Film Review: A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (…or maybe just TO DIE)

GDTDH

[Note: This review contains minor spoilers.] My wife and I are HUGE movie fans. You could even say…film is “our life” in many ways. I work in “the industry” (although not as often as I’d like to), we met while working at a movie theater, we spend a lot of our free time watching movies (old and new), our BluRay collection is ridiculously huge, and our home is filled with movie posters, props, collectibles, etc. Even our conversations are peppered with choice quotes from all our favorite films. We are avid and fervent lovers of cinema.

Having said that, we also would like to think that we’re somewhat educated film lovers. When you spend so much time appreciating a certain art, you grow to understand it better. And if your exposure to the art form is varied, then your palette and knowledge grow naturally as a result. Therefore, your understanding and comprehension of said art form also grow.

SAW VI: my kind of "bottom-dweller".

SAW VI: my kind of “bottom-dweller”.

But, we’re not so haughty as to think we’re “above” anything. Hell, I’ll readily admit that as much as I love the esteemed and brilliant classics such as The Godfather or Casablanca…I also love watching some of my favorite “bottom-feeders” such as Saw VI or Happy Gilmore.

So when the chance to attend a Die Hard movie marathon the day before Valentine’s Day came about…my wife and I jumped at the chance. We both adore the Die Hard series and its central character, the iconic John (Bruce WIllis) McClane. Not to mention, the idea of sitting in a darkened theater together for 10 hours watching a marathon some of our favorite action films of all-time is simply irresistible (yes, I’m aware that I married the coolest chick ever). So it was with great anticipation and excitement that we happily attended the A Very Die Hard Valentine’s Day Marathon on February 13th.

AMC held a day-long DIE HARD marathon in conjunction with the release of the new film.

AMC held a day-long DIE HARD marathon in conjunction with the release of the new film.

I’d never seen the first two installments of the series on the big-screen. Also, seeing all the films one after another made me fully aware of a few things:

Die Hard is simply brilliant. It’s quite possibly the greatest action film ever, in my opinion.
Die Hard 2 is NOT as good as I remembered: the writing and acting is so over-the-top it’s unbelievable. The film makes me think McTiernan was a subtle director (not an easy task).
Die Hard 3 is much better than I initially thought it was. I don’t agree with some of the character choices made by the writers and Willis when it comes to McClane’s place in the world when we are re-introduced to him, but overall, it’s a great entry in the series
Die Hard 4 gets a MUCH worse rap than it deserves, in my opinion. Is it laced with CGI? Sure. But: get used to it, folks. CGI is the new effects medium and palette. It’s NOT going away. There are still plenty of practical effects in the film, all of which look great. And honestly, the film shows an understanding of what makes McClane and Die Hard work: sure, he walks away from some “bigger” incidents than in the previous three films, but he doesn’t do so unscathed. Anyone who says or thinks this is the case wasn’t watching closely enough. By the end of the film, McClane is bleeding profusely, his clothes are in tatters, he’s limping, and he’s simply worn out. Add to that some of the dialogue earlier in the film (in which McClane explains what being a hero means, what that title gets you, and why he’s “that guy”) along with the concept (McClane is once again FORCED INTO a situation that he has no control over and his adventure is simply him trying to save people while also helping others regain control of the chaos) and it’s evident that director Len Wiseman understands what makes this series and character click. (Also, anyone who complains that the events that McClane walks away from in Die Hard 4 are even more unbelievable than those of Die Hard 3 needs to watch the third film again: a good half of the stunts and set-pieces in that film are just as difficult-to-swallow as those of the fourth.)

Which brings me to the latest entry: A Good Day to Die Hard. Or, as it should’ve been called: F*ck Off and Die Hard, Audience.

Gone is any semblance of logic- which I’ll readily admit was pretty tenacious by the time we got to the third entry in the series -or apparently any attempt to insert such thinking into the film. But…come on: if you’re watching “the same sh*t happen to the same guy” for a fifth time, this can’t be your only or major gripe.

Gone is any sort of methodical exposition and character development. I’ll admit that those things also shrunk in their screen time and usage with each subsequent entry in the series. But at least the last film tried to make up for it (and succeeded greatly, in my opinion) by peppering the film with scenes and dialogue that re-established the mythos and character of McClane. This latest entry seems to think that a few “lip service” lines in the film are enough to serve this function. They’re not. There has to be visual evidence to back up those lines. There has to be consistency in character through choices made, actions taken. We get none of those things. Further…the choices made by McClane in this movie seem to betray the very essence of the character himself.

Which brings me to my biggest complaint with this film: gone is John McClane.

What're you smiling at, McClane?  You've disappeared without a trace!

What’re you smiling at, McClane? You’ve disappeared without a trace!

