Monday, February 18, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

Right before the big bombastic climax of A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth iteration of the venerable twenty-five year old franchise, aging troublemaker John McClane turns to his partner and son and asks, "Do you have a plan," he replies with an impish grin, "I'd thought we'd just wing it."  The films director, John Moore (helmer of respected titles like Max Payne and the 2004 remake of The Omen) clearly followed suit--  for all the orchestrated mayhem, the sheer volume of explosions, mechanics of the stunt work and manic, manly action on display-- the whole films feels completely made up on the spot.  If it weren't threaded with the barest strands of a plot, cobbled together with the thorniest stitch work even for a generic action film, one could assume that if it weren't for the movie star effect of Bruce Willis reprising his most cherished film role that each scene was completely independent from each other.  But age hasn't settled well for the cantankerous cop/vigilante-- somewhere down the road of self parody (the mortal curse of many an '80s action hero), Willis, always the embodiment of cool and an underrated actor through and through, John McClane now looks weathered, tired and, sadly, domesticated.  More disparagingly, the filmmakers give a displeasing nod of defensiveness to the character.  Now inexplicably a family man, he must explain his actions, be that strong role model of sorts, all of which feels a terrible disservice to the wise-cracking tough guy.  Therapy and redemptive reflection belong somewhere else, not in a Die Hard movie, where the thrill of popcorn escapism and grandiose action sequences should only be matched with Willis' gracious audience pleasing snips.  Those snips too, unfortunately, might bear retirement as well; the worst effect of A Good Day to Die Hard is that by sopping McClane of his bad-assery, they've made him into, well kind of a bore.

In this outing, McClane travels to Russia after learning that his estranged son, Jack (Aussie actor Jai Courtney, previously seen in Jack Reacher) has become embroiled in a some deep trouble with some powerful goons.  For starters, the role of doting father seems a bit too-fetched for the McClane mythology-- he's always worked best alone, but as the script dictates (one has the suspicion that screenwriter Skip Woods may have originated this as stand alone action filler, morphed into the Die Hard canon some point along the way) the audience has nothing to do but follow.  Once in Moscow, where McClane offers up slight amusement in American xenophobia, he learns that his seemingly wayward offspring is actually a CIA agent, and the incidents that lead him in handcuffs and later followed by an explosive escapade in a Russian courthouse were, well, planned, and all ploys in a deeper mission to save one scummy old man in the hopes of detaining another.  It appears the distant pop may have just blown it, and not for the first time it would appear based on first act scowling on the part of Jack.  The mechanics of the plot are clearly secondary and, truly even in the finest actiony yarns, near semantics to get through the course of chases, fights and more pyrotechnic showmanship, but A Good Day to Die Hard plods along without really trying.

Furthermore, and all the more troubling, is that the action sequences, while grandiose and very loud, have a nagging workmanlike quality to them as well.  It's not that the elaborate choreography doesn't deserve plaudits for its mechanics, but that the problem, it's staged too, well, mechanically.  There's never a hint of suspense, or even an enthralling disbelief that any of it isn't planned to a tee.  The grand elusive mission of an expertly staged action sequence is the allure that it's all being made on the spot, spontaneously combusted on the thrill of hoping to elicit edge-of-your-seat unsteadiness.  An elaborate car chase that sparks upon Jack's escape from the courthouse leads him through the streets and highways of Moscow, being chased by the seemingly real bad guys, as well as good old dad in the hope for answers and a reunion, is as destructive and over-the-top as can be, but there's little point, little thrill and a sadly waning bit of interest or tension.  That's because how every hard (which isn't particularly heavy) the film tries to sell us on strained father-son relationships, Willis is a venerable institution in the hero department, and his son is but a lazy extension of such-- happy bonding will commence shortly.  After all, after the reluctant team up settled after the elongated car chase, both seem to agree that nothing will heal past wounds like shooting a bunch bad guys together.

Willis has always had a grizzled appeal, matched with a wiseacre surface.  A persona that the actor has always had the ability to morph into whatever project he a part of, and his edge and slight of hand comic timing turned John McClane into a perfect '80s action hero.  The franchise, and sadly the star, for the first time appear dated and past their expiration date.  When one of the bad guys exclaims, "The 80s are over.  Reagon is dead," it's not just a self aware dig, it's an honest indictment of the film itself.  And so Willis and filmmakers pretend not to notice, upping the ante of hopeful quotable McClane smart-alec retorts, and volleying the peter-pat cracks between father and son, but the invention and the cleverness is drowned in a sea of franchise filmmaking diminished returns.  Courteney, for his credit is a game player and bounces back from each impossible action sequence with the same verve as Willis (it's quite amazing that through the course of day of getting their butts kicked, getting shot at, and jumping off countless unstable structures what little bruises either attain) and while playing but the stalest and most paltry of characters arcs makes an appealing action newcomer, making the most of his tight, fitted tees.

There's very little to really ruminate on, except that for a film with the lithe running time of but ninety-seven minutes it feels abundantly longer.  A Good Day to Die Hard may be an apt title for a long in the tooth franchise, perhaps hoping for a less bitter burial, but that time is spent remembering that there was a time when the McClane character had a shaggier, looser and more structural surrounding.  D

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