20 February 2013

DIE HARD WITH A WHIMPER

A Good Day to Die Hard isn't as good as the original, 25-year-old Die Hard, because no shit it isn't. Definitionally, most action movies aren't as good as the best action movie ever made. So there's absolutely no reason to go there in the first place. But if we say instead, something like, A Good Day to Die Hard isn't as good as the 23-year-old Die Hard 2, well that's starting to get us someplace.

In fact, Good Day is just plain bad, a movie of very little positive merit in any respect. The last film in the franchise, 2007's Live Free or Die Hard, was a fine action movie and not a very great Die Hard picture; Good Day is a slightly better Die Hard picture and a much, much worse action movie. And calling it "better Die Hard" is being awfully relative: honestly, if the character Bruce Willis was playing had any other name than John McClane, it wouldn't ever seem necessary to compare this film to the first three, so different is its sense (almost non-existent) humor, and the All-American Everyday Joe who very much does not occupy center stage, having been replaced by somewhat generic supercop. The story is a ripped-from-the-'80s tale of Russian criminals and terrorist, not a somewhat daft technothriller; that is the degree to which we are headed back in the direction of John McTiernan's glorious original.

The concept, this time, is that McClane has traveled to Moscow to find his erstwhile son Jack (Jai Courtney), a globetrotter of some criminal bent, or so it would seem. In fact, right about the time that the two McClanes meet up, to the extravagant disgust of the son, it's obvious that Jack is some manner of U.S. spy, present in Russia to protect American interest in the face of a nasty duel between a corrupt ex-Soviet official now serving in the Russian government, and his former ally, a whistleblower with a secret file that could bring down this intensely corrupt and hostile official once and for all. I would carp that it lacks simplicity, but even Die Hard itself wasn't tremendously simple; the difference is that Die Hard introduced its complexity later on, where as Good Day dumps it all on us right at the start, needlessly crippling the film with arcane and not very interesting exposition before it can get to the good stuff.

Long story short, John and Jack have to ferry political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) out of the country, with a pit stop at Chernobyl first (and boy, does this film do some tasteless things with Chernobyl in a way that would be far more readily seen as totally unacceptable if the tragedy in question were an American one), a task made difficult by the corrupt official's chief henchman, Alik (Radivoje Bukvić), who provides the film with its colorful villain on account of his former dream to be a tap dancer; this causes a contemptuously amused McClane to refer to him as "the dancer" for the rest of the movie. They used to make better colorful villains.

Sure, the plot is feeble, but all a movie with Die Hard in the title really actually has to do is to sell the action sequences, give us Bruce Willis quipping and saying "Yippe-ki-yay motherfucker" in a tough guy way, and stand back. It sort of does this: he does, absolutely, say that line, though by the time it shows up, the movie has burned off pretty much all of the goodwill you were ever going to bring into it, and it's less of a "fuck yeah!" moment than a "fuck you" moment, the kind that somehow makes it all even worse: oh, sure, now remember that you're a goddamn Die Hard picture. I had forgotten, with all the shitty action scenes going on prior to this.

And boy, is the action shitty, and not even in ways that one might be prepared for. Unlike recent '80s action throwbacks/spectacular financial bombs The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head, Good Day isn't merely content to mimic the elegant action movies for a more civilised age, it wants to have it both ways, mixing the aesthetics of the '80s and the '10s together, and this does not work. Speaking as one who has gotten thoroughly bored of the modern fascination with high-speed editing that makes all the action look like the insides of a food processor, I appreciate that at least some of the shots in some of the setpieces are lengthy enough that you can make out what's going on, and the use of actual practical stuntwork is fantastic, especially in the film's single generally effective sequence, a lengthy car chase near the beginning. But the filmmakers don't seem to know what to do with this once they've gotten it, and while there are plenty of moments that aren't choppy per se, they still have lousy camera angles and unbelievably bad editing - worse editing than even the most macine-gunned action movie of the modern age. It lacks both the idea of continuity and the idea of quick momentum, and instead of combing the best of then and now, it combines the worst. There's one moment, where Jack puts a gun to John's head, where the editing is as incoherently awful as I have ever seen in a major Hollywood production - I would show it to every film student in the world if I could, and make them understand its singular awfulness as a perfect, crystalline example of How Not To Do It.

Meanwhile, it's sleek and ugly, coated in a sheen of ill-feeling blues and greys in post-production that suck all the life out of everything and emphasise, if nothing else, that Moscow looks damn cold; but it also looks so artificially tinkered with that it frequently appears to be made of plastic. "At least it's not orange and teal", I thought to myself during one particularly appalling moment where Willis's costume was in an unrecognisably different color family than it had been in the rest of the movie. For my sins, orange and teal showed up in the next few minutes.

All of this is awful and dismal, but it could maybe be tolerable if there was any spark of delight; for that is, of course, who makes a Die Hard different than all other action movies, the way that Willis as McClane has that rough, New Yorker's pragmatism, a perfect everyman cowboy cracking wise. Other than a desperation gambit to make the catchphrase "I'm on vacation!" funny (which it isn't, in part because he's not), there's hardly any comedy to speak of, and while I imagine that the banter between father and son McClane is supposed to be quippy and charming, Courtney is such a vacuum of charm and charisma that Willis doesn't do anything besides pitch one-liners at a big meaty lump and stand there helplessly as he gets nothing in response to work with.

