It’s tempting to say that Die Hard changed my life, but that would be exaggerating even too much for my hyperbolic tastes. The original film didn’t trigger a lifelong love of films; that would be Star Wars, which I saw at the Gaumont in Birmingham in what might have been December, 1977, if IMDb is to be believed (the UK got Star Wars eight months after the US? Such bullshit). Die Hard also didn’t make me see the possibilities of the action genre, and the effect that a cleanly-shot and designed action sequence could have on my adrenal glands; Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator and Aliens had already done a number on me, changing my conception of what excitement was, and what were the possibilities of the genre.
What it did do was legitimise large-scale action cinema, at least in my mind, and stop me from feeling guilty for deriving more pleasure from this genre than all the canonical films in the pantheon of cinema history. No longer did I feel like claiming my favourite film was something high-falutin’ out of guilt or concern that I would appear intellectually empty for finding perfection in a commercial, mainstream movie, and this realisation is something that has been a guiding principle for this blog ever since I started it; celebrating the artistry involved in creating populist art. You can stuff your Dogme films in a recycling bin for all I care; the moment the lens flare bursts next to Hans Gruber’s head as the vault opens, Ode to Joy blaring out, I was done for life. That was beauty, transcendent and perfect, located in a Joel Silver-produced action film starring that guy off Moonlighting. If it could be found there, it could be found anywhere.
But as much as Die Hard is good enough — no, magnificent enough — to suspend concerns about falling in love with a “dumb” action film (and please, the last thing Die Hard is is dumb), there is no way to ignore that this rough-cut diamond is a commodity, a summer schedule filler that just happened to attract a number of highly-gifted artists and technicians all at the top of their game who rose to their material, back in a time when people still thought that the best way to attract an audience was to give them something attractive, instead of just bludgeoning them into accepting the inevitability that they would have to swallow a product out of some weird sense of obligation. It was talent that made Die Hard incredible, but it was money that eventually made the franchise mundane.
And yet for a time, Die Hard still managed to surprise. Die Hard 2 is no one’s idea of a great movie, but if it hadn’t followed the greatest pure action spectacular of the late 20th century it would have been one of Silver Productions’ best films. As sequels go, it’s still pretty entertaining, thanks to some canny casting — Fred Dalton Thompson, Jon Amos and Dennis Franz are great value — and some fun action, not to mention a fealty to Die Hard‘s audience-sating blend of drama and comedy. If it has a real flaw it’s that it hews too closely to the first film’s structure, to the point of distractingly trying to find things for Holly, Thornburg and Al to do, but it was made back in the 1990s, when the idea of creating a longform story throughout a franchise, with the same characters in new forms of adventure, was only just beginning to become popular. Carbon-copies of successful films were a dime-a-dozen.
Which is one of the reasons why the third Die Hard film is such a success. This is a movie that starts with two explosions, one visual and one narrative. The John McClane that we grew to love in the first two movies has become a bitter wreck, estranged from his wife and hated by his colleagues. This time, instead of accidentally falling into trouble, he is dragged into it as a consequence of his actions in the first movie. Placing McClane in a new type of danger, and exploring the consequences of his actions years before, is one of the most satisfying plot choices in any franchise of recent years, creating a sense of progression from what has gone before, the feeling that we are following a real person in an unreal world. For a short time, the Die Hard series felt like it lived and breathed.
Honouring the character of John McClane is the key to this. Though this sequel sees a return to McClane’s arc in the first film, it’s shown as being one aspect of his increasingly irascible nature, and pairing him up with a similarly aggravated companion — Samuel L. Jackson’s brilliantly realised Zeus; possibly the only likeable racist in cinema history — is a great way of exploring the idea that the Die Hard franchise is based not around a noble white knight but actually a complete asshole, or perhaps just a once-decent, idealistic man who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (his wisecracks could actually be a coping mechanism); a borked Übermensch who appeals to the audience as an ordinary person who just happens to have flashes of incredible courage. While this dire psychological break means we’re only ever going to get temporary fixes to the man, for the purposes of the series this works fine.
