by Thom Yee
The first thing I asked when somebody told me there was a fifth Die Hard movie coming out was, “Is it set at Christmas?” It’s not a necessary element. It’s not central to the plot, nor is it something you contemplate in the overall context of the films. But it’s important. To me, the first Die Hard, the one, true Die Hard, is fundamentally three things:
1) a superlative action movie;
2) an all-around perfect movie; and
3) a quintessential Christmas movie.
It’s an atmospheric element that lends so much to the feel of the original that it’s inextricably, inexorably, and never-endlingly linked to what the Die Hard experience is.
A Good Day to Die Hard is not set at Christmas.
By now I’ve accepted that a lot of things in Die Hard aren’t coming back. Things like well-drawn background characters like Joseph Takagi, Karl, or Argyle. Elements like evocative, memorable scores and over-the-top, but realistic action sequences. People like Sergeant Al Powell or Holly Gennero (and it doesn’t exactly seem like Reginald VelJohnson or Bonnie Bedelia are swamped with other projects right now).
After seeing Live Free or Die Hard, I’ve also dismissed the notion of another truly great Die Hard movie. And after seeing the trailer for A Good Day to Die Hard, I started to wonder if I might have to dismiss the notion of another mildly good Die Hard movie as well. There’s a clear layer of realism that’s missing from the post-9/11 Die Hards, a realism that gave the first three movies meaning. There was real weight behind everything that happened in the initial three, real stakes and a sense of danger. I like to remind people that the very first thing John McClane ever tried to do was call for help by pulling the Nakatomi Plaza fire alarm. He didn’t want to do it all himself.
But at this point, the fact that John McClane has gone from reluctant, overmatched, and unappreciated protagonist to jump-straight-into-the-fire-without-much-forethought action hero is a well-worn trope of Die Hard movie reviews, a fact beaten to death like a man strung up by the neck with chains, seemingly dead, only to make an unexpected last-minute return so that a supporting character can have a small moment of growth.
In A Good Day to Die Hard, there are moments of such massive disbelief, both due to the physics involved and the computer-generated scenery, that I can’t help but feel disengaged. As I watched McClane fall from spinning helicopters, smash through windows at spinning-helicopter-induced speeds, and dive into pools to avoid the carnage of explosions due to spinning helicopter, it becomes obvious that we’ve lost the man who almost died from falling down an elevator shaft in favour of Spider-Man-level acrobatics and near-Superman-style-invulnerability.
But that’s fine. If there’s one thing that Live Free or Die Hard did right, it’s pallet cleansing. Now I don’t have to come at Die Hards with any sense of expectation or elevated hope(s). And that’s where A Good Day to Die Hard shines: without expectations, without aspirations, and no hope, no hope, no hope at all.
So we open the movie with an info dump via television news story on some Russian political prisoner (or something) that I actually missed a lot of because I was sitting back, watching a Die Hard movie, thinking about if it was warm enough to take my jacket off (or if I would regret that decision later), and not being prepared to absorb information at the beginning of a Die Hard movie. Here’s the short version: a bad guy, Viktor Chagarin, is after Yuri Kamarov, a government whistleblower who has information on him, and our heroes have to protect him. We’re then introduced to Jack McClane, John McClane’s erstwhile son played by the gorgeous (especially compared to Willis’ real children) Jai Courtney, who seems to have become a criminal, but is actually a CIA agent trying to extract Kamarov from prison. Along the way John becomes involved in the whole thing, the whole thing goes pear-shaped, Jack and John lose the prisoner and give chase while repairing their damaged relationship, and then there’s a twist.
If that last paragraph sounds condensed, with an undercurrent of deep cynicism, it’s probably my disdain for writing plot synopses more than anything else. Also, I’m deeply cynical. It all works better than I expected, and even though A Good Day to Die Hard has received an almost unanimous critical panning, I’m going on record as calling it the best Die Hard sequel ever. The interplay between John and Jack is so close to being good and believable that I’m willing to call it actually good — I really believed that Jack hated his father. The brief moment between John and Kamarov about fatherhood works surprisingly well (Kamarov’s the father of the girl we see gratuitously taking off her jumpsuit in most of the trailers). When John says, “I screwed my kids’ life up too. Work all the time, round the clock most of the time when you’re a cop, I just thought that… working all the time was a good thing, y’know?”, it actually made me sympathize with most of the sh*tty fathers out there. These small character moments in a movie like Die Hard actually had me invested in the characters (!).
On balance, the action is pretty good too, though not especially memorable. The first chase scene in the film was pretty well done. The escape from the CIA safe house was really good and we got to see Jai take his shirt off. The hotel dining room shoot out was also really good and was based on the type of physical realities that belong in the overall franchise. There’s even an everyone-starts-laughing-while-held-at-gunpoint scene. It’s callbacks like these, callbacks that actually fit, that make A Good Day to Die Hard so much better than Live Free or Die Hard.
So that all sounds pretty good, right? Good action, decent character interactions, a serviceable story. There’s really only one major problem: there’s no second half. A little past the halfway point, there’s a twist that sort of resets the story. But twists only work when they play with our expectations. This twist not only falls completely flat, but also doesn’t have any real payoff. It’s really a failure of execution that, during the movie’s final set piece, I was wondering what was going to happen after. There weren’t any other loose ends to tie up. There weren’t any meaningful conclusions. But, given that so little had happened on the back half in terms of dramatic action, I couldn’t help feeling like the screenwriters had just given up. In sharp contrast to the meandering, overdrawn plots of the last three and in even sharper contrast to the first, A Good Day to Die Hard, for the first time in franchise history, ends too early.
Possibly even worse, as we reached towards the movie’s conclusion, John McClane starts to feel like a passenger in his own franchise. I’m not sure if we’ve been introduced to Jack so that the Die Hard torch can, eventually or soon, be passed on to the next generation, but Die Hard isn’t a series that exists without Bruce Willis’s John McClane, like so many Jack Ryans. And as much as I may be man-crushing on Jai Courtney, he’s far from ready to carry the series. This also doesn’t feel like a movie that benefits from being set in Russia. The plot is too generic to demand the Russian landscape, and it feels like the setting was just a flimsy excuse to play with the “Yippee Ki-Yay Mother _______________” meme. On the other hand, I guess it worked for Rocky IV, one of the greatest non-Die Hard movies of all time.
But like I said earlier, A Good Day to Die Hard is the best Die Hard sequel of all time. Despite its disconnection from the original, despite the missing last half, and despite the computer-generated frivolities, the character moments work better than they have any reason to. The movie works in homages to the original in a much more natural way than its immediate predecessor, and many of the action scenes are set in a reality that we can at least recognize if not understand. A Good Day to Die Hard is, by no means, a great movie. But if you know what you’re getting into, it’s worth your time. Just don’t expect any miracles. After all, it’s not like it’s Christmas.
A Good Day to Die Hard final score: 7