A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore, 2013)
My simple verdict? This is a god-awful mess, not even worth the time and effort I am about to expend reviewing it.
I loved, and still love, the first Die Hard film. As a teenager, I had grown up as a huge Bruce Willis fan, thanks to the 1980s TV show “Moonlighting.” His cockiness and humor – trademarks of David Addison (the character he played on “Moonlighting“) – made the extreme violence of Die Hard palatable, providing just enough ironic distance to keep us from being too horrified by the excessive body count. The excellent supporting cast (William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Gleason, Alexander Godunov, Alan Rickman, James Shigeta, and Reginald VelJohnson) helped to populate the movie with characters either sympathetic, funny, interestingly creepy, or some combination of two or three of those traits.
That said, it was hardly a masterpiece, but it knew what it was and delivered it with panache. If you forget the plot, you can watch this 30-second reduction and remember all of the good times.
Almost all successful films spawn franchises, and so, two years later, we were given a sequel (from a new director – Renny Harlin), Die Hard 2 (“Die Harder“). This film did not impress as much, and perhaps a better subtitle would have been “Try Harder,” since the plot felt forced and uninspired. Still, compared to the newest Die Hard movie, it rocked.
And then came the third entry, 5 years later, Die Hard: With a Vengeance (made this time by a returning John McTiernan) which managed – in my humble opinion – to bring back some of the freshness and energy of the first film. This was due in large measure to the addition of two fine supporting players: Samuel L. Jackson as an unwilling partner in hijinks, and Jeremy Irons as a very willing bad guy. Again, it was no masterpiece, but it delivered its thrills with cleverness and wit.
And that seemed to be it. Three films in a franchise is pretty respectable, no?
But then, in 2007, Twentieth Century Fox decided it would be a great idea to bring back John McClane – this time with a grown daughter! – for one more go, in Live Free or Die Hard. I can’t remember much about the film, as it was pretty terrible (and no longer directed by McTiernan). It was fun to see the director Kevin Smith in a supporting bit as a tech wizard geek, through, and Justin Long – the Mac guy in those Mac/PC TV commercials – did alright in his own part. But Mary Elizabeth Winstead – so good in Sky High – very nearly ruined the movie for me, and Timothy Oliphant – so good in “Deadwood” – was miscast as the villain.
And now, in 2013 – since the fourth film made a profit – we are graced with #5. Lucky us.
I’ve written too much already, but here are just some of the things that I hated about the film:
- It has an incredibly ugly palette. I was convinced that it was a badly shot digital film, since so much looks pixellated, but no, it was shot on 35mm (I looked up the tech specs). It reminded me of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in terms of how noxious the image was. It’s hard for me to comprehend how a major studio release could look so horrible.
- The acting of the supporting players – even from Sebastian Koch, terrific in both The Lives of Others (a great film) and Black Book (not a good film) – was almost uniformly unwatchable. It was as if they were being urged by the director to sneer, snarl and convey each and every feeling through a surge of animated facial tics. The worst was Jai Courtney, as McClane’s son (yes, we now get to meet child #2!), who so unimpressed me in Jack Reacher. When he’s sad, he pouts. When he’s angry, he grimaces. Nice.
- The destruction of bystanders and locations is unconscionable – worse than in the previous Die Hard films – and makes it extremely hard to root for anybody.
- In the middle of that wanton mayhem is one extremely confusing car chase, where the close-ups inside the vehicles in no way match up to any of the exterior wide shots. I know there is value in confusing the viewer in the service of amped-up adrenaline, but not to the absolute detriment of comprehension.
- Where the @#$%^&* are the Moscow police? Yes, it’s a crazy city, but they’re not THAT incompetent.
- Why don’t McClane and son need radiation suits in Chernobyl if everyone else is wearing them?
- The ending slo-mo helicopter stuff was laughable.
- Finally, anyone who speaks Russian will be distracted by the fact that only some of the actors (such as Sergei Kolesnikov, as Chagarin, and Yulia Snigir, as Irina) are actually Russian, whereas others (like Sebastian Koch) might be foreign, but can’t speak Russian any better than your average Joe (as in “the plumber,” and not Stalin).
One fascinating thing for me was to see how much Moscow has changed since my last visit in 1998. It seems to have so many modern skyscrapers now. Not that that’s good . . .
So what is the movie about? Who cares? Oh, OK, here’s my summary: John McClane goes to Moscow to try and rescue his estranged son, whom he believes is a ne’er-do-well arrested for the assassination (or attempted assassination – it was hard to follow) of a politician (or a gangster?). But guess what? He’s really a good guy! It’s all a misunderstanding! And as their bodies are consumed by fire and radiation in the middle of the devastated plains of the abandoned Ukrainian city of Chernobyl, father and son embrace and reconcile. Except that they are not burned (I was lying), don’t really embrace, and – *plot spoiler* – make it home safe and sound to the actual embrace of Mary Elizabeth Winstead (no better here than she was in Live Free or Die Hard).
You have been warned.
[NOTE: This article has been corrected from an earlier version in which I mistakenly listed John McTiernan as the director of “Die Hard 2” – thanks to my friend Derek Abbott for catching the error.]