There’s a strong argument that the final reshot ending of Die Hard 3 is a failure; certainly, it seems disappointing that we end up with a form of mano-a-mano showdown between protagonist and antagonist even when we’re taken out of New York and the ticking clocks of Simon’s games – the geographic claustrophobia of the first (and, to a lesser extent, the second) replaced with a temporal form that constrains our hero even as he is given an entire city to explore — but all of that is forgiven by the elegance of the final shot; McClane redeemed by the new friend’s prompting, his broken soul fixed with little more than a quarter and a payphone. The outcome of his call is not important; he has swallowed his pride, made friends with someone as spiky as him, and taken a step towards rehabilitation.
This might be the last grace note in a franchise that has to amp up its threats in order to justify its existence. Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free Or Die Hard) is the first in the series that isn’t good enough to make you forget the fact that the franchise is just being kept afloat to squeeze a few more drops out of the original, but even though it’s oft-derided, it’s better than it has any right to be, and it signalled an evolution in Len Wiseman’s directorial style for the better. It’s doubtful he’ll ever become as thoughtful and unpredictable as peak-career John McTiernan, or as able to harness the power of the image and the cut as current action-blockbuster champion Justin Lin (a Justin Lin Die Hard movie would be cinematic nirvana), but Die Hard 4 has enough charge, pace, and humour to please at least this cynic.
Part of the charm of Die Hard 4 is the replication of some of the beats necessary for this to register as a Die Hard film, especially as by this point the series has transformed into something that could easily go completely awry, as I will get to in a moment. Yes, there is an escalation in spectacle in this one that dwarfs the first, which featured huge action moments but from a human point-of-view that acknowledged the scale of those events. Wiseman doesn’t really worry about that, as he blows up a power plant and sets a F-35B Lightning II on our hero, destroying a freeway in the process, but through Willis and Justin Long’s self-effacing recognition that some cray shit’s going down, it stays just on the right side of absurdity.
It also wisely keeps the other films’ focus on secondary characters; one of the great joys of the Die Hard series is that each film contains a sub-cast of well-sketched protagonists and antagonists who just happen to have this other guy, this unstoppable wreck, show up to act as “the monkey in the wrench”, whatever that means. Die Hard had the best cast of characters: noble but heartbroken Al, magnificently stupid Dwayne T. Robinson, tragic Takagi, alpha-douchebag Ellis, archetypal headstrong wife Holly, comic relief Argyle, Agents Johnson and Johnson, shitbag Thornburg. And that’s before we get into the villains; cocky Theo, vengeful Karl and his hapless brother Tony with his tiny feet, greedy Uli (Al Leong’s theft of a candy bar prior to a firefight shows more character than most films can muster during their entire running time), galumphing James (aka VIGO from Ghostbusters 2), “Huey Lewis” aka Eddie down in reception, and of course Hans Gruber, the king of action movie bad guys, a Teutonic Basil Rathbone, regal and venal in equal measure. My God, this movie is near-miraculous.
But the other films do a good job of filling out their casts too. Die Hard 2 has three bad guys, none of whom are as memorable as Hans Gruber, but traitorous Major Grant is particularly vile. It also features a group of meddling bureaucratic cowards who are slowly won over by McClane; tetchy Barnes, officious Trudeau, delta-male Carmine, and eccentric Marvin. We also get a slightly more respectable journalist in Sam Coleman, not to mention a roster of villains played by character actors like John Leguizamo, Robert Patrick, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Don Harvey and, of course, Robert Sadler. Die Hard 3 has Sam Jackson taking up most of the screentime, but we still get a set of initially sceptical side-players in McClane’s court; colleagues Cobb, Walsh, Kowalski and Lambert, courageous bomb disposal expert Weiss, FBI jerk Andy Cross and Jarvis From Another Organisation, plus four great villains in sneaky Simon Gruber, man-mountain Targo, vile oaf Otto, and the frankly terrifying Katya.
