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From the DVD Shelf: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

December 13th, 2013
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OK, here’s a quick summary of my thoughts on the Die Hard series.  I think the first Die Hard is one of the best action movies ever made, a practically perfect combination of a wonderful cast, a sharp script, and incredible directing (by John McTiernan).  I have a fond place in my hard for Die Hard 2: Die Harder, because it was such a part of my childhood, but there’s no mistaking that it’s a mis-step, a somewhat joyless and not-that-creative retread of the first film.  I love Die Hard with a Vengeance, the first Die Hard film I saw on the big screen (and the only other Die Hard film, after the original, directed by McTiernan, which is, I think, a key reason why it’s so good).  I think it’s a very funny film that also has tremendous action.  I love the way the film’s story circles back to that of the first film, and this battered, world-weary John McClane feels to me like a welcome return to the McClane of the first film.  I also love Samuel L. Jackson.  To me, those are the only three real Die Hard films.  I found Live Free of Die Hard to be a forgettable, extremely mediocre installment.  I don’t hate it, but it doesn’t at all feel to me like a Die Hard movie, and this character named John McClane who jumps onto wings of fighter jets doesn’t feel at all to me like the John McClane I remember.

When I first read that they were making a fifth Die Hard film, I briefly hoped that they’d learn from the mistakes of the fourth film and get back to what made the series — and the John McClane character — work originally.  It was immediately clear to me, though, that they hadn’t.  I was so underwhelmed by the trailers for A Good Day to Die Hard (and, really, the people from Star Trek should be getting a few cents off of every dollar made from this movie due to that Worf-like title) that I didn’t bother to see the film in theatres.  I could just tell that it would make me angry, so why spend the money?

When the film came out on DVD though, I thought, OK, for curiosity’s sake at least, I should watch the film.  I mean, how could there exist a Die Hard film that I hadn’t seen?

Sadly, my low expectations were met.  A Good Day to Die Hard is significantly worse than the at-least-watchable Live Free or Die Hard.  This is a total catastrophe of a movie, one of the most amateurish, incompetently-made big-budget films I have seen in a good long while.

Right away, in the opening minutes of the movie, I knew this was going to be a mess.  The first several minutes of the film jump all over the place, showing us many different Russian characters, all speaking Russian urgently to one another.  Something is afoot, but it’s impossible to follow who anyone is or what they are talking about.  At first I was worried because the film wasn’t allowing me to understand the story.  Then I realized that there’s really no story to be told at all — none of what happens in those first few minutes makes any sense or really matters in any way, which ultimately is an even deeper failure of story-telling.  Why waste our time on those scenes if none of it matters?  (I know those scenes don’t matter, because I didn’t follow any of them, and yet I wasn’t at all confused by the rest of the movie.)  It’s all just fake-pretentious buildup for an opening Big Action Scene, in which John McClane’s son busts someone out of a Russian prison, while other Russians try to kill them, and papa McClane somehow winds up in the middle of things.

I thought to myself, OK, it’s a Die Hard film, so at least I’ll enjoy some great action, right?  Wrong.  This first big action sequence is a huge mess.  It is edited extremely choppily.  There is absolutely no sense of geography.  There are several different characters and vehicles involved in the chase, but it’s impossible to keep track of who is who or where anyone is relative to one another.  No moment feels finished, we just cut away seemingly at random from one person or vehicle to someone else who is someplace else.  There’s a lot of dialogue that you hear in voice-over over the action you’re watching, but you can’t tell who is saying that dialogue or where they are in relation to the images you’re watching.  And the whole thing is so relentlessly paced, with one jump cut after another and shaky footage throughout, that watching it gave me — truly! — a big headache after just a few minutes.

Things only get worse from there.  The nonsensical plot makes no sense and really isn’t even worth my attempting to summarize.  There’s a big twist at the end, which feels like it’s there because that’s what the filmmakers thought a Die Hard film needs to have in the third act, not because it makes one iota of sense based on the story that has come before.  They have John McClane repeatedly exclaim “I’m on vacation!” throughout the film, as if we’re supposed to laugh at what a witty punchline it is.  Unfortunately, not only is that catch-phrase not remotely funny, it also is patently false.  John McClane is NOT on vacation in Russia!  He’s gone there to bail out his son, who he thinks has been arrested!  So the line doesn’t even make any sense!!  But I guess the filmmakers aren’t actually expecting the audience to be any attention to the story.  They sure weren’t.

The whole film has a cold, digital blue look that I found very ugly and unappealing.

The previous Die Hard film, Live Free or Die Hard, had a good idea at its core: an analog hero in a digital world.  Wouldn’t it be fun to see old-school John McClane go up against a cyber-terrorist, whose whole plot was based on technology?  That’s a great hook for a film, it’s just that the actual movie they made was a disappointment.  Well, the only thing positive I can say about A Good Day to Die Hard is that they also had, buried deep beneath all of the terribleness, a good idea: the professional secret-agent son paired up with his reckless, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants dad.  A good movie could have been made from that idea, but this isn’t it.

Both the fourth and fifth Die Hard films have another failing in common.  Both films have a moment, about two-thirds of the way into it, in which John McClane and his partner (in the fourth film it was the computer geek played by Justin Long, in this film it was McClane’s son, played by Jai Courtney) are driving in a car, and there is no reason at that point why they couldn’t a) just walk away from the situation, and/or b) call for lots and lots of help.  But the characters do neither of those things, which makes all the peril they get into in the third act sort of silly, because they had an easy out that they didn’t take.  The earlier Die Hard films worked because McClane was backed into a corner, with no choice but to act and no one to turn to but himself.  Not so here.

In fact, this John McClane character is totally unrecognizable as the McClane from the earlier films.  If the character wasn’t named John McClane, you’d never think to link this film with the original Die Hard.  This character might be played by Bruce Willis and named John McClane, but this risk-be-damned, immortal super-hero character has nothing in common with the very human McClane of the original Die Hard.  That is the film’s biggest failing.

There is really nothing good about this mess of a movie, this smirch on the Die Hard name,  It’s a very short film, just a hair over 90 minutes, but it still feels like it’s way too long.  Oy vey.  Skip this one at all costs, friends.

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