In the spirit of science fictional experimentation, I decided to write my initial review of A Good Day to Die Hard about two hours before seeing the film. I figured, why not? With a movie like this, there are a limited number of directions it could take, so why not test out the theory (or at least the suspicion) that all action films are really the same movie? How much of the review would I have to change after actually seeing the film?
Not a lot, as it turns out. Below is the review I wrote before seeing the movie. Comments in bold are me after seeing the movie
In Japan, there is a giant chocolate statue of Bruce Willis’s John McClane. Two things are unclear: has it been eaten? And if so, by whom? The film that the chocolate Bruce Willis promotes—A Good Day to Die Hard— is a lot like a chocolate statue. It’s a nice idea, but ultimately impractical and not very sturdy. A Good Day to Die Hard does ultimately suck, but not profoundly so. Its lack of charm isn’t exactly offensive, just a little embarrassing. We never thought John McClane would end up being the weird uncle at Thanksgiving who no one wants to talk to, but at this point, that’s the unfortunate (but unavoidable) vibe at play in this latest installment of the franchise.
(Update, post-viewing: I’m right so far.)
Whereas the last Die Hard film focused on McClane’s daughter, this installment gives us a bromance between McClane and his son Jack (Jai Courtney). Personally, I found this young guy/old guy pairing more interesting and fun than that of Willis with Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper. (But then again, Looper wasn’t supposed to be fun.) Die Hard movies are supposed to be fun. As long as the viewer is having a good time, we don’t really have to worry if the film is “quality,” right? Well, yes and no. One could adopt a pure pleasure- over-substance attitude toward film criticism, but the resulting reviews would inevitably end up sounding like they were written by somebody’s grandparents who only watch movies on Pay-Per-View when they’re very, very bored.
(Update, post-viewing: I’m still correct, and also, you should watch this movie on Pay-Per-View. In a hotel room. Alone. And sad.)
The original Die Hard didn’t exactly break new ground for action movies, per se, but it did, I think, introduce a certain permissive element into the zeitgeist in terms of how we can feel about explosions. In the grand scheme of American action movies, Die Hard was one of the first films that told us “it’s okay to laugh at explosions.” John McClane is a quintessentially American character, not just because he swears and is from New York City, but because Bruce Willis himself was probably produced by a mass hallucination we’ve all been having about what a “cool regular guy” is like. From all of our American psyche Bruce Willis came, and he’s here to stay until the day he dies.
Or is he? A Good Day to Die Hard, while totally entertaining, certainly shows the cracks in character/franchise. What is the premise of ANY Die Hard movie? Easy: John McClane accidentally finds himself in a situation where he has to thwart a plot being perpetrated by a group of terrorists in spite of being outnumbered and operating with limited resources.
(Update, post-viewing: this turned out to be slightly wrong. John McClane intentionally goes to Russia in the film to save his son from being thrown in jail. Or something. Still. Only one word wrong out of hundreds, so far.)
Essentially, John McClane is a more hardcore, gun-toting, and (now) bald MacGyver. Working with what he has, he figures out how to win. This time out, he’s got his good-looking, somewhat charming son with him, who does at one point, get to utter the infamous “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker” line.
(I was totally wrong about this. Jack does not do the line. Instead, the famous “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker” is uttered only once, by Bruce Willis, as he drives a truck out of a helicopter, to which he has affixed a chain, pulling the truck and helicopter down. Also, Jack is not that charming.)
Jack is a nice kid, but as with Shia LaBeouf and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Crystal Skull, his presence is a sad reminder of how much older Bruce Willis is now, compared to when he started on this whole Die Hard odyssey. All Die Hard movies are Bruce Willis films, but all Bruce Willis films are not Die Hard films. I’m not sure why this isn’t true, because even when Bruce Willis is in other movies, it still sometimes feels like he’s John McClane (for example, the previously mentioned Looper, The Fifth Element, and the forthcoming G.I. Joe). So, when we’ve got the real deal, and he really is John McClane, it should be an extra-special occasion, right?
Well, this is where the movie sort of falls apart, and it’s down to one simple problem: Bruce Willis can’t actually carry a Die Hard movie on his own. In the first movie the sheer novelty factor can’t be underestimated, plus he has ALAN FUCKING RICKMAN to play off of. Die Hard 2: Die Harder doesn’t have many other awesome actors in it, but it does have a pre-NYPD Blue Dennis Franz, so there’s that. And again, a certain amount of novelty was still holding everything together, combined with the sheer audacity of the sequel’s title. Then came Die Hard 3: With A Vengeance, which arguably has the best actors opposite Willis in any of these flicks. Who is cooler AND swears more than Bruce Willis? Samuel L. Jackson! Who would can play a villain to rival even Alan Rickman? Jeremy Irons! And while for some reason I have a faulty memory of Cillian Murphy being the baddie in Live Free or Die Hard, it was actually Timothy Olyphant, and he was a damn fine evil hacker. Not to mention that Mary Elizabeth Winstead was fantastic as McClane’s daughter.
But this time around? Willis is hanging out with a bunch of C-listers, leaving him all alone with nothing to work with. And even with all the gunfire and explosions, the drag of Bruce Willis having no one cool to play with is there, in nearly every scene. The explosions aren’t funny anymore, and Bruce Willis looks tired.
(Spot on. This is why the movie is bad. Plus, there is a really terrible scene of dialogue between McClane and McClane Jr. while they’re driving to Chernobyl. Further, the bad guy in the movie reminds me a lot of Sybok from Star Trek V. Except he doesn’t feel my pain.)
Is today a good day to see a new Die Hard? Well as one of the bad guys in the movie declares, “this isn’t 1986!” And if it were, then maybe this movie would be fun. But for now, it’s just a little dull.
Final post-viewing update: I swear to all of you, the “this isn’t 1986” line is actually in the movie. I really thought I was going to have to cut that!
As it turns out, I was right about A Good Day to Die Hard in almost every single way. I can’t say I’m offended by the extreme predictability, really, but instead just faintly nostalgic and sad. Like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the correct response to A Good Day to Die Hard is to declare oneself to be a little bummed out, and then move on and watch the first one again. “Yippee ki-yay to the 80s!”
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.