A Good Day To Die Hard
The mark of a good film critic should be their top 10 of the year (or however many they feel is an appropriate number). It gives you a reasonable guideline as to whether or not their kind of film is your kind of film, and if you can reliably take their opinion as a guide when choosing the films to see on a regular basis. The mark of a good film blogger, on the other hand, should be their bottom 10 of the year. Unlike a critic, who is contractually obliged to watch everything, a blogger is typically picking and choosing and their bottom 10 should be a reflection of how often they’ve put themselves in harm’s way. Now, it’s fair to be said that reviewing a poor film in often significantly more fun that critiquing a good one – and more fun to read as well – and the same can be said of anything from restaurants to bicycle pumps, but there are only so many times any sane person should put themselves in the path of tedium and banality in the name of the gratification of their readers.
So in that sense, it’s been a great 2013 for me. Rather than last year, where my bottom 6 were all one star films, this time that can only be applied to the bottom two, and the remaining eight in the list make up all of the two star films I saw this year; anything else in the 150 or so new films I saw in the cinema, plus re-releases and films seen at home, were all worthy of at least two and a half stars. Consequently I would only really suggest the top – or bottom – four should be completely avoided; all the rest are more of an “approach with caution” warning, and you may well find more of merit in them than I did. I will, as always, provide my justification for seeing it, and any full reviews have a hyperlink on the title.
There is another way of looking at this: even though it was a TV movie, so wouldn’t appear on this list, I found one film this year utterly trashy and poorly made, yet still some admittedly clichéd fun. So these are the ten films this year that I enjoyed less than Sharknado.
Reason I watched it: it was the gala opening of the Cambridge Film Festival, with the man himself in attendance.
There’s nothing hugely bad or offensive in Hawking, other than the fact that it gives about as much real insight into the world’s most prominent living scientist as looking at a postage stamp gives you insight into the Queen. There’s nothing of any real meat or consequence here and most of it misses the point by a wide margin, and the tantalising glimpses into what drives Hawking are all the more frustrating given their lack of context. Some topics are sensibly glossed over to a point; I don’t believe there’s much to be gained from delving into Hawking’s marriages and their break-ups, but actually the viewpoint of his first wife Jane provides some of the documentary’s best moments.
Reason I watched it: because I grew up in the time the film portrays.
Maybe the reason I didn’t take to Computer Chess was exactly that: it felt like an hour and a half in the company of some of my less interesting computer science lecturers from the early Nineties. I did computer science at GCSE, A-level and as part of my degree, and while others saw a great amount to appreciate in this mock doc of nerds from the Eighties, to me it felt like a reasonable ten minute short stretched way beyond breaking point, familiarity breeding contempt well before the end. The characterisations are all one note and with too little variation, the plot runs like treacle and the ending feels tacked on. Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan.
Reason I watched it: The Planet Hollywood boys all had a film out around the same time, and I wanted to compare and contrast.
The winner of that particular competition, by a considerable distance, was the Arnie comeback movie The Last Stand, which had no pretensions other than being a good deal of fun and succeeded admirably on those terms. Bullet To The Head, on the other hand, is tedious in the extreme and director Walter Hill at his least inspired; those who know much of Hill’s work will know that’s not a good sign. Stallone mumbles his way through a turgid script that feels as if direct to video would have been a compliment, the action’s completely uninspired and it all attempts to morph into some form of half-hearted buddy movie with less chemistry than a Junior Chemistry set with half the pieces missing. Sadly, it wasn’t the worst of the three Arnie / Sly / Bruce movies from the first quarter of the year, by a long, long way.
Reason I watched it: because the trailer actually looked reasonable.
There’s no harm in attempting to invert the tropes of the romantic comedy; why should it always be sunshine and light? On paper, the attempt to start with a marriage and then watch the comedy spring from seeing that marriage on the downslope to catastrophe should provide more laughs than the normal romantic comedy. On screen, it became a collection of insufferable oiks who deserved everything they got and the general sense of unease sapped the fun quicker than you can say “decree nisi”. The ending is nonsense, but by then I was well past caring.
Reason I watched it: I still cling to the increasingly forlorn hope that M. Night has one good film left in him.
It’s not this one. M. Night will always hold a place in my heart for the simple reason that Unbreakable was the film I saw on my first date with Mrs Evangelist, back when we were both much younger and I was less wrinklier. (She isn’t more wrinklier, in case you were wondering.) After Earth manages to retain the nonsensical plotting of later Shyamalan while retaining the forced stoicism that passes for acting in his films, and it all comes across as slightly laughable when it’s intended to be threatening and tense. At this point, I’d be too afraid of the often requested Unbreakable sequel for the fear he’d screw it up.