Die Hard 4 is smart enough to keep this tradition going. Justin Long’s Matt takes on the Zeus role here, working as a surrogate son for McClane’s reluctant father. The cops are represented by Bowman and Molina (Cliff Curtis and Željko Ivanek), the bad guys include Thomas Gabriel (a sadly underpowered Timothy Olyphant), nigh-superhuman Mai Linh, parkour badass Rand, and hapless hacker Trey, while Kevin Smith appears as the fanbase-splitting hacker Warlock (for what it’s worth, I thought he was kinda funny). Yes, this is not on the same level as previous Die Hard films, and Wiseman isn’t about to give them all delightful character moments like the ones that litter the first three films, but the conventions of the series are at least being honoured. He has recognised that they exist, and has included them. This is more than we could have hoped.
The best thing I can say about the fourth Die Hard sequel, John Moore’s awkwardly-titled A Good Day To Die Hard, is that it too seems to have noticed this thread, even if it doesn’t really make the most of it. The villains are multitudinous; a consequence of its unnecessarily complex plot involving incriminating files and double-treble-quadruple crosses that makes one wonder if the movie should be about the dealings of the deeply boring Komarov and Chagarin, with no need for John McClane and his estranged son Jack. The post-Vengeance convention of a female antagonist is honoured by the inclusion of Irina, the heavy is a tap-dancing clown whose japes completely undercut his menace, the comic relief is provided by the un-named cab driver (The New Girl‘s Pacha Lychnikoff), and Jack’s partner is Collins, played by Cole Hauser in what amounts to a cameo during which we get absolutely no sense of who he is.
But A Good Day To Die Hard is not interested in creating rounded characters, or to even acknowledge that the Die Hard films are about actual recognisable humans put into absurd situations which are played as much for laughs as they are for thrills. Even at its worst Die Hard 4 recognised that, and thus honoured the previous films despite being the least memorable film in the series by that point. The latest film, on the other hand, is everything the fourth could have been; an empty, soulless cash-in on the franchise, made by people who couldn’t give a damn about the fanbase, the legacy of this series, or even fundamentally necessary elements of a successful film such as coherence, aesthetic pleasure, or even lizard-brain level spectacle. In short, it is a farrago and a disgrace.
Why did I just go to such obnoxious lengths to list the things that make the Die Hard films so distinct? Because A Good Day To Die Hard is such an insult to the other four films that while watching it I could only hold onto those fond memories in order to make it through. As someone who loves or likes all four films to one degree or another, it was like a mantra in my head, listing all of the great things in order to keep the insidious, sanity-sapping badness away; the SWAT guy pricking his hand on a rose in DH1, McClane trying desperately to signal a 747 landing in the middle of a snowstorm in DH2 and then sobbing when his efforts prove futile (and then saying “Motherfucker!” with such menace and hatred it boils the blood), the two bad guys disguised as cops in DH3 who get into an argument about leaving a block of C4 in the street for kids to find, the parkour villain in DH4 leaping out of a helicopter moments before a cop car crashes through it. There are dozens upon dozens of these moments in the series; DH5 has nothing. Just nothing.
There are so many things wrong with this film that it’s hard to know where to start, but perhaps it’s best to begin with what has happened to John McClane, who we see here as a barely conscious force of sheer unpleasant negativity, finally reconciled with his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead returning in a franchise-solidifying cameo as Lucy), suddenly deciding to chase down his errant, possibly criminal son Jack (played by a non-curly-haired Jai “Varro from Spartacus” Courtney). This takes him to Moscow, where John manages to stumble across Jack in the process of breaking Russian whistleblower Komarov out of jail. Komarov’s plot is pointlessly labyrinthine, while John’s is simple; reconcile with his son, who detests him. Which makes sense, because this incarnation of the previously-witty John McClane is a glum mannequin, animated by the promise of millions and millions of easy dollars. He can’t support anything more than that.
This is perfectly in keeping with the other McClane arcs, which were all about redemption, but by now the well is dry, and Skip Woods’ script — which feels like an unpolished first draft — doesn’t even bother to dramatise the reconciliation in any imaginative ways. Relying on hoary old plot elements — like sceptical Jack having second thoughts when he overhears his father talking about how he has failed his family, or the fact that he calls his dad “John” until a key moment, much like Lucy does in DH4 — is one thing, but to try to echo this familial strife within Komarov’s sub-plot only really works if Komarov’s plot doesn’t take any right turns. You get the sense that Woods was trying to do something smarter than expected here, but certain third act twists render this character work moot, even as they notably continue the trend of including unexpected secret motivations of the Die Hard villains from previous installments.
