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Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard poster
"Yippee-Ki-Yay, Mother Russia" is at least a better tagline than "Fun With a Vengeance!"
When you get to the fifth movie in a franchise, it's difficult not to be locked into a formula. After all, if the formula worked four times before, it's bound to work again, at least to a certain degree. Plus, if you try to change the winning formula too much, fans will be outraged and unforgiving, making it damn near impossible to create anything truly original using the familiar template. Just look at how skeptical fans were when it was announced that the fifth movie in the Die Hard franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard, takes place in Russia.

So let's get one thing out of the way right now: A Good Day to Die Hard is not original. There's not an original bone in its body. It is neither unique nor artistic, and it isn't going to win any prestigious awards. If you expect it to be any different, might I humbly recommend you see some other film. The good news--for Die Hard fans at least--is that the movie lives up to its formula and ultimately serves as another worthy addition to the series.

You can be forgiven, though, for not seeing this during the opening scenes. The narrative begins like a cut-rate Tom Clancy story that deals with fuzzy political intrigue, spies, and moral ambiguity over in the former Soviet Union. It's clearly not as good as a Clancy yarn, but it's at least interesting as a set-up. By the time you would expect Jack Ryan to make an appearance, a borderline-elderly John McClaine shows up and vows to go to Russia to rescue his son, who has apparently fallen on the hardest of times after being arrested for murder. Before anybody can make sense of what is happening, some Russian terrorists appear, blow up half a courthouse, and an exciting car chase ensues, with McClaine struggling to keep up with it all.

McClaine offers his trademark New York bitching, cursing, and one-liners, proving that he is the same character we've seen in four other movies (and thankfully, the producers don't try to make him PG-13), but he feels ridiculously out of place during the opening scenes. Eventually, he catches up--both in the car chase and in the narrative--and he starts to merge into the story more organically, helped along by a relationship with his son that feels genuine. As the story leap-frogs from action set piece to action set piece and plot twist to plot twist, the Die Hard formula makes itself apparent, and by the end, there is no doubt that this is a Die Hard movie. There are even several lines during the climax--not the least of which is the obligatory "Yippie-Ki-Yay, motherfucker"--that will sound incredibly familiar to anyone who has seen any of the previous movies.

John McClaine will shoot you in the face
If you go to the theater hoping to see Bruce Willis kill a bunch of bad guys, you will not be disappointed
Still, the villains in this one aren't as memorable as their predecessors, probably because there isn't a single acting heavyweight in the bunch. In earlier Die Hards, Alan Rickman, William Sadler, Jeremy Irons, and even Timothy Olyphant stole every scene they were in, building a unique rapport with McClaine that is missing this time around. A large part of this is the muddled hierarchy of the bad guys--it's hard to pinpoint the main villain until the final act--but there is certainly room in the script for at least one of the villains to shine. Alas, the only actor who really pulls his weight is Bruce Willis, playing John McClaine as the same flawed hero we've known for decades, but who honestly and earnestly is trying to fix his broken family as he approaches old age.

Another part of it might be the break-neck pace of the film. Clocking in at just over an hour and a half, this is the shortest Die Hard movie yet, by far, though it contains the most complex plot. It is densely packed with action, barely stopping for the occasional breath in which McClaine bonds with his son. This is good for fans who just came to see the explosions, and it helps disguise some of the more ludicrous aspects of the story by not letting you think too hard about them. Still, the pauses in the action are so jarring that the moments of character development feel rushed and forced, even as they do an excellent job moving McClaine forward and create a believable character for his son, Jack.

As for the action scenes themselves, most of them are done quite well and never go as over-the-top as the semi-versus-jet scene in Live Free or Die Hard. The climax comes close to crossing the line into ridiculous, but the writers manage to play with their toys in a unique way, showing audiences things they haven't seen before. For example (minor spoiler alert), you will see McClaine once again try to take out a helicopter with a car, but in a completely novel--and more realistic--way. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the action is what this entry does best, and we haven't seen it done so well or so creatively since the original Die Hard.

John McClaine and Junior
The father-son dynamic is the emotional heart of the story and is one of its strong suits
Unfortunately, some of the camera work is overly stylized. The drawn-out car chase at the beginning is mired in some Greengrass-style editing and shaky close-ups that make it hard to follow what is happening on screen (which, alas, is par for the course these days--I still don't understand why the steady-cam is so loathed by action directors) and there are a few too many slow-motion shots that pull away from the more gritty Die Hard action of previous films.

This is destined to be a sub par performer at the box office--if not a downright failure--due to a number of factors, most notably the law of diminishing returns. The movie's ad campaign was weak, not offering enough detail about the movie to get people interested, and many Die Hard fans have reached the age where they are too jaded to enjoy an 80's-style action-fest without bitching about how it ruins something from their childhood. It's certainly not the strongest Die Hard movie in the series, but it retains all the important pieces of the formula, even improving on some of the more obvious flaws in the previous entry. My big worry is that producers will blame the low receipts on the "R" rating, thus ensuring that, if they make a sixth Die Hard movie, they'll demand another "PG-13" John McClaine.

FINAL SCORE:

The plot is a little silly, the movie is too short, and there isn't a memorable villain, but this is still a Die Hard flick with some great action that fans should enjoy.


-e. magill 2/19/2013










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