John McClane (Bruce Willis) heads on a Russian vacation in A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth instalment in the venerable action series – it’s impressive to think that the Die Hard franchise now has at least one entry in four different decades. It’s unsurprising then that the series has shifted from its hardboiled roots.
In Die Hard, McClane was an everyman hero who got dealt a bad hand but managed to rise to the challenge. By the time of Die Hard 4.0 however, McClane had come to terms with being ‘that guy’ – always in the wrong place at the wrong time but nonetheless prepared to do what needs doing. It’s a subtle character arc which is nice to see but it also reflects a change in the character from everyday US cop battling terrorists to superhero cop who battles an F-35 jet, and it’s this change in particular that’s irked many hardcore fans.
When McClane used to get cut and bleed it meant something – the character actually hurt – but now it’s more like window dressing, a mere visual indicator that he got through another scrape. Sure, occasionally he’ll show signs of fatigue and pain but ‘McClane the action hero’ ultimately has little time for such diversions. This trend continues in A Good Die to Die Hard, as McClane is seen shrugging off disasters like a violent car accident as if he has them for breakfast.
And I’ve got no problem with that. Yes, Die Hard isn’t what it once was and maybe it would be nice to see a more vulnerable McClane again, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a cracking time watching superhero McClane bring old-school justice to some Russian bad guys. Why Russian you ask? This time McClane has gone to Moscow to support his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney; Jack Reacher) who he believes has lost his way and got caught up in some bad business.
And so, with An Idiot’s Travel Guide to Russia in hand, McClane braves the Motherland only to discover that his son isn’t the delinquent he thought he was. Indeed, Jack is actually an undercover CIA operative and McClane has unwittingly stepped right into the middle of a hot mess involving a mysterious file, a political prisoner and one massive Mi-26 helicopter (the largest, most powerful helicopter to have ever been produced, a special variant of which was developed after Chernobyl).
The father-son dynamic works well, as Jack isn’t happy to see ‘John’ and would prefer things to go according to plan. McClane on the other hand is a bit of a wild card who makes things up as he goes along, but he’s really just trying to do the right thing for his kid. In any case, Jai Courtney continues to impress since his appearance in Jack Reacher – I absolutely bought that this guy was the son of John McClane.
The villains meanwhile would feel right at home in a season of 24, which means talking about them is rather spoilery (at one point A Good Day to Die Hard was rumoured to have been called Die Hard 24/7 and would have starred Jack Bauer alongside John McClane). As a big fan of 24 this was fine with me, but some might malign the lack of an easily identifiable central villain like Hans Gruber or Thomas Gabriel. It’s a point of difference though, and helps to make this Die Hard story a nice change of pace from what’s come before.
Director John Moore (Max Payne) brings a strong visual style to the table, much in the same way as Len Wiseman did with Die Hard 4.0. Here’s a director who isn’t afraid of putting his personality into what he shoots – there’s a terrific introducing shot to McClane – and I appreciated that penchant for visual inventiveness even if Moore could use a little reining in from time to time. This is seen in a manic car chase early in the film, in which hundreds of cars must have surely been smashed. Unfortunately, the camera cuts quickly and zooms in and out haphazardly so I was left slightly confused as to where different vehicles were in relation to one another. On the plus side, this issue doesn’t plague the rest of the movie and it’s since come to light that Moore is working on a Director’s Cut. The car chase alone is said to be 30% longer so hopefully this cut will give us a clearer picture of what’s going on. Speaking of which, if there’s one thing this latest Die Hard could have used it’s a longer runtime – the movie is probably 90 minutes (without credits), significantly shorter than previous entries in the series.
Still, many are quick to lambast Moore for the quality of his previous films, especially Max Payne, but the issue with Max Payne was its misguided script and casting. Moore’s direction and the aesthetics of that film were arguably its strongest qualities, and he brings these strengths to McClane’s latest. Also unfairly slated is Skip Woods, the screenwriter of A Good Day to Die Hard who co-wrote the awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And yet Woods’ most recent effort was The A-Team, which was an incredibly entertaining ride high on good humour and inventive action sequences. The same is true for A Good Day to Die Hard.
To complete the Die Hard feel Marco Beltrami has returned from Die Hard 4.0 to compose the score, again drawing heavily on Michael Kamen’s original work from the first three films. In a smart move the movie begins with a snippet of Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – a great throwback to the classic Die Hard which immediately put my mind at ease. Fret not, Die Hard is back and it’s back with a bang!
Disclaimer – this review is based on the uncensored version of the film. A censored version has been released in the UK.
John McClane is back in a brief but thoroughly entertaining Die Hard adventure, this time set in Mother Russia.