At least that thematic reflection shows some kind of life in the process of creating the film. Other than that we get very little sense that any effort was expended. Perhaps part of that lies in the genesis of this film. Greenlit prior to the release of DH4, this is the first sequel in the series that started out as a Die Hard project; Die Hard 2 was based on the non-McClane novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager, Die Hard 3 was originally a non-McClane spec script by Jonathan Hensleigh called Simon Says which was meant for Brandon Lee before almost becoming Lethal Weapon 4, and Die Hard 4 was originally a script called WW3.com based on a Wired article about cyber-terrorism. Die Hard 5 is merely Die Hard 5, and as a result feels like an undistinguished straight-to-DVD actioner that just happens to have John McClane in it. Instead of finding exceptional source material for our hero, they crafted something for him; the cart before the horse.
It’s bad enough that John’s arc is almost identical to the one in DH4, with him estranged from his angry son the way he was with his angry daughter. It’s worse that this time he gets to partner up with the person he’s trying to win back, meaning his growth is too directly connected with the character he bounces off. In DH3 and DH4 McClane learns to accept the ones he loves by being taught how to bend by characters he’s not related to (Zeus and Matt), but here he is already healthy enough to merely want to save his son, who ends up having to bend instead. In previous films the choice to almost accidentally resolve McClane’s character issues by having him chase one thing and in the process give him the thing he really wants is deftly done. Here the resolutions are clunkily sign-posted, and means John McClane is just there as a guy who shoots things. He’s not a character, and his son Jack isn’t drawn well enough to fill this gap.
The worst thing that could happen to this franchise has finally happened; McClane doesn’t really feel like McClane, and not just because this is easily Bruce Willis’ worst work as the put-upon hero. Not only can he barely muster any enthusiasm for the part, he’s sorely underwritten, with almost no wit apparent in his reaction to his predicament. Instead he keeps banging on about how he’s on vacation, which isn’t even accurate, as he starts the movie by looking for his son and then travels to Moscow with only one intention; to find out why Jack is in jail (it’s for shooting someone for some poorly explained reason, which has something to do with him being in the CIA though it’s not clear how shooting someone and being arrested helps him in his goal of saving Komarov).
It also doesn’t help that this McClane actively seeks trouble, goading his son on in the middle of the movie whereas in all previous installments he is obviously only getting involved in these troublesome events because he is forced to by a desire to save his loved ones or by the machinations of a villain. Other than the final act of Die Hard 3, where he chooses to chase Simon into Canada (which completes his redemption plot for that film), or Die Hard 4, where he finds himself chaperoning the most important hacker in the US, in all of the other movies he is obviously really annoyed that he has to do anything. He’s the ultimate reluctant hero of Campbellian theory, resisting the Call To Adventure over and over again, only ever becoming a pro-active character when his family is threatened or he’s just really really pissed off.
Die Hard 4 started this pro-activity by having him teach Matt how to be brave, but then the threat they face is all around them, and he is being tested by Gabriel throughout. In contrast, in the middle of DH5 he could easily walk away and take his son with him, but he doesn’t. To this McClane fan, even though this was a heroic choice on McClane’s part, the moment clanged. Even worse, there’s no growing tension here. In all of the other films there is some form of ticking clock urging McClane on. There’s nothing like that here. Some lines are added about a threat of weapons-grade uranium falling into the wrong hands but it smacks of convenience; no one in the film seems to even buy it. McClane is the one thing standing in the way of disaster in 1-4. Here he’s a guy who courts danger, possibly because he likes the idea of teaching his son some things (there’s a nice reference to “Bill Clay”‘s attempt to get a gun from the roof of the Nakatomi Plaza but even this doesn’t work as McClane doesn’t even know Clay is Gruber at that point, so it’s yet another empty reference solely for the audience).
