimately, it's all wasted time.

A Good Day to Die Hard also sets its finale, implausibly, in Chernobyl, and keeps John and Jack there for a good length of time. John asks if he is in any danger from the radiation, but never gets a satisfactory answer except that he could lose his hair. 

I’ll give him a response. 

He is in no danger, at all, because he has become an indestructible character at this point.

This John McClane can survive the collapse of buildings, fireballs, and yes, any radiation he might happen to pick up. The final act of A Good Day to Die Hard is so implausible and over-the-top that it is breathtaking in its cartoon dimensions.  Jack has apparently been gifted with his Dad’s indestructible DNA, and he survives all the same disasters too, while hardly breaking a sweat.

I can’t claim that the action is particularly badly filmed, or poorly orchestrated and edited. All I can claim is that the action doesn’t create any sense of pace or involvements.  I keep coming back to that elaborate street chase in Moscow.  

The stunts are great in that chase.  So why doesn’t it prove thrilling?  Why doesn’t it get the blood running? Why is the enjoyment of it only intellectual in nature, a recognition that the scene must have been a bear to orchestrate?

The only answer I can provide is that the audience doesn’t feel invested in the story, or the characters. 

And that’s probably the worst thing one could say about a Die Hard movie, since the franchise has always banked on the appeal of its funny, edgy, wise-cracking hero. 

But McClane is just a shadow of his former self here, sullen and quiet. He seems disengaged. 

I appreciate that the character wants to reconcile with his son, but McClane seems, well, highly medicated in this outing.  He doesn’t seem fully there, and so the audience is never fully engaged either.

Though I have made my feelings plain that this is my least favorite Die Hard movie, I feel I should note that it may not be quite as “rotten” as some critics claim.  Like the other films, it is competently made.  It’s just that -- unlike the other films in the franchise -- it feels heart-less and soulless.  There's something rote about it. For me it is a "C-" or thereabouts. But the rest of the films earned much higher than barely-passing grades.

One aspect of A Good Day to Die Hard that I enjoyed is the nearly sub-textual fascination with the 1980s…the era from which the John McClane saga sprang. 

This movie goes back to Chernobyl and reminds us of the disaster that occurred there (in franchise time, just a year or two before the Nakatomi Plaza incident). And one villain has the audacity to tell John “It’s not 1986, Reagan is dead.”

Perhaps, encoded in that line of dialogue, is the intent on the part of the writers and the directors, to update John for the post-9/11 Era; to bring McClane firmly and irrevocably into the 21st century. 

I like the call-back to John’s beginning as an action-hero, and the acknowledgment that the Die Hard films have long since outlived their original context.

But the problem, again, is that no worthy paradigm replaces the old Die Hard one here. The Jason Bourne movies are their own thing, and have cast, already, a spell on the look and feel of modern Bond movies.  I see no motivating reason to import that aesthetic to Die Hard.

Already, that paradigm feels old and used up, and so A Good Day to Die Hard doesn’t gain anything from its sense of seriousness, or even from the international canvas.

How else can I put this?

It’s not a good day for Die Hard.  

My recommendation: bring John and the franchise home. And someone wake up Bruce Willis.

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