Desperate hacks working for print publications regularly check The Ooh Tray for ideas on how to review material. No, really. With that audience in mind, here are a few ready-made quips about A Good Day to Die Hard that they’re welcome to steal.
All concerned should be dropped from the 30th floor of a high rise. All concerned should have a swivel chair with C4 strapped to it, dropped on them via a nearby lift shaft. All concerned should be hung with a chain, then later shot 5 times at close range. All concerned should be ridden piggyback style, forced down a flight of stairs and have their neck broken. All concerned should be defenestrated, ending up on the bonnet of a cop car. All concerned should die. Hard.
You’re now beginning to suspect that A Good Day… isn’t a good movie and I’m sorry to confirm that you’re correct. That it mirrors The Jaws Curve, the official model for tracking abysmal, abyssal-type sequels, may surprise you, however. Die Hard’s follow-ups have fared better than most. Even Len Wiseman, the chimp in human clothes responsible for the Underworld movies, managed to turn in a respectable, if anaemic instalment when he revived the series six years ago. Perhaps the worst thing one can say of John Moore’s mono-dimensional genre dump is that it makes Wiseman look like John McTiernan. Sadly, Moore has opted to ape neither, instead channelling Tony Scott on a downer. In any event we now know to whom the late action maestro left his colour filters and zoom lens. Scott, naturally, would have made better use of them: no, not Scott as he was but Scott today.
Where did it all go wrong? Just about everywhere. A reasonable premise – McClane renews his fish out of water visa by travelling to, er, Moscow to help his wayward loinfruit, subsequently ending up neck deep in junior’s efforts to protect a witness from a cabal of Russian gangsters – was passed through the typewriter of Skip Woods, who despite churning out Crayola screenplays for the likes of Hitman and Swordfish was mystifyingly entrusted with one of cinema’s most iconic and best-loved action franchises.
His script; mercilessly utilitarian and bereft of wit, character development or payoff, has a reductive effect on its dependents. Willis’ sardonic super-cop, hitherto vulnerable but assured of some sharp one-liners, looks like a man who now knows he’s a movie character. He takes the mayhem into which he’s unceremoniously dropped after just a few minutes in his stride, he vomits out placeholder dialogue, ripe for a rewrite, and he’s afflicted with a terminal case of disinterest. This is not the John McClane we remember from yesteryear: the man who was tired and hurting in Nakatomi Plaza, rather a character who despite being 25 years older is curiously indestructible and even has the forethought to give his enemies the finger as he leaps to avoid a crashing helicopter gunship.
For fans of bad screenwriting, comparing the McClane of McTiernan’s peerless original with his son is instructive. John Junior is of comparable age to Willis’ original hero but he’s a blank. No attempt is made to develop his character. He’s a featureless lunk whose only function is to play off an established hero. Watching Jai Courtney fill space reminds you how important Willis’ young, cocky persona was to the series. This was a set of films built using an actor who not only had the requisite brawn but could also play comedy and show a little humanity when required.
The treatment of the offspring is typical of the malady afflicting the film entire: it’s sequel-brain – a movie that’s been developed with the mentality that it’s just another instalment in a series rather a film in its own right. Woods and the equally blunt John Moore aren’t interested in building a relationship between their principle characters and the audience nor carefully building tension. Instead they cut to the quick and tie together chaotic setpieces using flat, bridging dialogue: chat that masquerades as character moments. The courier font, the standard for Hollywood screenplays, appears as subtitles in this movie. What odds that this was its only use in the production?
If there’s no talent behind the camera, no characters in front of it and no time, at 97 mins, for the film to breathe or develop organically, creating the space for the kind of reversal strewn, battle of wits that made the first instalment so engrossing, what of the action?
Unsupported by leads we care about or the necessary work required to set up each sequence so we might anticipate what’s about to happen and enjoy it when it does, each period of destruction is a rote piece of pyrotechnic hack-work. Cars are crushed, windows smashed and glass shattered but with little at stake and no sense of real-world jeopardy, it’s impossible to invest. Willis mugs in these moments, has a casual phone conversation with his daughter (his ode to joy ring tone showing the filmmakers have well and truly nuked the fridge) and looks as up against it as a man buying a packet of smokes. Perhaps a cop who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time as often as McClane would be desensitised to extreme situations by now but this makes him too different from the audience that hoped to identify with him. No wonder we’re left so cold.
Composer Marco Beltrami tries hard to inject atmosphere into proceedings but he’s up against a writer, director and star that have turned in career worst performances. “Reagan is dead,” says Radivoje Bukvic’s straw villain in one of the movie’s non-scenes. He might have added Reganite filmmaking. A Good Day to Die Hard is a bloodless, oddly self-censored film that allows itself a couple of “fucks” yet omits the word from the principle character’s catchphrase. It’s a movie that cuts its best takes into its trailer, leaving inferior versions in the finished film. It’s a flick that’s so badly thought out that Russian characters speak to each other in English for no reason. It even has the gall to end on a cheesy freeze frame, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the era of the original Die Hard. Of all the callbacks to yesteryear why choose one we were happy to see the back of while omitting the many that might have made this schlock-job work? That’s almost as big a mystery as why Bruce Willis would tarnish his earlier efforts and signature role by signing up to something so wretched. Motherfucker indeed.