This is all bad enough, betraying the conventions of the series or mimicking them bluntly without weaving them into the sub-plots of each previous film. It’s enough to make the heart sink, and look back on DH4 as a greater success than we had realised at the time; a rewatch last night showed that it’s much funnier and pacier than I had remembered. But while I cast aspersions on the script, and Willis’ performance (Jai Courtney is fine with the little he’s given, I guess), the real problem with Die Hard 5 is John Moore’s direction. I’ve never been a fan, I’ll admit, though I liked one sequence in Behind Enemy Lines (the insanely detailed plane-ejection setpiece) and thought Flight of the Phoenix wasn’t terrible. Nevertheless, The Omen remake and Max Payne were quite dreadful and unlovable, with the videogame adaptation being particularly painful.
A Good Day To Die Hard, on the other hand, should not have been released into cinemas in this form. Early scenes display Moore’s obnoxiously tricksy compositions, but it’s not the kind of thing that could ruin a movie, being merely irksome. A couple of crash zooms during a scene in which McClane’s cab gets stuck in traffic are jarring, but again, no biggie. A couple of impressively large explosions follow, and a clumsily shot scene with Bruce Willis staggering about in a cloud of budget-shortfall-obscuring smoke is not great, I’ll admit, but it’s still not the end of the world. He then stumbles upon his son, and the camera’s either too far away from the action or too close, or not looking at the right thing. Pretty shoddy, not helped by the relentlessly blue palette, but again I let it slide. I was trying to be nice.
And then the car chase happened, and all bets were off. How do I explain this sequence using words and not clips? How do I conjure up all of the feelings I had without merely resorting to obscenity? Even though Moore has not bothered to take my feelings into account with this infinitely awful sequence, maybe I should respect his feelings, so as to prevent the miserable possibility of being transformed into a mere troll by the grueling experience of watching that scene. And yet the car chase sequence in A Good Day To Die Hard is so far and away the worst and most ineptly shot and edited sequence in action cinema — nay, ALL cinema — that I think it’s incumbent on me to go hell for leather here, to state exactly how astonished and upset I was as it unfurled, in the hope that it will deter people from wasting their time and money on this film.
The aesthetics of action cinema have become a bone of contention with action fans over recent years, with numerous filmmakers receiving censure for their lack of visual clarity (Paul Greengrass, Christopher Nolan) or haphazard editing (Michael Bay specifically, though a number of other filmmakers have emulated him). Both crimes are terrible, I will agree, though I don’t think Greengrass or Nolan are anywhere near as bad as critics make out, and will even go so far as to say that Greengrass’ photography is actually very clear, almost startlingly so, with the camera choreographed along with the stuntmen, anticipating every move or stunt in order to capture them in entirety before being clipped down as much as possible in the editing bay, while still giving you the sense of what is going on in each shot.
I’d even defend Bay (and have done before), while stressing MOST VIGOROUSLY that I do not enjoy his action scenes as pure action scenes, with characters exploring geographically-clear spaces and achieving in-sequence sub-goals that include surviving attacks through evasion or suppressing enemies through force, like real action directors do. As I’ve said before, a really good action scene is like a really punchy pop song or a classical symphony, with all the parts working together to create a melodious whole, a break within the film that has a beginning, middle and end, as well as a kind of intrinsic harmony, if I can use that word to describe the camera’s recording of these action events. Bay’s action scenes are often syncopated drum solos without melody and harmony or even a structure, but I quite like drums so I don’t mind that so much. I’m not pretending they are something they’re not; I’m enjoying them for what they are; noisy, ostentatious exercises in self-indulgence. (I’ve seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen a dozen times and even I don’t know what the hell is going on in this shot.)
Nevertheless, even if I were to hate Bay, Greengrass or Nolan for all the reasons that many others hate them (not counting Bay’s sexism and racism, which I DO hate), what John Moore has accomplished in the car chase in A Good Day To Die Hard is to create an action scene of such cancerous awfulness, such baffling incoherence, such cornea-scraping criminality, as to render all arguments about other action filmmakers moot. This is without a doubt the nadir of action cinema; not just a drip of poison into the old king’s ear but a full fireman’s hose of ichor right in the face at such force it blasts the eyes from their sockets. It’s an insult to my soul so egregious that I very nearly leapt from my chair to vocally denounce it the way a devout old crone in a religious horror movie would react to the presence of a possessed child. It is an abomination.
