Bruce Willis' return in A Good Day to Die Hard answers another important Movie Question of 2013. And that's not a good thing.
Oh, Die Hard franchise where have you gone? To be honest, I stopped following you after the less-than-exciting 1995's Die Hard With a Vengeance. To me, you had run out of fuel, and other action films - other movies that year like Goldeneye and Crimson Tide offered more depth to the action than I had expected. Even your fourth film - 2007's Live Free or Die Hard - got beaten out that year by National Treasure II and Transformers, all signaling that perhaps your best days were over. Thus the Valentines Day release of A Good Day to Die Hard comes as quite a shock to us. Does your once great franchise rediscover its footing and usher Willis back into his old form? Not so much.
Police detective John McClane (Bruce Willis, Looper) learns that his son Jack (Jai Cortney, Jack Reacher) has assassinated a subordinate of corrupt Russian politician Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov), and will soon face trial in a Russian court. What he does not know is that his estranged son is actually working for the CIA to secure the release of Chagarin's nemesis, Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch, Unknown) a political prisoner and government whistleblower. Jack has learned that Komarov holds a secret file tying the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to Chagarin, and the CIA wants that file. But the trial never happens, as a massive explosion destroys the courthouse, allowing Jack and Komarov to escape; John flies to Russia, hoping to meet his son before the trial, and thus becomes involved in their escape. A massive car chase around the city ensues, courtesy of Chagarin's henchman Alik (Radivoje Bukvić) and his gang. After managing to escape, John and Jack meet Komarov's daughter Irina (model Yuliya Snigir), but are apprehended by Alik after Irina turns dirty. As father and son escape and press on to Ukraine and the site of the disaster, the two must put aside their animosities to find the file and rescue Komarov.
Upon entering the theater, one recommends strict adherence to the Action Movie Mantra: totally suspend disbelief and assume that every good guy will somehow survive every amazing car crash, explosion, and massive gun battle, while every thug will meet their end like every hired gun should. And while the Mantra holds up well, resulting in many intense sequences that actually set some new boundaries for the genre, the story is paper thin, existing only as transitions to other action sequences rather establishing itself as an equally dramatic piece. That was the beauty behind the first two Die Hard films, for their engaging plot lines helped to intensify the action sequences, drawing us closer to the McClane family as they reacted to yet another dire threat to their lives. When Alan Rickman falls to his death in Die Hard (an image which laughingly reminded one of someone's reaction to receiving an anal probe), we draw an emotionally satisfying breath; in Die Harder, we felt it too as the commercial jets arrived while William Sadler's body laying burning to a crisp on the tarmac. There's no such emotions exhibited in Day, replacing potentially deeper father-son moments with mumbled responses from Cortney and Willis about their 'feelings' for one another. Humor was also a cornerstone to this franchise; yet, those few moments are lost in bad deliveries by the cast and poor editing.
But it gets worse. Willis seems bored and disengaged at times, unable to maintain any consistent energy. Gone is the dynamic cowboy cop that made him such an appealing hero and resurrected his career. Cortney's angry, shallow performance gets old quickly, leaving us to wonder how much better the film would have been had his character been more fleshed out. Conspicuously absent is Bonnie Bedelia, whose cameo-in-waiting at the end could have tied a forgiving bow around things; and the appearance of hottie daughter Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is so limited that we're never given a chance to reacquaint ourselves.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Hitman Writer Skip Woods has never seemed competent enough to understand human emotions. In Day, his "I'm your father and I told you so!" retorts demonstrate that he's still a high school sophomore living among seniors. There's one meaningful exchange early on that could have been the jumping off point to something better, but soon any sense of humanism is replaced with bullets and bombs. And those bombs come thundering in, thanks to several very cool action pieces courtesy of Director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines). Not only does he have a good eye for hand-cam action ala Bourne Identity, but his vision for the larger CGI efforts also have a way of effectively bringing the action right to us. He also knows how to sell the sexual undertones in Woods' script, as we gawk at Snigir - her strip-down in Act I is pleasantly saucy without derailing things. Woods does unleash a terrific plot twist in Act III that no one in our test audience saw coming; it effectively beats back the staleness that had crept in, resetting the board and forcing audiences back in. But soon, we're back to meh, wondering when this paltry 97-minute effort will end.
The new year has already revealed an important answer about whether former action stars Stallone and Schwarzenegger were still bankable. Day sadly puts an emphatic stamp upon that argument as it relates to Willis. Its early-season release is also interesting, for it feels like big-budget, mindless summer fare - why the studio chose a February release instead of a June one is a calculated risk to be sure. Whether audiences reward it with long lines and box office cash will depend if they feel attachment to a franchise that started back in 1986 and certainly lost its way. Some fans will lament that Live Free's PG-13 nearly killed the franchise. But that failure seems small compared to this. Will you be entertained by all the visceral over-top-violence? Yes. Will you be bored to tears over a thinly-veiled excuse for a plot? That depends on whether you want to see a real Die Hard movie or a pale, empty imitation.
For me, it's a soulless venture, whether you see it on the big screen or not. A Good Day to Die Hard is Rated R for language and violence and has a runtime of 97 minutes.
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