By Scott Mendelson
For a retrospective of the entire series, go HERE.
As my father likes to say, if you don't quit while you're ahead, you'll never be ahead. By all rights, Live Free or Die Hard (trailer 01) should have been terrible. It came Twelve years after the previous installment, was helmed by the likes of Len Wiseman (a man who managed to make a movie about vampires fighting werewolves boring), ended up with a PG-13, and held back from the press for as long as humanly possible. Yet, thanks to strong action sequences and a story very much concerned with John McClane coming to terms with his metaphorical death (IE -- irrelevance), the fourth entry was just good enough to justify its existence. But the McClane luck has officially run out. A Good Day to Die Hard is a terrible film, one of the very worst theatrical movies I have ever seen. It's willfully stupid, lacking in basic character chemistry and narrative discipline, officially turning John McClane into a borderline insane anti-social lunatic. It has nothing worth recommending. A Good Day to Die Hard is basically the movie we all thought we were getting six years ago.
There is frankly no excuse for this level of sheer incompetence. Even at around 90 minutes, the film feels stretched and padded, with much of the running time taken up by scenes of two or three characters standing around in an empty room and basically grunting at each other while they wait for something, anything at all, to happen. To say that the dialogue is terrible is to imply Skip Woods wrote an actual screenplay. A large percentage of the dialogue feels badly ad-libbed. Any number of scenes play out like bad improv moments, not only not funny but as if the actors forgot all their lines and started begrudgingly winging it while they waited for director John Moore to yell cut. This goes for a number of action beats as well. Even during the major action sequence of the film, a first-act car chase through Russia where John kills more innocent bystanders than the bad guys could ever hope to, the characters seem unsure where they are going or why they are going there. When John finally confronts his son, he basically just stands in the street unsure of what to do next. His son (Jai Courtney, who is much better in Jack Reacher) also seems unsure of why he's being chased by the bad guys. The big chase comes off like a riff on that moment in Memento when Guy Pearce is unsure of who is chasing who.
The rest of the action is perfunctory and absolutely lacking in any real imagination or grace. McClane himself barely gets to participate, as it's yet another Expendables 2 affair where Willis stands in one spot and fires a machine gun while his young son runs and jumps around. The climax contains one noteworthy action stunt, which would be impressive if it didn't look incredibly fake. Aside from that chase, the film looks and feels incredibly cheap. There is hardly a single recognizable actor outside of Willis and a cameo-ing Mary Elizabeth Winstead and "that Russian guy" Pasha D. Lychnikoff as a taxi driver. The film opens with a scene of McClane talking about his son's apparent plight (he's been arrested in Moscow for attempted murder) with a random NYPD cop, someone we've never met before. So cheap is this film that they couldn't spring for a cameo from Graham Greene, Larry Bryggman, or (heaven forbid!) Samuel L. Jackson in order to deliver this exposition. Fox and company didn't spring for any actor of note to play the heavy, not even "I earn $20 million a picture!" Rade Serbedzija (yes, Serbedzja was in Taken 2, and yes this film makes Taken 2 look like Die Hard).
Outside of the big chase scene, the vast majority of the film takes place in single rooms with almost no characters in or around them. The film seemingly blew their budget on the first third, since the last two-thirds is basically bereft of extras or characters with speaking parts sans the primary characters. The picture is basically Willis and Courtney standing around with guns drawn all by themselves waiting for incident to occur. I know it's a cliche to say that something resembles a direct-to-DVD picture, but the label truly applies here in the worst way. There is no story to speak of, and the film's third act machinations don't create intrigue so much as make all of the major characters look incredibly stupid. There is no urgency, no sense of ticking clock, no real stakes, and not even a colorful villain (the film has a handful of interchangeable Russian baddies, but no one with any charisma or character). There is no suspense or emotional impact to any of the action or the minimal violence. Yes the film is R-rated, but there is actually far less overt violence and less intensity than the PG-13 Live Free or Die Hard.
There is no reason for the film to take place in Russia aside from perhaps enticing international box office dollars, but the film has nothing to say about either today's Russia or the idea of a prototypical American action hero doing his work in a foreign land. There is no real action or character pay-off for the relationship between McClane and his son. The film can't even be bothered to make Jack McClane's CIA operative into a Jason Bourne-type agent, which would allow a worthwhile contrast between the prototypical 90's action hero and the prototypical 2000's action hero. That's too much work for the makers of A Good Day to Day Hard. No, Jack is just like John, which leaves the film with two alpha male assholes fighting for supremacy. But the film's weirdest decision is to turn John McClane into an unwanted nuisance. I'm not the kind of person who complains about one franchise entry not being a 'true' entry in that franchise (IE - "Quantum of Solace isn't a "true 007" film!"). But a Die Hard film should at least get two things right. It should A) not have John McClane go looking for trouble and insert himself into a situation where he does not belong. It should B) not have John McClane be an unwanted pest to his fellow good guys and make things worse for them instead of being the fly in the ointment for the bad guys.
For much of the film, you actively want John McClane to go away and leave his son alone. For much of the film, McClane's appearance in Russia does nothing but cause inconvenience and further bloodshed for the good guys. Willis plays McClane as a borderline insane 'ugly American' who constantly whines that "I'm on vacation!" when he's clearly not (*that* would have been a Die Hard movie) and does little more than make things worse and worse for the good guys. McClane is the unwanted tag-along, the fifth wheel, the unwanted guy at a video game party who constantly asks "When am I going to get a chance to play?" Even if the film had done everything else right, A Good Day to Die Hard still would have functioned as a complete betrayal and/or misunderstanding of the basic nature of its protagonist. That no one on set or behind the scenes noticed this or cared enough to fix it speaks volumes about the filmmakers' incompetence and/or apathy. A Good Day To Die Hard is a complete and total failure on every single level. It fails as a story, as an action picture, and as a character piece. It is barely a movie in any traditional sense. John Moore shouldn't just be sentenced to 'movie jail' but rather be forced to trade places with John McTiernan in federal prison. There is absolutely no excuse for what feels like intentional sabotage for reasons that can't possibly be fathomed. Who gains by making a film this relentlessly bad? Is this some kind of Springtime For Hitler tax scheme?
The film's utter apathetic incompetence makes me question every nice thing I've said about Fox over the last three years. While it arguably should be avoided in terms of its worth as an entertainment, it almost should be seen as a stunning case study in abject failure. A Good Day to Die Hard is the worst theatrical action picture I've seen in recent memory. I can only hope and pray that there is no worse film released in 2013. How's this for a pull quote? A Good Day to Die Hard makes Live Free or Die Hard look like Die Hard: With a Vengeance.