Friday, February 22, 2013

Zaki's Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

(L-R) Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch
It's now twenty-five years since a shoeless, shirtless Bruce Willis, as beleagured NY cop John McClane, uttered his first "Yippee-ki-yay" while taking down hordes of heavily-armed baddies in director John McTiernan's Die Hard. I doubt the filmmakers had any inkling at the time, but that thriller (which launched Willis' big screen career only after it was first turned down by a laundry list of the era's preeminent action players) would completely reset the action movie paradigm in its wake. Die Hard's everyman action hero, as embodied by McClane, would become the new status quo for the genre moving forward, effectively consigning the invincible onscreen personas of the Sly Stallones and Arnold Schwarzeneggers during the '80s to the "obsolete" pile.

In fact, so perfectly did Willis embody this new archetype in 1988 that it was worth following the character along through three increasingly hollow sequels, the Renny Harlin-helmed Die Hard 2 in 1990, McTiernan's return engagement in 1995's Die Hard With a Vengeance, and 2007's belated Live Free or Die Hard, directed by Len Wiseman. None of those follow-ups have the simple heart of the original but I liked -- and like -- them all. When it comes to John McClane, I'm just an easy mark, and by now the distinction between Willis the actor and McClane the character has blurred to the point of irrelevance. Thus it is that a quarter century after his trip through the many floors of Nakatomi Tower, we arrive at A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth entry in the McClane chronicles...and the fifth best.

Directed by the stubbornly, frustratingly, adequate John Moore (Flight of the Pheonix, Max Payne), A Good Day has Our Man John, ever the man out of place, making his way to Russia, ostensibly to rescue his estranged adult son Jack (a.k.a. John Jr., played by Aussie up-and-comer Jai Courtney) from a life in the Gulag due to his extra-legal actions while overseas. Little does John (Sr.) realize that the boy is actually working undercover for the CIA. The resulting mistaken identity/cat-and-mouse game, centered on protecting a jailed Russian official (Sebastian Koch) who holds potentially damaging evidence against the current regime, is really just an excuse to trot out the car chases, ordnance, and explosions that the series has come to be primarily identified with.

That said, it is a bit ironic to see John McClane become precisely the kind of insanely-adrenalized action hero he was pointedly meant to critique. Whether stuck in a car that flips over about forty-seven times after a collision, dangling from a helicopter, or bouncing off various buildings, he endures and invites so much sustained physical punishment throughout that one could be forgiven for thinking McClane has undergone a Wolverine-like infusion of metal on his skeleton since his first tango with terrorists lo those many moons ago (this is a phenomenon that I first became aware of in action movies with Die Hard 4 in '07, but which I've since seen manifest in the most recent Mission: Impossible installment as well as last year's Total Recall remake).

Jai Courtney as John "Jack" McClane Jr.
At a breezy 97 minutes, the one thing you can't say about Good Day to Die Hard is that it overstays its welcome. Also, once you jettison the need for things like "drama" and "character development" (which writer Skip Woods gamely tries to squeeze into the crevices whereever possible) it becomes a not-unpleasant way to while away an hour-and-a-half. Willis is fine, Courtney is fine, everyone is just...fine. By the time the Family McClane make their way to Chernobyl (of course they go to Chernobyl) for the final act showdown, all attempts at the verisimilitude of Die Hard's beginnings have been tossed down a nuclear reactor. The all-too human hero leaving a trail of blood behind him as he walks through broken glass barefoot seems far, far away.

Then again, that was four movies and twenty-five years ago, and if you really want to get logical about it, John McClane has encountered and singlehandedly defeated more terrorists in the intervening decades than most people could even hope to dispatch in several lifetimes. Thus, an air of apathy on his part is probably entirely reasonable at this point. At this stage of our cultural history, John McClane has become a movie icon the same way Dirty Harry, or Rocky Balboa, or Captain Kirk & Mr. Spock are icons. And like The Dead Pool, Rocky V, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the Die Hard franchise's fifth go holds story and depth in a distant secondary position to the simple thrill of spending time with one of our favorite characters again. Yippee-ki...okay. C

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