I have belatedly realised that I've not named a single member of the production crew, perhaps giving the impression that A Good Day to Die Hard made itself. Of course, that's not the case, so let's go: director John Moore, writer Skip Woods, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, editor Dan Zimmerman, second unit director Jonathan Taylor, composer Marco Beltrami. Each and every one of those men is responsible for doing something genuinely terrible in this movie, and I hope they are all very sorry.

3/10

9 comments:

Brian said...

There was a time when I comforted myself by saying "There will never be an action movie with worse editing than The Bourne Ultimatum." Then Quantum of Solace came along and gave me a sequence that made the Bourne film's action setpieces seem almost good (that fucking car chase...)

If this one is really worse than that, I may have to jump off a bridge after I watch it. (And I do have to watch it. It's Die Hard, I will go see it. This is stupid, enablist behavior, but I will do it.)

Daniel Silberberg said...

"I would show it to every film student in the world if I could, and make them understand its singular awfulness as a perfect, crystalline example of How Not To Do It."

Curse you for piquing my curiosity! I guess I can wait until it arrives on Netflix.

Thrash Til' Death said...

I really wasn't expecting this film to suck as much as it did. I've been agonising somewhat over exactly what was wrong when it felt superficially similar to Live Free, which I loved. The conclusions I came to were that, aside from the absence of humour or rapport between the leads, it's that the script doesn't really have a central threat the way every other Die Hard has.

SPOILERS

OK, so there's the potential for the evil Russians to get their hands on weapons of mass detruction, but we've got no idea how or even if they plan to use them. The threat is so nebulously defined that it's impossible to care whether the McClanes succeed or fail. All we have to be entertained by are a bunch of flashing lights and loud noises without any dramatic stakes.

Tim said...

Brian- I haven't watched Bourne Ultimatum since it was in theaters, and at the time I was quite taken with its editing. But its imitators have been so unbelievably awful that I don't think I could possibly revisit it from a place of anything other than rage.

Anyway, Good Day... isn't "worse" than something like Quantum of Solace, just that its peculiar badness is very unique and weird.

Daniel- The good news is, it's only about a six-second span of the movie that needs considering, and you'll be spared the whole nasty thing.

Thrash- Your first paragraph exactly describes my brain for the first several hours after I saw it. And your second is a perfect solution - the very first thing I said to the very person I spoke to after was that it felt like it didn't have stakes, but I couldn't figure out how I meant that. You have nailed it.

Brian said...

I should point out, that I can't think of any movie I have ever been more baffled to see get a strongly positive reaction, both critically and commercially, than The Bourne Ultimatum. Between the idiotically stupid plot, some of the worst action scenes I have ever seen, combining horrible use of shaky cam with an editing style that can best be described as "being on Adderall,crack, and 50 cans of red bull at the same time," and most of the cast absolutely phoning in their performances, it retroactively made the fairly good first and fairly mediocre second film worse. Fuck I hated that fucking movie.

Then came the first scene of Quantum of Solace... And I suddenly was somewhat more forgiving of Ultimatum, because at least there wasn't a single moment in the film where I was completely convinced that Bourne's car had just crashed, followed by an immediate shot of him still driving. I still swear to God it's Bond's car that crashes at that one point, at least all logic and technique in film editing suggests it is... Until, of course, the next shot that shows it wasn't.

Die what now? :)

Pintu said...

i just moved to budapest, so i'm curious how effectively that city stands in for moscow. stunning evocations of urban russia in the 10s or anonymously generic?

Tim said...

Not that my knowledge of contemporary Moscow is all that great, but it felt pretty generically Eastern Europe (and of course, we can quibble over both Budapest and Moscow as not being in Eastern Europe at all; this makes it all that much worse.

KingKubrick said...

@ Brian,
I'll see you all of the points you made and raise with Bourne punching a book into an assassin's throat. But seriously, I've always like supremacy best for it's left turn into a tale of redemption in its final moments.

I'm damn disappointed with Die Hard being a bust. I guess I'll wait to download it. I was determined to go see it barring a critical meltdown but it appears to be awful and once I found out the script was written by the bro responsible for Xmen Origins: Wolverine, I knew it would be epically terrible.

P.S. @thrash, I finally checked out Marble Hornets after your recommendation. The first 27 episodes are terrifying before an abrupt drop in quality but the early stuff is some of the best found footage horror I ever seen. Thanks for turning me on to it.

Thrash Til' Death said...

@KingKubrick

Hey, pleased you like it! Yeah, the first 26 episodes represent the first "season," past which the drop in quality is substantial. I stuck with it til' about episode 50 before I just gave up; the scares were getting so infrequent and the story so up itself that it just wasn't worth it anymore. It still doesn't negate the sheer creepiness of the fleeting sightings of the Slender Man in the early episodes.