All of the things you have ever hated about modern action cinema are here; lazy witticisms, cackling villains, no awareness of geography, the shakiest of shakycams, staccato editing that nullifies every beat and shuffles all of the events into a baffling montage, camera placement that misses every stunt and hides the key elements from the viewer, zero sense of pace or escalation, crash zoom after crash zoom after crash zoom, and cacophonous music that batters the viewer into thinking he or she is witnessing something vital and exciting when what you’re seeing is a total lack of effort smeared across the screen like snot wiped on a handrail. The stunt work is great, though. If I were a stuntman on this film I’d be livid at seeing my hard work ruined, at the risks taken wasted in this vomitous sequence. (This clip shows the most clearly edited sub-section, though the footage is taken from random moments throughout.)
In all the years I’ve been watching films I’ve never once walked out of a cinema in disgust but yesterday I very nearly did. Moore’s utter disregard for how films work was like a fuck you to anyone who has ever expended any effort on a film only to see their careers falter. How is this man still working? Max Payne crawled into the shadow of profitability, and apparently that’s all that matters even though that film satisfied no one. Say what you like about Brett Ratner, but even if you hate X-Men: The Last Stand, if Moore — who was once in contention for the job — had made it we would have been even unhappier with what we got. Ratner isn’t particularly competent or imaginative but he at least knows that putting about ten crash zooms into a car chase is just not on.
The rest of the film isn’t as bad as that one scene, but it’s all so tossed off that it never redeems it either. The stink of laziness pervades the film, enough to make Len Wiseman look like a tyro McTiernan in comparison (seriously, there’s some good stuff in DH4; the shot where the camera follows the parkour guy from rooftop to fire escape and then down is astonishing). Those anamorphic shots from Die Hard that thrilled me so when I was young are replaced here by irritatingly garbled compositions and clumsy camera-placements (one shot sees McClane temporarily shoved into the corner of an otherwise black frame, and it doesn’t seem like it was intentional), not to mention the most binary teal-and-orange colour scheme ever; it makes Transformers: Dark of the Moon look like a rainbow-riot of multicoloured joy in comparison.
Anyone not particularly interested in this kind of thing will naturally accuse me of being too precious, but I guarantee that this film will offend your eyes, be it by the endless shakiness of the camera operation, the pointless cutting from medium shot to retina-shattering close-up and back again, or by the inability to actually get the subjects of each shot into focus. The only movie I’ve seen recently that got basic stuff as wrong as this was in Rob Cohen’s dire Alex Cross, but that was at least funny. This is just depressing. I’ve railed against Tom Hooper’s awful visual direction a number of times but his worst crimes are arguably borne of out-of-control enthusiasm and puppy-dog eagerness to impress his master/peers. Moore just doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing. During that car chase it’s as if he took a photo of a car’s bumper and just flapped it in front of the camera for four minutes.
If the action scenes were even choreographed or designed in an interesting way then perhaps there would be a way to salvage this. As Moore showed in Behind Enemy Lines, he obviously likes the idea of the discrete and intricate setpiece made up of heavily-detailed elements (the plane crash sequence I mentioned earlier is a great example of that, breaking down the ejection of a pilot into tiny slices of time). But by now it’s easier to just rely on his favourite action trope; men running through a hail of bullets, either fired by bad guys or by flying machines. He used that shot a number of times in Behind Enemy Lines, again in Max Payne, and here has both McClanes running through a hellstorm of bullets fired by a helicopter not once but twice. And no one said to him that maybe he should change it up. If he could have engineered a way to shove this shot into The Omen he would have.