Reason I watched it: because I’m a card-carrying Trekkie.
When I saw Star Trek Nemesis, the last of the four Next Generation excursions into cinemas, I felt – and Paramount agreed – that it was time to give the franchise a rest for a while. I didn’t expect to be revisiting those feelings just two films into the reboot of the franchise, especially when I’d enjoyed the 2009 film so much. But my enjoyment of that film was based in part on giving some of the dumber elements of the script a pass, and sadly all of those elements are back with a vengeance this time, given more screen time with some additional stupid layered on with a space trowel. Recruiting Benedict Cumberbatch was a bad move as he acts everyone else off screen, not ideal for your leading men, and the film clings to past elements of the franchise to almost desperate levels. It’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone who’s ever seen, well, anything, and the fact that one of the three writers is returning for the next film is one too many for me.
Reason I watched it: because it was showing at FrightFest.
My second trip to the annual FrightFest, held in London’s Empire Leicester Square over the course of five days around the end of August. This year there were four screens in operation, and your day pass entitles you to see anything in the main screen, plus the option to claim tickets for other screenings. This was the one time of day when I couldn’t manage to get into a smaller screen when I didn’t fancy the main screen film, and sadly my concerns were borne out. Director Farren Blackburn has a strong background in British TV, from the likes of Luther and Doctor Who, but he never manages to find the right tone here, the po-faced thrashing about barely enlivened by occasional flecks of humour. Character actors of the likes of James Cosmo populate the background but are given little to do, and if the Vikings were this dull in real life maybe it’s a good job their time has long since passed.
Reason I watched it: because I’m about to turn 40 myself and I thought it would be useful to know what’s coming.
Except no-one in the world is like these people. No one. These aren’t first world problems, they’re – and I’m being extraordinarily generous here – upper middle class first world minor inconveniences, and after an hour I was ready to try to force my way into the screen, grab both Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s characters by the shoulders and to attempt to shake some sense into them. Possibly also to scream at them, “YOU’RE RICH AND REASONABLY SUCCESSFUL AND YOU’RE UTTERLY UNGRATEFUL FOR WHAT YOU HAVE. TAKE A LONG, HARD LOOK AT YOURSELVES AND THEN GROW UP!!!!!!” I will not complain once about being 40 as long as someone buys me a copy of this on DVD. So that I can BURN IT.
Reason I watched it: it was showing at the Cambridge Film Festival and I’d heard of the director.
If you see over thirty films in eleven days, most of them chosen on the basis of a short paragraph in the festival brochure that gives you very little to go on, there’s bound to be the odd misstep. I only made two this year: I managed to see an Iranian film called Taj Mahal without realising that it was a direct remake of a French film called The Snows Of Kilimanjaro that opened last year’s festival, and while I preferred the remake it wasn’t a film I ever felt the need to see twice. The other mistake was this, chosen simply by recognition of Richard Jobson’s name, which turned out to be one of the most poorly produced films I’ve ever seen in a cinema. Low quality production values, sometimes obscuring dialogue or rendering scenes unwatchable, laughably bad flashbacks and a script which made me pine for the drama and quality of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, which this appeared for large parts to be foolishly attempting to imitate. A depressing example of how independent British film can, just occasionally, get it badly wrong.
Reason I watched it: I’d thoroughly enjoyed all of the other Die Hards, and despite the bad reviews and disastrous PR campaign I’d hoped there was some redeeming feature somewhere in this.
They brought back Mary Elizabeth Winstead for about two minutes. That’s literally all I’ve got.
Oh Bruce. You knew that this was a pile of rancid turtle faeces, didn’t you? That’s why you appeared dead on the inside for large parts of the promotional tour, wasn’t it? You knew that this was a collection of diabolically shot action scenes, anaemic and uninteresting characters, jump-the-shark plotting that’s so wafer thin it’s a miracle it was spun out to an hour and a half, even with padding, and lacking all of the hallmarks of the series that made all of the four previous instalments so enjoyable. Like watching someone else describe parts of an uninteresting video game to you, it’s the film equivalent of when a tennis player goes 4-0 down in a set and then throws the last two games just to get to the next set so they can start again, and by the end all involved are barely going through the motions. It was never in doubt that this would claw in enough money to make a sixth episode viable, but if another Die Hard does ever make it into production it would take an achievement worthy of the Nobel Prize For Stupidity to make something worse than this. (Incidentally, that’s not a challenge, Bruce.)
