Over the last few days, I’ve looked back at the Die Hard franchise, and tried to explain what makes these films unique. The obvious answer is John McClane (Bruce Willis). Willis helped to craft a memorable character who was the wise-cracking, scrappy, desperate hero we can all root for. But it’s not simply an attitude. Die Hard is a matter of circumstance and response, and the two best films—Die Hard and Die Hard with a Vengeance—back McClane into a corner and force him to rely on his wits and strength to survive. He gets the shit kicked out of him, swears constantly, but laughs in the face of near death. John McClane’s personality lives in A Good Day to Die Hard. Everything else dies horribly.
In its poor, convoluted excuse for a plot, John McClane heads to Moscow after his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) is arrested for an assassination. It turns out Jack is a CIA Agent who must rescue political prisoner Komarov (Sebastian Koch) from Defense Minister Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov) and his henchmen Alik (Rasha Bukvic) and Irina (Yuliya Snigir). McClane accidentally gets in the way of Komarov’s extraction, so father and son are forced to take the Russian to get a special file that will expose Chagarin for being a bad guy. The story gets much dumber from there.
For all of its many faults, Live Free or Die Hard at least admires John McClane, and wants to do right by him as best it can. Screenwriter Skip Woods and director John Moore could not care less. Everything feels mercenary and lazy to an insulting extent. We don’t even know what McClane plans to do when he gets to Moscow since Jack is already under arrest and being brought to trial. McClane doesn’t know either, but thankfully Alik arranges a bombing that springs Komarov (and unintentionally Jack) from the courthouse. If Alik was the one who freed the pair, then how can the CIA team be ready for extraction, and how can the CIA team give up when McClane accidentally delays Jack from reaching the extraction point?
The film has nothing but disdain for its audience because it seems to believe that if you simply have Bruce Willis bringing the attitude of John McClane, and throw in some crappy action scenes, then you don’t need to give a crap about anything else. Moore puts so much attention into an extended car chase that he doesn’t seem to realize that even though McClane gets into two wrecks, he emerges without a scratch. Die Hard movies are all about the scratches and the blood. More importantly, Woods and Moore have McClane behave recklessly by endangering the lives of Russian citizens as he chases after Jack.
Even if the protagonist wasn’t John McClane, he’d still be an irresponsible dick who we wouldn’t want as a hero. We could maybe feel some kind of compassion for his motives if the conflict with Jack didn’t feel paper-thin, but all of Jack’s resentment comes off as whiny. McClane felt his son was a delinquent, and Jack felt his father was too much of a hard-ass. Gosh, I wonder if surviving a few shootouts will help them bond? There’s more of a connection between Zeus and McClane in Die Hard with a Vengeance, and they start out as total strangers.
Like the father-son relationship, A Good Day to Die Hard fails at just about everything it tries to do. The action scenes have a poor sense of geography and lack tension, although Moore does know how to make stuff blow up real good. The pacing is atrocious, the digital effects look cheap, and the movie doesn’t even have a clear villain with understandable motives. It may be difficult to nail the essence of a Die Hard movie, but how can you screw up the bad guy? Alik has some quirks in search of a character, and some twists down the road are even more maddening since Woods clearly has no idea what the fuck he’s doing. I expect no more from the writer of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Hitman. This is a movie where Jack needs a gun at one point, doesn’t have a gun anywhere near him, and then basically pulls a gun out of the ether because that’s what the story demands. If someone can tell me where that gun came from, it wouldn’t matter because then Moore fucked up by not showing us where it was in relation to Jack.
I almost feel bad asking for more when there’s this level of incompetence, but the movie absolutely wastes its setting. At the beginning of the movie when a friend tells McClane “It’s Russia. They do things differently over there,” it’s an invitation to take our All-American Hero and illustrate him through contrast. Even though the Cold War is over, taking McClane out of America presents interesting possibilities. Instead, it simply allows McClane to come to the eurotrash rather than the eurotrash coming to him. We don’t get a sense of American heroism or values. We leave Russia with only the vague sense of, “Wow. Russian politics are weird.”
Of course, you can’t examine McClane in any sense when you don’t understand what makes him great. Everyone other than Willis seems to have heard of the Die Hard movies and never actually watched them. To his credit, Willis is actually trying this time around as opposed to his lethargic performance in Live Free. The actor seems to be having fun, McClane is screaming at his enemies, and being generally rambunctious. The spirit of McClane is active, but it lacks context.
What I hope I’ve explained in my retrospective is that the context is just as important as the John McClane character if not more so. We have more than our share of wise-cracking heroes, but it’s the circumstances that bring out the best in McClane. He’s not a guy who’s out to save the world like he’s supposed to do in Live Free or this movie. His ability to survive can strain credulity but he never possesses outright invulnerability like he does here. His motives and his enemies make a modicum of sense. A Good Day to Die Hard painfully fails to realize that a Die Hard movie is not simply saying, “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker.”