What is Die Hard?
No, really, what is it? What is its nature? What makes the original Die Hard the watershed action movie of a generation? We’ve been trying to narrow this down for years, but we got distracted for a whole decade by the simplistic concept of “Die Hard on a Something or Other,” with one knock-off film after another assuming that Die Hard’s whole appeal boiled down one guy, in a single location, outnumbered by evil hijackers. And while yeah, that was part of it, sure, I think that if the genre had started with, for example, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, it wouldn’t have become the same iconic institution that it is today. The claustrophobic locale set the table, but what was the meal?
Watching A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth film in the franchise, helped me finally figure the whole thing out. This time, John McClane, played once again by Bruce Willis, travels all the way to Moscow to rescue his son, Jack, played by Jai Courtney. Jack is in prison after killing someone (it doesn’t matter who), so John travels around the world to try to save him, despite years of familial estrangement. He gets there just in time to see Jack escape from custody amidst a terrorist bombing, along with a billionaire felon played by Sebastian Koch. John tries to intercede and rescue his son from all this madness, only to discover that Jack is an embedded CIA agent, whose entire mission has just been blown by his own dad.
In one respect, A Good Day to Die Hard gets it. For all its flaws – and there are so many I don’t even know where to begin – the film probably feels more like the original Die Hard than any of the other sequels. The bad guys’ schemes are almost completely different, unless you count “all of Russia” as a “claustrophobic location,” but the set-up and character interactions feel about right. Once again, John McClane goes out of his way to patch things up with a loved one who has moved on with their life, gained a certain degree of independence and harbors a fair if perhaps unnecessarily laser-sighted resentment of our hero. Jack has entirely rational reasons for disliking his father, dating back to the many years he spent raised and/or ignored by an absentee workaholic. But we, the audience, know that John is trying to make amends, so he has our sympathies, even though he never has the moral high ground. He’s a screw-up of a father, but he’s trying his best and he wears his emotions on his sleeve. We like him, because he reminds us of us. Everyone’s a screw up.
That right there, that openhearted, flawed but physically capable everyman, thrust into a situation beyond his control or even his conception, screwing up everyone’s best laid plans even though it’s the only time he’s actually tried to do the right thing? That feels like Die Hard. That’s a big part of what made the original film so incredibly human, and distinctive beyond the typical nonsensical, macho celebrations of the overman we saw so much of in the 1980s… and are, sadly, seeing once again in A Good Day to Die Hard, a film that starts off with the right idea but undermines itself with an almost non-existent storyline, interminable padding, indestructible good guys and genuine insults to the audience’s intelligence. That stuff? That's not Die Hard.
A Good Day to Die Hard has some cool action sequences, and director John Moore (Max Payne) knows it, so he lets them play out for so damned long that they quickly become background noise. A Good Day to Die Hard: The Screensaver. An early car chase features some breathtaking visuals and stunts, for example, but goes on so damned long with, ironically, so little forward momentum that it gets real old, real fast. But that's part of an even larger problem. If you distill A Good Day to Die Hard, already the shortest Die Hard ever at only 97 minutes, down to its basic plot points, it goes like this: John McClane goes to Russia. Car chase. Exposition. Driving across town. Shootout. Exposition. Driving outside of town. Helicopter stunt. The End. Every other aspect of the “A-story” is inconsequential, right down to the old “We have to get the file” MacGuffin. Our pre-existing emotional connection to John McClane is the only thing getting us from Point A to Point B without giving up entirely and leaving the theater early just to avoid the rush.
About that plot: A Good Day to Die Hard does have one, with double-crosses and revelations popping up here and there, but it’s so abstract that there’s no reason to care about it. We don’t even know who the bad guys are, what they did, or what they are planning to do until the final act, and by then it just seems custom-designed to piss real people off. A Good Day to Die Hard insultingly retcons a real-life tragedy as the machination of a new, fictional bad guy, for no other reason than to raise the film’s stakes… barely. Don’t care? Twenty years from now, when the latest action hero du jour fights some random villain who, all of a sudden, we discover was the “real” architect of 9/11, just as a throwaway plot point because who cares what “really” happened, will that rub you the wrong way? Yes? No? Am I being too sensitive? Or do I just know that there are other ways to prove that your villain is “bad” besides rewriting a real-life tragedy like it was somehow less important than the fourth Die Hard sequel?
The original Die Hard was about the characters, yes, but the villains also had a fun, clever plan that made sense and challenged John McClane left and right. A Good Day to Die Hard gets the character stuff more-or-less right, and deserves a little credit for that, but it drops the ball in every other way it possibly can. The only thing it actually contributes to the world is a potential spin-off series starring Jai Courtney. In the long run, it's just good enough to make all of the unbearable flaws bubble right up to the surface, and remind us that we could have been watching the original Die Hard again instead, and actually enjoying an entire movie rather bits and pieces of a total mess.
Die Hard was, more than anything, good on every conceivable level. That’s why it worked. That’s why it mattered. We didn’t have to make apologies for our mainstream entertainment for a change. It proved that action movies could excite us, exercise our brains and make us feel something all at the same time. A Good Day to Die Hard is so exciting that it comes right back around to boring again, makes you dumber as it goes, and only ekes emotions out of audiences who already care enough about John McClane to buy a ticket to any movie that threatens him with death of a certain density or higher.
Yes, it certainly would have been a good day to Die Hard. Unfortunately, that’s not what they did.