Review: A Good Day To Die Hard
The Pitch: Hope That I Die Hard Before I Get Old. (Ah, too late.)
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
Seriously, what is everyone’s problem with Die Hard 4?
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.
The Pitch: Witness to the future.
The Review: Is it possible to know that you’ll love a film before you even see it? If I look through the list of my favourite films, then certain types of films keep cropping up: action movies, thrillers, science fiction and in particular time travel movies. Despite their tricksy ways with time, everything from The Terminator movies to Twelve Monkeys has been a particular favourite of mine over the years, and Back To The Future still retains its place as my favourite film of all time. But it’s not just the possibilities of time travel that cast their spell over me, it’s the rich tapestry that each of these films uses time travel to weave, in each case skilfully combining different story elements into a compelling tale. But for each of those classics, there’s a Timecop or an A Sound Of Thunder. So does Looper have all of the required elements to add it to the classic list?
First, there’s the setting. Looper raises the bar on other time travel movies by having no passage set in contemporary times, and using that to derive its unique selling point. Think of most time travel movies and they consist of characters from our time travelling forwards or backwards in time, or vice versa. Looper is set entirely in the future, and predominantly in two different futuristic years; time travel, having been invented by 2074, allows the criminal underworld to dispose of their evidence by sending it back in time thirty years to 2044. Loopers are the clean-up crew of the relative past, instantly killing off the criminals of the future as they are sent back in time, then cleanly disposing of the evidence. They do this in the knowledge that one day, they’ll be the one on the mat facing them on the other end of the a giant gun, at which point the loop is closed, with a pay-off sent along to help the last thirty years of their life run smoothly. And heaven help anyone who doesn’t manage to close their loop when their future self comes visiting…
In addition to the entirely futuristic setting, it manages to be an entirely convincing futuristic setting, regardless of the time period, feeling both a natural extension of current times, but at the same time suitably lived in. Not since Minority Report have we seen such a well thought out and absolutely convincing future setting, with not a single detail feeling out of place. That feeling of reality is also down to the characters, who while feeling totally of their era have issues and problems which are universal, even if they are set up by time travel shenanigans. The biggest trick for any film set across two periods to pull off is a convincing pair of actors playing the same role at different times, especially when one of those actors has one of the most famous faces on the planet. But thanks to some convincing prosthetics and the power of the actors concerned, you will never doubt for one second that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a young Bruce Willis; an impressive trick to pull off when they have so many scenes together.
Two things have elevated those other time travel movies to classic status: their mind and their soul. By their soul, I’m thinking of the tone of the story, the emotions that support the narrative, be it the comedy and romance of Back To The Future, the pulse-pounding threat of the Terminator or the poignant inevitability of Twelve Monkeys. Looper has a sense of humour, in keeping with director Rian Johnson’s previous films (Brick and The Brothers Bloom) but also an occasionally sick and sadistic touch, more darkly comic, revelling in the abilities of messing with characters who straddle two time periods. It also has soul, revealed in the second half of the movie which takes in a complete change of setting – and one which may prove to much of a right-angled turn for some audiences revelling in the futuristic nature of the backdrop to deal with – but one which allows the acting talents of Emily Blunt and young newcomer Pierce Gagnon to shine.
The other aspect is the mind, the high concept which instantly nails the story in your mind. What would you do if you went back in time and met your parents? Or if you were the mother of the future saviour of the human race, but spent your life hunted because of it? Looper’s hook seems to be initially whether you’d be able to kill your future self if the price is right, but in that Emily Blunt-based second half reveals itself to be something more basic and profound. The time travelling logic is as nebulous as that of many of its classic forebears (trying to make sense of timelines in most time travel movies will leave you scratching your head if you look too closely, and Looper actively plays with these expectations), but that shouldn’t detract from writer / director Johnson’s achievement; to create a time travel film which calls back in subtle ways to the greatness of its forebears, but also creates a unique vision with a mind and a soul all its own. I suspect people will still be talking about this one thirty years from now.
Why see it at the cinema: Movies like this are made for the big screen, and the sheer level of incidental detail in the background of the first hour needs to be seen as big as possible to truly appreciate, but it’s also best seen with an audience, as you’re bound to want to talk about it afterwards.
The Score: 10/10
Review: Moonrise Kingdom
The Pitch: The Scouting Book For Boys, And The Girls With Whom They Want To Elope.