Perhaps I’ve been spoiled recently. The three big action scenes in this film are not well-thought-through or shot cleanly, and while these are possibly the worst examples I’ve seen of this, it’s not like Moore’s the only filmmaker farting out disappointing action scenes. However all is not lost, and I have a feeling action cinema is about to undergo a transformation. Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher might be a gamechanger in the same way The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy were — friend-of-the-blog @T_Lee recently referred to the subsequent deluge of Bourne-aping brawls as “pat-a-cake fights”, but at the time those minutely choreographed fights were a new thing in action cinema, as were those intensely edited car and foot chases. It didn’t take long for everyone to wear those tricks out, so it’s time for a change, and McQuarrie’s adaptation of Lee Childs’ novels might usher a new era of action cinema.
In Jack Reacher McQuarrie takes the “realism” of the Bourne fights and chases to their logical extreme, doing his best to remove cinematic artifice (though not entirely, of course). His fist fights are strategic and swift, with every contact creating new challenges for our diminutive hero; whoever thought we’d see a film in which the characters get smacked in the face and then take a few seconds to recover, instead of absorbing every blow like an impact-sponge? His car chases are full of errors, stalls, oversteers and reverses, all while sustaining the flow and tension. His shoot-outs are precise and focused mainly on cover, not firing; a logical continuation of the staging of the gunfights in his brilliant anti-heroic crime movie Way of the Gun. All of these action scenes are like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and are utterly thrilling and, most importantly, comprehensible without sacrificing energy.
McQuarrie has rewritten the rules of action staging, merely by looking at them dispassionately and intelligently, stripping away as much bullshit as possible and writing characters who think before they fight. The results are astonishing, and helped eradicate any difficulties I had swallowing the unfortunate thriller-novel bullshit tropes that McQuarrie was required to add, such as Little Jackie Reacher’s hilarious philosophy of lonerdom vs societal contraints, or his White Knight mansplaining and patronising of women, and his inhuman and reader-flattering sexual magnetism. All of that was pure chuff, but Jack Reacher remains a milestone in the evolution of the genre, a fact that will become apparent when fans embrace it on its DVD release. Though to be honest, that should have happened after Way of the Gun. (Check out this scene from WotG: the only gunshots occur off-screen, but it’s still 100 times more exciting than any of Die Hard 5‘s garbled and hysterical pyrotechnics.)
After that, it’s hard not to look at previous “geological eras” of action cinema with anything but a kind of annoyed pity. Most of the classics, the ones that defined the visual rules for each stage of the genre like Aliens, Die Hard, The Killer, Bourne 1 and 2; they’re all fine. It’s the knock-offs, the indifferently-made and identikit ones, that will suffer the most, and pure tripe like this suffers most of all. It’s kinda funny that Jai Courtney was in both Die Hard 5 and Jack Reacher, as The Zec’s right-hand man, and also amusing to note that McQuarrie gives him more personality as a henchman than Skip Woods does as co-lead. It’s as if he’s the bridge that action cinema had to cross to reach The New World. This is not to say that Jack Reacher will lead us into a land full of hard-edged and brilliantly conceived action classics, but it does give us an alternative to the mechanical and uninvolving rote staging of Moore’s farrago.
And it really is the laziness that kills this film, and not just in the way that it’s shot. Missed opportunities abound. Michael Kamen’s scores for the first three films are a pure delight, playfully mixing well-known musical classics into his chiming and rambunctious soundtracks; the “Ode to Joy” fourth movement from Beethoven’s 9th in the first, Sibelius’ Finlandia in the second, and Louis Lambert’s When Johnny Comes Marching Home in the third. Marco Beltrami took over for the next two after Kamen’s tragic, too-early death, and while he does enough in terms of replicating some of Kamen’s signature stings amid all the musical tumult, this trend of including classical music vanished. It’s not a big deal in the fourth film, but in the fifth film? Set in Moscow? Imagine what Kamen could have done with Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights, or Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers.