Willis is IN the film. So…where’d McClane go? Gone is the John McClane I- and film-goers everywhere -came to know and love. Does he still smirk, crack-wise, and look weary after bouts of action? Yes. But he’s no longer the same character on the inside. His essence has been stripped away and replaced with “generic Bruce Willis action dude”. The things that made McClane the man he was: the choices he makes, his moral code, his reaction to violence and horrific acts of aggression, his weariness at the world. All of these things are gone. Instead, we get a superman who can be flung through glass walls and windows, hit by cars, and flipped inside of a rolling vehicle…and walk away from all of these things unfazed mentally, spiritually, and physically.

Okay, he DOES get a few scratches on him. But…John McClane’s got to be pushing, what…60? Wouldn’t these events affect him even MORESO than those of the last film? Wouldn’t he be bleeding more? Showing more bruises? Limping more? Needing a wheelchair to be carted away from the scene of the action?

I know, I know. ”It’s only a movie”. But…DIE HARD, even though it’s a brand, is also a concept in and of itself. It’s not JUST about an everyday man being trapped in ridiculous and dangerous situations beyond his control that he has to grapple with and overcome in order to save others. It’s also about those first few words of that last sentence: an everyday man.

McClane’s appeal was that Willis initially (and fairly successfully in the sequels) portrayed him as a normal cop who just happened to have the inner strength and moral compass to BARELY rise to the occasion and do the right thing as he does his job not only as a protector of the public but as a husband and father. He wasn’t the perfect man by any stretch (which is certainly part of his charm and appeal as a character), but despite his foibles and failings, we knew he had a good heart and we rooted for him because we saw a lot of ourselves in this man.

Maybe John's searching for himself in that ventilation shaft.

Maybe John’s searching for himself in that ventilation shaft.

But all of that is gone. McClane no longer cringes at death and violence even though it’s part of the everyday life of a cop. Now he goes about actually ENCOURAGING those unspeakable acts of violence. He’s morphed from McClane into a twisted version of Rambo: I say “twisted” because even Rambo had the common sense and decency to understand that while he was a “killing machine” created by men and years of war, he didn’t really like who he was or what he “had” to do. But the same cannot be said of McClane in this film. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was enjoying what he was doing at all times. And I’m sorry, but that’s simply NOT McClane.

I have to wonder what Willis, the screenwriter, and the director were thinking by making these choices. By turning McClane from a good man into some sort of morally-corrupt version of the character we once knew and loved.

Then I remember the haphazard script with its threadbare “plot”, ill-conceived concept, and poor excuse for character and I think: oh…that’s what the screenwriter was thinking. ”No need for consistency with or respect for what came before: audiences are so dumb nowadays that they won’t notice the absence.”

I recollect the awful cinematography choices, the illogical editing decisions, the lack of even decent establishing shots in crucial action scenes, and the individuals seemingly devoid of personality and actual CHARACTER inhabiting nearly every scene and I think: oh…so that’s what the director was going for. The Quantum of Solace of the Die Hard series (which actually might be an insult to the Bond film). I think of how even the series’ signature catchphrase is poorly handled in a scene/shot that is so clumsily staged and shot and completely uninspired to a point that the line loses any effect whatsoever. And I nod my head in understanding.

The slipshod filmmaking and choices of Quantum of Solace look nearly like genius-level filmmaking when compared to DIE HARD 5.

The slipshod filmmaking and choices of Quantum of Solace look nearly like genius-level filmmaking when compared to DIE HARD 5.

Lastly, I think of Willis, then I become sad. As an aspiring actor, I can’t help but think: he should’ve known better. I know that sounds arrogant, but in the original film, he created what is an iconic cinematic hero for the ages. He brought life and soul to what was “merely” writing on paper. Yes, perhaps the writing was tailored to suit his personality. But what initially (and in the sequels) made McClane so endearing is Willis himself: his likability, wit, and persona. Someone may not like the guy personally or agree with his politics, but one has to admit the man has an ability to charm and thus, the camera loves him. And so the audience loved him. We loved and cheered for John McClane. We came back, hoping he would make us laugh, smile, and root again. That he would rise above it all and emerge, battered and bleeding, but victorious. And for three sequels, he did. In the latest entry, Willis can still make me smile and chuckle, but there has to be more than just that. I want to see all aspects of that character I adore. And I simply didn’t. I can’t help but feel like Willis should show responsibility in his stewardship and protection of the iconic character he shaped. I see none of that in this film.

Surely there’s somewhere to point the finger and something specific to blame.
Maybe the 97 minute runtime? Perhaps there’s footage excised that would’ve fleshed out this film and gave it the life, appeal, and character I was hoping for. But added runtime can’t make up for poor craftsmanship and character choices, can it?

Maybe the “law of diminishing returns”? Granted, each film in a series seems to slip further away from its original charm: it’s just an understood law of sequels. But when you see a complete abandonment of “the magic”…what’s the excuse for that? Even Sylvester Stallone was able to make Rocky Balboa a return-to-form for his most revered creation. Perhaps Willis can do so with the next and final entry in this series?

