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Why It Matters That the New ‘Die Hard’ Movies Suck

A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth entry in the Die Hard series, includes a rather peculiar closing credit: “Certain original characters created by Roderick Thorp.” There’s an explanation for that curious wording: the original Die Hard film was very loosely based on Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever, with its leading character of Detective Joe Leland (a holdover from Thorp’s book The Detective, played by Frank Sinatra in that volume’s 1968 film adaptation) de-aged and transformed into Bruce Willis’s John McClane. But the clumsy verbiage seems appropriate, since A Good Day to Die Hard is kinda, sorta based on Thorp’s work, but not really, because the latest Die Hard sequel is (like the film that preceded it) barely related to the character at all. It’s another chapter in the continuing betrayal of what the series is, and what it once represented.

It’s hard to remember now, but when 20th Century Fox began promoting Die Hard back in 1988, it was far from a guaranteed success. Bruce Willis had never headlined a hit movie — his two starring vehicles to date (Blind Date and Sunset) and the TV show that made him big (Moonlighting) were firmly in the light comedy mold. This guy was gonna front an action movie? Action movies, circa 1988, were the domain of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone: indestructible chunks of finely chiseled muscle, monosyllabic tough guys who wielded their fists and machine guns sternly and powerfully.

Willis spends most of Die Hard either in or out of an undershirt, and having clearly logged a bit of time at the gym, he (within reason) looked the part. But he diverged from the dominant action stars — and his vehicle from the typical action flick — on the other points. John McClane wasn’t a stone-faced superhero. Thanks to a clever (if fundamentally silly) plot point, he spends most of the film barefoot, and the film’s most painful moment comes when supervillain Hans Gruber (the sublime Alan Rickman) orders his henchman to shoot out several giant panes of glass that stand between McClane and his escape. McClane has to run across them in his bare feet. The damage to his person is genuinely hard to watch, more than any number of the picture’s machine gunnings and brutal, bare-knuckle brawls.

That scene and what it personified — that John McClane is an action hero who gets hurt and bleeds — were what separated Die Hard from its contemporaries. Here was an Everyman action hero, as opposed to the unstoppable cyborgs (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) personified by Arnie and Sly. We may have rooted for those guys, but we never really identified with them. McClane, on the other hand, was a regular Joe, a poor schmuck in the wrong place at the wrong time, only on the scene to get his estranged wife back, just trying to make it out of there alive. He got dirty, and sweaty, and tired. He made friends with a sympathetic LA cop on the other end of the radio. He worried about his kids. He cracked wise to keep himself entertained. He thought on his feet, and did the best he could. And we were with him, all the way.

We stayed with him through two more sequels, 1990’s Die Hard 2 and 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance — neither of them on par with the original, but both fundamentally true to the original film’s rough and tumble nature, and its core understanding of who its leading character was. Then Willis took 12 years off from the series before returning with 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard. During that break, he gave in to his receding hairline and went all-the-way bald, which is actually handy inasmuch as it provides a quick and easy way to tell if the Die Hard movie you’re considering watching will be terrible. Bald Bruce is like a Star Wars prequel or an odd-numbered Star Trek movie: an immediate red flag.

This Die Hard fan only saw Live Free once, during its initial theatrical run, but whenever I think of it (which isn’t often), the immediate go-to mental image is one from the film’s climax, which found someone named John McClane straddling a giant, pilot-less F35 fighter jet, which he surfs atop before leaping off onto a destroyed highway, barely escaping its fiery explosion. This, to put it mildly, is not my John McClane. It’s exactly the kind of physics-defying superheroic feat that a movie like Die Hard rebuked. It was a fine metaphor for the entire film.

But it was a Bruce Willis movie with Die Hard in the title, so it made a tremendous amount of money — more than any of its predecessors (pre-inflation, anyway), and thus we now have A Good Day to Die Hard, a movie which makes Live Free or Die Hard look like, well, Die Hard. Willis, who calls the shots on the series (he’s credited as executive producer), has again hired a generic action craftsman (John Moore this time, whose credits include Max Payne and Behind Enemy Lines) to create a generic action movie, one with no sense of its own history or style. It is, for anyone who loved the original films, an abomination.

There are no stakes anymore, because John McClane has transformed from a living, breathing, bleeding human being into a cartoon character. The film’s first big action set piece is a giant car chase, during which Willis flips a garbage truck, gets hit by a car, and then steals an SUV, which he also flips. He walks away from each bang-up without a scratch — 25 years older than he was in the original film, mind you. The sinfully stupid dialogue (by Skip Woods, who is also responsible for Hitman and the A-Team movie) doesn’t even acknowledge how trouble seems to follow this character around until a single halfhearted, half-assed conversation at the film’s conclusion. Aside from a few musical stings that Marco Belltrami slyly lifts from Michael Kamen’s original score and one offhand reference to American “cowboys,” you would never know that A Good Day was a sequel to anything, much less the most influential action film of the past quarter century.

Those minor acknowledgments, combined with the big deal Fox is making over the franchise’s 25th anniversary, may ultimately do more harm than good — they serve as reminders of how far this franchise has fallen. Few things have saddened me more in recent cinema than the way Willis mumbles his “Yippee ki-yay” signature line, a piece of dialogue that has literally received cheers in every other Die Hard movie I’ve seen with an audience. This one sat in stony, confused silence. By the time it comes, in the midst of an aggressively loud and astonishingly stupid climactic shootout at, of all places, Chernobyl (don’t ask), we were all pretty numb.

Perhaps it’s silly to get this worked up about what’s become of the character — after all, if Bruce Willis doesn’t care about John McClane, why should we? The actor has a juggernaut here, and clearly realized after Live Free that audiences were going to show up whether the movies were actually any good or not. I’m sure they will this weekend, but the people behind this one know they’ve got a dog on their hands. (Why else is it being released in February, instead of in the summer blockbuster season, like its predecessors?) Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and love of the Die Hard franchise might send you to the multiplex again. But we can only be burned so many times. And those who are coming to the series fresh will surely wonder why anyone is even slightly concerned with a maddeningly typical C-level Bruce Willis vehicle like this one.

A Good Day to Die Hard opens today in wide release.

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