Earlier this month, I saw the original Die Hard in 70 mm at my local cinema, so both my favourite and least favourite films seen in the cinema this year have been Die Hard films. Yippie-ki-yay, mother fumbler.
The Review: Alchemists have tried and failed for all of human history to find a way of converting base metals into gold. For all of our understanding of elements and their combinations driven by thousands of years of science, that understanding has not driven a way to be able to produce quality from just anything, and the same can be said for films. Somehow the Die Hard franchise produced what’s seen by many as the gold standard of action movies, a standard that has endured to this day and a series which has produced varying quality but never truly disappointed. Until now. I’m not going to beat about the bush, A Good Day To Die Hard is dreadful on almost every conceivable level; the only mystery is how a formula which seemed to be the alchemist’s dream, almost impossible to get wrong, has been so badly handled by Skip Woods, John Moore and Bruce Willis.
Let’s take each of the main culprits in turn. First of all, a hallmark of the Die Hard series has been their ability to handle an action scene, with previous directors John McTiernan, Renny Harlin and even Len Wiseman all knowing where to put the camera, how to frame the shots for maximum impact and how to generate pace and tension. John Moore has none of these skills and the action scenes are bland and repetitious. The crucial failing seems to be confusing John McClane with The Terminator, for while the previous four films all understood how to show a man bravely / stupidly venturing into unlikely situations, and occasionally barrelling head first into stupidity, here McClane rampages around in a manner that would make a T-1000 malfunction. Consequently any possible sense of drama or tension has evaporated before we even reach the halfway mark, and the majority of the running time is a procession of dull, repetitive stunt work – McClane gets attacked by a helicopter shooting at a building not once, but twice.
Writer Skip Woods hasn’t exactly given him a lot to work with. This fifth dying of the hard variety is unique in the sense it was written as a Die Hard film, rather than being retooled from an existing script, and on this evidence that was a worse idea than diving off a building tied to a fire hose or driving a car into a helicopter. I could reel off all of the elements that should have made the script and didn’t – and we’re talking fundamentals like a plot, decent bad guys and some form of development for the man always in the wrong place at the wrong time – but it’s just a shame someone didn’t do that for Woods before he fired up his laptop. The Die Hards have always managed to work up a reasonable amount of intrigue and get McClane to do some actual police work, but here he stumbles around blindly in search of narrative and here has less luck finding story here than he normally has finding trouble.
The Die Hards have always had a fantastic array of supporting characters, blessed with both quality and depth and helping to underpin the world-weariness and warmth in McClane’s character. Take away that quality and depth and Bruce Willis just appears bored and shouty, and if the bad guys had a nanogram of charisma between them you’d be rooting for them instead. Everyone seems to think that you throw another McClane into the mix and that’s enough, but Jai Courtney and Bruce Willis have zero family chemistry, and by the time of the ill-advised excursion to Chernobyl – where science and logic bid a sad farewell to all participants – the end can’t come quickly enough. Whatever the recipe was here, the previously golden Die Hard series has been turned to something browner and much more leaden. Something in me feels that, if I’d put my mind to it, I could have been much more insulting about AGDTDH, but if no-one involved with the film can be bothered, why should I?
Why see it at the cinema: You’d be better off blindfolding yourself, then beating yourself over the head with a piece of wood with a blunt nail in it. Not only will it be less painful, but the fact that sometimes you’ll hit yourself with the nail and sometimes you won’t adds a variety and sense of danger that A Good Day To Die Hard is sorely lacking.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for strong language and moderate action violence. The big controversy here, if you didn’t somehow hear about it being ranted extensively on Twitter and blogs the length and breadth of the country, is that the US got an R-rated version (broadly equivalent to our 15) and we got the neutered, less mother abusing 12A version. Anyone that thinks this was (a) anything other than a desperate ploy to feel a steaming pile of detritus to the masses, and (b) denying us a much higher quality 15-rated film based on extra swearing and blood sprays, is as wrong as everyone involved in the making of this sorry pile.