McClane looks into his not-too-distant future and wonders if there's ROCKY BALBOA-esque salvation waiting.

McClane looks into his not-too-distant future and wonders if there’s ROCKY BALBOA-esque salvation waiting.

Maybe the assured studio interference is the heart of the problem? Meaning: when taking into consideration every aspect of this film, including marketing and advertising, this film often feels like it isn’t sure who it’s being made for or what it needs to be. It’s rated R, which is a welcome relief after the sometimes watered-down feeling of the PG-13 previous installment. But making it more graphic in every aspect doesn’t guarantee it will be a successful Die Hard film. This film feels like it was made for “today’s audience”. And while I can understand the feeling that a series should evolve with the expectations and tastes of audiences, I feel that may be where the problem lies. Who is the film being made for? An ADD-riddled audience who cares not for character, plot, or depth and merely wants to see a generic action pic devoid of soul and humanity? If that’s the case, fine. But don’t make it a Die Hard movie, because that’s not what those films are about.

Further, figure out whom you’re marketing to: if you want to bring in the faithful Die Hard fans, then make filmmaking and advertising choices that demonstrate that’s your key demographic. Fox doesn’t seem to understand that at the heart of this series and film is an aging action star whose core audience is made up of people who love the character because they’ve watched him for the last 25 years. We’ve aged with the character and therefore have a certain nostalgia for him. And it feels like it’s just been abandoned in favor of appealing to “everyone” by taking any intelligence and humanity completely out of the equation and replacing it with big loud booms.

Beltrami's welcome efforts are one of the few highlights of this inept sequel.

Beltrami’s welcome efforts are one of the few highlights of this inept sequel.

Of course there are aspects of the film I enjoyed. Like I said, Willis can still make me grin and laugh. Marco Beltrami’s work on the film’s score is absolutely wonderful. In fact, his accomplishments on the last two films remind me very much of David Arnold stepping into the shoes of John Barry on the Bond series. The music in the last two Die Hard films is like a tall glass of Michael Kamen with a slice of Marco Beltrami at the top of the rim. Beltrami adds his own unique taste and essence but without ever really altering the core flavor of the glass’ contents. Talk about understanding and showing respect to what’s come before: this guy “gets it”. There are some impressive action sequences and the final couple “stunts” for McClane are absolutely breathtaking in both their concept and visual execution. Lastly, there are some fun nods (including a great visual nod near the finale of the film) to previous entries in the series (SPOILER: although the “nod” of McClane’s ringtone being “Ode to Joy” is moronic: we’re just supposed to believe that’s a cute coincidence. Otherwise, we have to believe that somehow McClane heard the score from the first movie at some point).

But those nods only made me more bummed out because of what a missed opportunity this film felt like. You’ve got McClane in a REAL fish-out-of-water” (he’s in friggin’ Russia, for cryin’ out loud!) and uncontrollable situation. You’ve got the chance to really imbue the film with some great father-and-son dynamics that not only could’ve reenforced what we saw before in the series, but also reestablished our love for WHO McClane really is at his core. Additionally, the parent to child story could’ve been paralleled in a very interesting way in another relationship between two other characters in the film: a great chance at some juxtaposition and interesting visual and storytelling contrasts. But those opportunities weren’t seized. And I just felt so…disappointed.

It was a "Good Day to Die Hard"...until the fifth film began.

It was a “Good Day to Die Hard”…until the fifth film began.

Maybe that’s my fault. A friend of mine asked me, “Did you really expect a film titled Die Hard 5 to be good?” And the answer is: yes. After really enjoying Willis’ turn in Looper s well as Live Free or Die Hard, I expected to like and have fun with this film. After watching, understanding, and appreciating the history of the franchise and character, I thought I’d like the movie more than I did and that it at least would be consistent in character and style. I was mistaken. But again, maybe my expectations were too high based on that history and understanding. Maybe I just needed to “turn off my brain and have fun”. But the Die Hard “brand” is not about turning off your brain: it’s a smart action concept with an intelligent hero. Or at least…it’s supposed to be.

So if you go into this one expecting a “fun” Willis film that might entertain you for 95 minutes but feels completely generic and forgettable, go see this movie.

But if you’re expecting another good Die Hard film… Well, I’m afraid all I can say is…

“Yippie-ki-nay, motherf*cker.”

Rating: 2/5 ★★☆☆☆ 

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About Lito

Lito is an LA-based aspiring actor, writer, producer, and musician who studied at both Juilliard and the Indiana University School of Music. Lito had a featured role in David Mamet's film RED BELT, and also served as one of the producers of critically-acclaimed and award-winning documentaries such as NEVER SLEEP AGAIN: THE ELM STREET LEGACY, MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD, and SCREAM: THE INSIDE STORY, which have been featured on A&E networks and in Entertainment Weekly. He lives in the Los Angeles area with his beautiful wife and is just trying to live the dream…all the while staying one step ahead of the supposed impending zombie apocalypse.

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