But then there would have had to have been moments of grace within Die Hard 5 to accommodate such a musical flourish, and Moore has no interest in doing that when he can shoehorn in another crash zoom or fussy composition or grinding conversation devoid of subtext (the moment when the McClanes declare their love for each other is just them saying they love each other; whatever happened to “show, don’t tell”?). Would Moore have taken a cue from McTiernan with his casting, choosing Broadway veterans for supporting roles in DH3 (including playwright Michael Christofer) so that every minor character feels like they have a backstory and inner life? No. Moore’s actors are all straight out of central casting, and attempts to make them stand out, like the bad guy who dances for no particular reason, or the needlessly objectified Irina (Yuliya Snigir, who strips to her underwear in an early scene for no reason other than empty titillation) just look lazy.
All of these complaints are, I realise, finicky and probably not the kinds of things that would bother most viewers. I get that. When I wrote about the awfulness of Alex Cross I went on about how thrillingly inept it was, how every moment in it was slightly off, so much so that the finished product is a classic example of exactly how not to make a film. Most other people who have endured it seemed to think it was just a generic thriller, making me wonder if I’m taking all of this far too seriously. This could well happen with A Good Day To Die Hard. While I rail against it as a chancre on the tongue of cinema, I’ll wager most people will just think that this is an underwhelming sequel, the inevitable lowpoint of a franchise flogged to death by a studio who saw the opportunity of making a quick buck.
Nevertheless, I defy anyone to remain agnostic about this film’s quality when they see the mid-car-chase insert in which Jack calls his bosses at Langley as the camera wobbles from side to side and zooms and shakes as if the room is on the epicentre of an earthquake, before pulling out for a moment to show every monitor in the room has a little red light on it to add dramatic strobes to their faces. Or the close-up of a target on a shooting range on which you can see part of the squib that blew it up, an error no one could be bothered to fix in post (a piddling error but indicative of a lack of care overall). Or the stupendously moronic twist at the end which [SPOILER] means that the villanous Komarov has been chased for most of the movie by a miniature army of people in his employ pretending to be his enemies, led by one guy who didn’t know any of this who is then killed. [END SPOILER]
Or the fact that it ends in Chernobyl, in a building that is made non-radioactive using enormous Radiation-Negating Wands Of Magic, so that no one needs protective gear; lucky for the McClanes — who drive from Moscow to Pripyat in just slightly more time than it took a helicopter (it actually takes 12 and a half hours to drive but whatevs). Our heroes don’t have any protective gear, but that doesn’t matter; when they fall into a pool of water Jack says, “It’s okay, it’s rainwater!” so that’s okay then even though the pool is indoors so this is actually impossible. And what does happen to all the uranium that gets stolen? Was it in the helicopter that crashes at the end? If not, was it taken by the bad guy’s mini-army? And as the McClanes don’t kill them I guess they just leave? That’s not cool. Oh, and can we PLEASE retire the “Girl From Ipanema Elevator Music” joke please? That shit got tired decades ago.
Even taking into account those awful moments, many people will think I’m just being overdramatic about this, that my Twitter rating for this film of 1/10 was melodramatic, and that’s okay. This is inevitably personal to me because these films are so important to me, and I don’t expect everyone to see it the same way that I do. Die Hard fired my imagination and made me treat cinema as a reliable source of joy that would continue to excite me for decades to come. And, barring some hiccups, this is still the case. Even better, the original Die Hard — my favourite film of all time — is still a wondrous thing, still breathlessly exciting, still a pitch-perfect example of how to make a crowd-pleasing, emotionally-resonant slice of populist cinema that looks breathtaking.
Die Hard 5, on the other hand, is so poor that it makes me want to take up a baton that seems to have been dropped, to actually make a movie myself that rights these wrongs. Anyone who knows how unconfident I am in real life will be surprised to hear me make a bold statement like that but just by avoiding every visual error and plot cliche here, anyone could make something that honours the genre’s greats in exactly the way this latest film doesn’t. That’s not going to happen, obviously, so instead I find myself, horribly, hoping that this tanks. Because right now, if this film’s final image — a freeze-frame of three McClanes, rictus-smiling in front of an orange sunset — is the last we see of John McClane, I’m absolutely fine with that. Unless the franchise gets a massive reboot, something that brings it back to basics the way Casino Royale saved the Bond series, it’s better off abandoned, choked to death on this gargantuan, unflushable turd.