My cinema experience: I sat in a cinema hating myself and everyone involved in this for an hour and a half. (It was the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds.) I’d only gone to see it in an effort to truly compare the efforts of the new Arnie, Sly and Bruce movies; Arnie wins this one hands down. Two people claimed to have enjoyed themselves as I heard them talking on the way out; they desperately need higher standards, and it made me pine for the feeling I had about Die Hard 4.0 at the same cinema. At least the cinema suffered no sound or projection issues, but for a first weekend Saturday evening showing it was a desperately thin and uninvolved audience.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Thankfully the experience was only prefaced by twenty minutes of ads, trailers and the other usual guff, meaning the agony wasn’t prolonged for too long.
The Score: 2/10
Today’s my birthday (don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting a card or anything) and as a lovely birthday present, 20th Century Fox have seen fit to release a new Die Hard film in the week of my birthday. But like receiving a birthday cake that someone’s licked all the icing off, Fox have seen fit to send us Brits only the least offensive parts of the latest vestathon from America’s favourite retired bartender. The excitement that had built up in many parts from people seeing that this would receive an R rating in the US has turned to anger at the knowledge that Uncle Sam is keeping the blood sprays and the verbalisation of sexual denigration of those who prefer mothers all to itself.
It’s clear that those people (a) haven’t seen the trailer for this film, which looks shards-of-glass-in-toe-curlingly awful, as if Fox compiled all of the worst parts of the film into one easily digestible two minute package, and (b) seem to have forgotten that Die Hard 4.0, or Live Free To Die Hard as it was known across the pond, wasn’t much cop either. Or at least, that’s the received wisdom. But that’s not how I remember it. I seem to remember actually really enjoying Die Hard 4.0. But of course I’m mad, and the only one who did. Because everyone knows that only the first three Die Hards are any good, and the fourth is just a bit rubbs, innit?
The Prince Charles Cinema in London, one of the capital’s finest and most respected emporiums of cinematic thrills, seem to agree, sticking resolutely to showing the Die Hard Trilogy and completely omitting the fourth entry from their own celebratory marathon. And they’re not alone; the general consensus from what I read on the internet – which is always an unimpeachable source of fact – is that Die Hard 4.0 either isn’t a good film, or might be OK but isn’t a great Die Hard.
I’m not quite sure what it’s done to deserve this reputation, but further research on the internet shows how each of the films is regarded by the movie-going public and by those harshest of judges, critics:
So Die Hard is ranked by all as the cast-iron classic it absolutely is. No surprise there. But it seems most groups regard either Harder or With A Vengeance (or both) as not as good as the fourth one. Die Hard 4 is that exception that proves the rule – it’s a good Len Wiseman movie, with a reasonable supporting cast, if you overlook the presence of Timothy Olyphant as the weakest bad guy in the series.
So maybe it is a good film, but not a good Die Hard film? There’s generally four main complaints that I hear about the fourth Die Hard that make it Not A Die Hard, so let’s take them in order of quickness.
1. Yippie-ki-yay, motherfmpfl
What’s wrong with this video? (Rated 15 for language, except the last few seconds which are a 12A.)
Yes, much wailing and gnashing of teeth was expressed over the last movie and its similarly botched rating, getting a PG-13 in America but still managing a 15 here, even with the mangled ending. While I’m extremely frustrated not to be able to watch a film designed for adults in a cinema, where they’re supposed to be seen, the copy I have to watch at home reinstates the “ucker” and provides the much-needed catharsis for McClane’s extreme violence. But think about the other great lines from the other three Die Hards. Are they dependent on language offensive to mothers everywhere?
John McClane: [stealing Tony’s shoes] Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister.
Hans Gruber: [addressing the hostages] I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way… so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.
Holly Gennero McClane: After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.
Hans Gruber: I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.
Dwayne T. Robinson: We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess.
Carmine Lorenzo: You’d be a surprised what I make in a month.
John McClane: If it’s more than a dollar ninety-eight I’d be very surprised.
Gen. Ramon Esperanza: [Esperanza has landed the plane and steps outside] Freedom!
John McClane: [punches him] Not yet!
Simon: No, no. My only problem is that I went to some trouble preparing that game for McClane. You interfered with a well-laid plan.
Zeus: Yeah, well, you can stick your well-laid plan up your well-laid ass.
Swear words are mere profane embellishments to what should be core values of story and dialogue, and if A Good Day To Die Hard is to succeed, it will have remembered this rather than relying on one tired old catchphrase. Or it could even road test some new alternatives, obviously without the swearing.
