After directing 1987’s Predator and 1988’s Die Hard, John McTiernan probably had one of the greatest back-to-back film runs in history, and he certainly made two of the greatest action movies of all time. Die Hard, especially, is widely regarded as being a true masterpiece and probably the best template of everything that an action movie should be. The same can’t be said for its sequels though. McTiernan came back for the third film and made a fun movie that presented a reasonable excuse for why its story would have happened, but Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2 lacked the charm and smarts of the original and was little more than an implausible rehash, and Len Wiseman’s entry in the series, which didn’t come until 2007, was a forgettable piece of glossy pap that proved there wasn’t any life left in this mediocre series, even if it was initially spawned by a great film.
Given all the history, there probably wasn’t much of a chance that director John Moore’s (Max Payne) latest entry in the series, A Good Day to Die Hard, was going to be anything that was actually worthy of carrying on the franchise’s name. But, putting all of the Die Hard baggage aside and viewing it as its own stand alone thing, does it at least manage to be a fun enough action movie that can be viewed as brainless entertainment? No. Not at all. A Good Day to Die Hard isn’t just so bad that it’s brainless, it’s so bad that it will actively harm any brains that do exist.
Such a bold claim demands to be supported, so what is it that Moore and company got wrong? Everything. Let’s start with the basic storytelling elements that kept this from feeling like a Die Hard movie. First off, these movies have always been about terrorism striking in our (yes, “our” meaning the US, because Die Hard movies are quintessentially nationalist) backyard. It’s about a foreign threat invading your place of work, the airport you travel through, or your very own neighborhood. AGDTDH whisks the John McClane (Bruce Willis, duh) character off to an exotic local (well, Moscow) and has him engaging in espionage like he’s James Bond or something (complete with a lame James Bond reference in his trite and obvious dialogue). These movies aren’t supposed to be about adventuring, they’re supposed to be about the cathartic joy of an everyman standing up for himself and refusing to let fear and uncertainty invade his life.
Which brings us to how little this movie understands the John McClane character. In the past he has been a drunk, a stubborn ass, and a screwup who only does the right thing by the people who love him when a gun is to his head and he’s forced to. He’s an anti-hero, a curmudgeon. In this film he’s flying across the world to rescue his son (Jai Courtney) from a mess that he fully believes the kid got himself into. He’s going above and beyond to try to connect with the boy and support him in everything he does. Sure, the two make some jokes about how selfish and not in touch with his emotions McClane is, but his actions tell a completely different story. Come on, John McClane isn’t the big action hero. He’s way more screwed up than that!
The worst part comes when he’s given a chance to wash his hands of the whole terrorist situation going on and walk away, but he instead decides to go after the bad guys and take them down anyway. No, no, no no, no. John McClane doesn’t seek out trouble, it happens to him even though he desperately doesn’t want it to. That’s why the connection between him and the bad guys becomes so personal—because they’re forcing him to think about somebody other than himself, keeping him from avoiding his problems, and subsequently getting on his nerves. The bad guys here are are just generic schemers and aren’t trapping McClane in the confines of a situation he can’t escape at all. At any point McClane and son could hand the rest of this fight off to the CIA or whoever, but they just choose not to. Because they’re such big damn heroes.
Of course, that’s not to say that a Die Hard movie couldn’t theoretically change up the formula a bit and still be good. The problem with this one is that it changes the formula up so much that it becomes unrecognizable, and then it’s a really bad movie in every other respect as well. The script here, from Skip Woods (Swordfish, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is so clunky and lazy that it must read like fan fiction. When John McClane and an international criminal start launching into a really on-the-nose heart-to-heart about raising children just minutes after meeting each other and while fleeing from a firefight, you know you’ve stumbled into something with no sense of subtlety or delicacy whatsoever.
What’s annoying is that Courtney actually seems to have some screen presence and action ability, and he might have actually made a good pairing for Willis if this movie had any interesting ideas about what John McClane’s son might end up being like. But the character he’s playing here is a personality-free cipher whose one definable trait is that he whines like a teenager about how much he hates his dad to anyone who will listen. And the McClane character himself has lost every bit of the personality that has made him legendary over the years. He started off as something of a Woody Woodpecker, trickster smart-ass, but now his fighting tactics have devolved in Schwarzenegger-esque displays of firepower and his trademark smart mouth has gone from being an insight into the wounded defensiveness of the character into being an excuse for him to speak solely in quips—really bad quips. I mean, seriously, why did he remark that he was “supposed to be on vacation” five or six times during the movie? Was there a deleted scene where he watched City Slickers on his flight over to Russia? He wasn’t even supposed to be on vacation, he was supposed to be trying to get his son out of a Russian prison. AGDTDH doesn’t just look like the usual bad action movie, it more resembles an SNL skit that’s making fun of how rote and bottom-of-the-barrel the action genre typically gets.
And—oh boy—the action isn’t even any fun to watch either. It’s all just terrible looking CG explosions and senseless, numbing noise. In an era where seemingly nobody working in the action genre has any idea how to shoot and edit a chase scene so that it makes sense as a piece of sequential storytelling and keeps the viewer in the loop on exactly what is supposed to be going on, Moore and his people have absolutely taken the cake by putting together maybe the most ugly, hard to follow, tensionless chase sequence that I’ve ever seen. And it’s a huge in scale chase sequence that’s probably one of the most expensive and destructive ever filmed. What a waste. There’s just no build or sense of purpose to any of the chases, fights, or shootouts here. Willis had his Yippee Ki-Yay moment before I even realized we had reached the climax of the film. It was the Pavlovian training of his catchphrase that finally clued me in. From front to back, there isn’t a single action sequence in this movie that’s going to stick in your memory for more than ten minutes after you’ve left the theater.
A Good Day to Die Hard has bad dialogue, it doesn’t understand the established universe it’s playing in, and it doesn’t create any memorable action scenarios. In fact, it stacks so many oft-mocked action movie contrivances on top of each other than one begins to wonder if it might not be a genius piece of satirical pop art. “How could he have survived that fall?” “How many bullets does he have in that clip?” “How could he have possibly known that was going to happen?” All your favorite action movie complaints are here, and probably a few new ones you’ve never even thought of. But, even given all of this, I still can’t say that A Good Day to Die Hard is an unequivocal recommendation to miss. It’s actually so thoroughly bad in a sort of inspired way that many might have fun watching it for ironic or scientific purposes. There’s certainly going to be a group of teenagers 20 or so years from now who will pluck this thing out of obscurity and start watching it on repeat in order to make fun of it, much the same way my friends and I did the low budget action movies of the 70s and 80s when we were young. I just wish I could have gone forward in time and watched the movie with them instead of watching it now when the studios are trying to sell it to me as a legitimate tentpole action film. It makes what ended up getting put on the screen feel so much more disappointing.