When Die Hard was released in 1988, Bruce Willis’ wisecracking NYC cop John McClane instantly became one of America’s greatest action movie characters. He redefined what an action hero could be in an era of movies starring meatheads like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and it was refreshing to see a relatable, flawed protagonist that didn’t look like he was the result of coked-out Hollywood execs attempting to transfer the concept of a “god mode” hero from a video game to the big screen. But after the first entry, the Die Hard series fell prey to the old industry maxim “bigger is better,” expanding the confined sensibilities of the first movie* from a building, to an airport, to New York City, to the entire United States, and now – in A Good Day to Die Hard - across the world to Russia.
Let’s face it: by this point, the franchise has lost whatever magic the first film created, and all of the sequels pale in comparison. But since the studio seems hellbent on expanding the continuing adventures of John McClane rather than focusing them down, we’ll probably never see this character in his 1988 glory again. So with the notion that “no Die Hard sequel will truly feel like a Die Hard movie” in mind, how does A Good Day to Die Hard fare as an action movie that just so happens to star Bruce Willis as John McClane? Sadly, not well.
McClane discovers that his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) is in custody in Russia for what appears to be criminal behavior, so he flies across the world to straighten things out. Unbeknownst to him, Jack is actually an undercover CIA operative (of course) who’s spent years trying to stop the convoluted plot of two warring terrorists planning to take over the world. Within a few minutes of touching down on foreign soil, McClane runs into his son – inadvertently screwing up his mission – and gets involved in one of the most destructive and ludicrous car chases you’ll ever witness. Right out of the gate, it’s clear that director John Moore is running with the “McClane as a superhero” template that Len Wiseman created with Live Free or Die Hard.
But even after you accept Moore’s portrayal of the protagonist, it doesn’t excuse a terrible script, questionable action sequences, and lackluster direction. Imagine the father/son dynamic in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, water it down until there’s barely anything left, and that’s what you get here. Willis and Courtney spend the entire movie competing and arguing about whether or not John was a good father, but while Ford and Connery actually felt like they were related (despite Connery only being 12 years older than Ford at the time of filming), the actors here never once feel like family. Mary Elizabeth Winstead even reprises her role as Lucy McClane to bookend the film, and she doesn’t even hug John when he steps off the plane. There’s no familiarity to this family.
Willis spends half of the movie talking to himself or shouting to anyone who will listen that he’s supposed to be on vacation, but he never reacts to his environment and actions in the same awestruck ways that he did in Live Free. Courtney is straight-faced and joyless, coughing out bursts of exposition between gun battles in a boring, thankless role. (“Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul dodged a bullet on this one; he was once up for the part.) The actors playing the villains are totally forgettable, constantly double-crossing each other and decrying the brash personalities of the American “cowboys,” but never doing anything memorable. Hans Gruber these guys ain’t.
Moore inexplicably thinks it’s a good idea to shoot all of his action sequences using heavy snap zooms, a tactic that proves incredibly disorienting when combined with shaky camerawork and grimy, nondescript production design. When it came to Live Free or Die Hard, Len Wiseman was all about style over substance; there was a sheen to everything that felt sanitized and studio mandated. A Good Day is certainly a darker sequel (both visually and in tone), but Moore doesn’t give his movie any style or substance. He spends too much energy on spectacle and not enough on character. We aren’t ever given a reason to care about McClane, and since Willis and Courtney can’t sell their relationship, all of the setpieces don’t matter to the story.
By the time our heroes go to Chernobyl to retrieve some stupid MacGuffin and the bad guys have magic technology that removes radiation so everyone can walk around without hazmat suits on, I had already checked out. And for those that thought it was ridiculous that McClane hung on the wing of a fighter jet in Live Free’s climax, prepare yourselves for an even more unbelievable ending here. A huge part of the reason that the first movie works so well is that McClane forges actual relationships; we see how he interacts with Holly, and his conversations with Al Powell give us the most heartfelt moments in the entire series. If the Die Hard movies can at least get back to that version of John McClane, they might have a chance at being good again. Otherwise, expect more pointless explosions, empty franchise building, and soulless situations into which a shell John McClane is tossed in the years to come. Until next time…
*Even 20th Century Fox seems to acknowledge that a huge part of the first film’s success is its claustrophobic setting. They just unveiled a new mural on the studio lot to celebrate the series’ 25th anniversary, and the image they chose was of McClane crawling through an air duct.