2. They are so frail, humans. So easily crumpled and broken
What actually makes a Die Hard film? Obviously it’s John McClane, fighting his way through increasingly testing situations. One of the key observations often quoted around the first film is how McClane bore the effects of his struggles, sat frustratedly in a bathroom while picking glass out of his feet, counting himself lucky that he hadn’t sliced through an artery and swiftly bled to death. Here’s a list of the number of times McClane showed similar difficulties, questioning not only his mission but almost his chances of success and survival, in the subsequent two films:
- He got a little bit miffed when he failed to save a plane with 200 passengers and O’Brien off Star Trek on it. But that doesn’t really count as it wasn’t about himself.
- Er, that’s it.
So this happened once, in Die Hard. Hardly a staple of the series, is it?
Additionally, John McClane keeps finding himself in these situations. He would either become hardened to it, or go on an insane rampage, indiscriminately killing innocent bystanders. (Which I believe is the plot of A Good Day To Die Hard.)
3. Location, location, location
The original entry in the series has an iconic location, so iconic in fact that it appeared on the first poster in place of Bruce Willis himself. The Fox building which became Nakatomi Plaza on-screen is almost as much of a character as a McClane or a Gruber. Since then, each film has seen a subsequent expansion, to airport, city and eastern seaboard. There’s also been grumbling that the series has consequently lost its focus with that expansion, but I’d counter that with a couple of things: it never did Grand Theft Auto any harm, and sequels do demand the law of increasing returns.
While on the former point I’ll admit it’s a bit of a cheat, I do think the continual expansion of the series has helped to keep it fresh. If we were just re-treading the same ground each time in buildings of random sizes (a skyscraper! a train station! a really large bungalow!) the Die Hards wouldn’t have lasted as long as they have. I don’t hold with the argument that keeping the location confined is a pre-requisite; many action movies, and Die Hard is little different, feature the protagonist and antagonist kept separate for much of the film, before a final confrontation. The first two have brief encounters with Gruber and Colonel Stewart respectively, but this is another argument where it comes down to character and conflict rather than a forced situation.
4. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a man in a grubby white vest
The last complaint that most often crops up regarding the continued evolution of the Die Hard series concerns the action, and most specifically this scene where McClane and his giant truck take on a F35 fighter.
The complaint here is again twofold; the unreality of John’s almost superhuman efforts, coupled with an excess of CGI. But if you look back over the series, effects work has long been a staple of the series, just at the level that the series could actually afford at the time. (Guess what? They didn’t actually blow up the rooftop of a downtown LA skyscraper. Movie magic, isn’t it wonderful…)
But it’s also about how feasible it is for a man to be sliding around on falling roads and flying jets. The immediate answer, of course, is not in the slightest, but is it the fault of Die Hard 4 that believability in the field of human endeavour has gone out the window? Let’s work back through the series to find where the root of the problem is.
- Die Hard 4.0. McClane drives a car through a toll booth and into a helicopter, bailing out of the vehicle at a probable 90 miles per hour which leaves him very seriously injured. Or miraculously not.
- Die Hard With A Vengeance. McClane and Carver leap from a boat that detonates in a massive explosion, about two seconds before it explodes so powerfully that the shockwave is felt miles away, undoubtedly seriously injuring them as they are about a foot underwater at the time.
- Die Hard With A Vengeance. McClane and Carver are attempting to climb down a line from a truck on a bridge to a container ship, when the truck falls and drops them tens of feet onto the hard metal surface of container ship, leaving them both very seriously injured.
- Die Hard 2: Die Harder. After fighting two leaders of the criminal gang on the wing of a moving plane, McClane falls off the wing of the plane moving at high speed, leaving him very seriously injured.
- Die Hard. McClane leaps from the top of the Nakatomi Plaza, and after falling five floors with only a fire hose tied around his waist, the metal reel of the hose drops ten floors, instantly creating enough force to pull him straight out of the window despite his best efforts to resist it and leaving him very seriously dead.
- Die Hard. McClane attempts to climb across an air vent at around thirty stories up; he slips and falls but attempts to grab onto a vent two stories below. Instead, he breaks both his arms and falls, leaving him extremely dead.
In conclusion, Die Hard 4.0 is the continuing adventures of a superhuman, wisecracking sociopath on a logically expanding wider canvas, featuring both international and family stakes based on a third large scale larceny encountered in just over a decade. As such, it’s not just a decent action movie, but an absolutely logical extension of the Die Hard universe.
Come back soon, where I expect to be reporting that the 12A rated, not released for critics, originally scripted fifth Die Hard film is a complete pile of cack, motherfmpflers.