The Review: I’ve become addicted to daytime TV. Not just any old daytime TV, though; for me the Jeremy Kyles and Loose Women of this world hold no appeal. What I’m hooked on is a tea time pairing that tests the most trivial knowledge to the deepest of levels, where two men gently exchange banter and interrogate members of the public. Pointless is the name of the game, and if you’ve not seen it it’s essentially the inverse of Family Fortunes (or Family Feud if you’re American), so 100 people are asked questions and the best answers are given by the fewest people. I can often come up with a pointless answer on the film questions, but one recent episode had me completely stumped: all of the Bill Murray films I could think of, no matter how obscure, seemed to have been thought of. The likes of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day aren’t a surprise, but when two people out of a hundred remembered What About Bob? and Broken Flowers, surely there was no Murray film left unsaid? In fact, among the list of pointless Bill Murray films sat three with a common thread: Rushmore, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited.
I pity those two people, if they were the same two people, that despite an obvious level of film buffery they couldn’t recall half of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, for Anderson and Murray go together like a well-aged cheese and a particularly fine wine. For what feels like an eternity, the world (and his former co-stars) have appealed to Murray to appear in Ghostbusters 3, with a seemingly now terminal lack of success, but he appears in whatever Anderson has cooked up with unerring regularity, ranging from the starring roles of Zissou to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo of Darjeeling. For fans, it’s not hard to see why Murray keeps being drawn back, like a moth to the flame, but the style of Wes Anderson might also explain why so few people would seemingly count themselves as committed fans, at least in a random sampling of the public. Wes Anderson’s films are easy to identify, both thematically and stylistically, and the recognition factor is dialled up to at least 11 on both counts here. Moonrise Kingdom is resolutely the most Wes Anderson film of any Wes Anderson film to date.
From the opening moments, when the camera glides round the house of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, turning only at right angles as it winds its way through the corridors of the house to the accompaniment of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, it’s as if Wes has only one more film left in him, and has poured his very heart and soul into this final cinematic fling. Every single frame is artfully constructed and everything from the main characters to the merest background detail planned to within an inch of its life. Everyone’s been led to believe that silent films and black and white are on the up again in the year of The Artist, and while one could conceivably take great satisfaction from sitting back with the sound off, the intense colour palette and vibrant scenery is as intense an argument as has been made for many a year. Of course, if you did have the sound off, you’d miss out on one of the year’s outstanding soundtracks, Alexandre Desplat’s score perfectly complementing the selections of Britten music that give Moonrise Kingdom its foundation.
There is one particular vocal resonance that’s missing here, for while Anderson stalwarts Murray and Jason Schwartzman both appear, there’s no Owen Wilson to be seen this time around. Filling the gap left by Wilson are the likes of Bruce Willis as the ineffectual police captain of the island, Edward Norton as the scout captain losing control of his brigade (and Harvey Keitel as his stern superior) and Tilda Swinton as the closest the film has to an antagonist in the form of Social Services. (There’s also another specific delight in the form of Bob Balaban popping up as a narrator; if the question was “How ridiculous can we make him look?” then the answer would be “satisfyingly.”) The grown-up performances all feel of the specific world created and are as good as anything else Anderson’s ever gotten from his actors, but they’re all really supporting roles. The stars of the film are the two youngsters, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward and they give slightly mannered performances that should come as no surprise but still give the moving tableau a beating heart to bring it to life.
The adults around them manage to make life appear extraordinarily complex and awkward, whereas our two young leads glide through life with a reasonable amount of grace and a seeming lack of effort, reinforcing the cinematic stereotype that kids know more about love and relationships than adults ever will. Despite this, the unfolding young love affair grips and Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola make it incredibly easy to root for them. It’s a simple story at its core, small but perfectly formed, the combination of production values and performances giving it a fable-like quality, oozing charm and packed full of humour and genuine emotion that shines through the mannerisms. For those who have found Wes Anderson pointless in the past, it’s unlikely to win you over, but for those who consider themselves fans of his previous work, this is an intravenous hit of pure joy which should reward repeat viewings.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’re a fan of any of Anderson’s previous work, then Moonrise Kingdom is an absolute must-see. Even if you’re not, then the blinding brilliance of the visual construction of each shot, coupled with a script that provides consistent laughs throughout, make this worth a trip to your nearest cinema. Catch it while you can, and don’t feel guilty about sitting through the end credits.
The Score: 10/10
The Pitch: C.I.A. vs. O.A.P.s.
The Review: There’s been a trend over the last twenty years or so of action movie stars getting increasingly elderly. Maybe it’s our ever increasing fondness for nostalgia, or perhaps the novelty of seeing old fogies with big guns appeals as much in theory as the opposite, extremely young end of the scale that Hit Girl and her friends occupy. But for whatever reason, action stars have kept making movies as they get older, and indeed movies are now taking this a step further and making action stars out of the bus pass generation.
Based on a Warren Ellis comic book, RED has compiled a cast list with varying familiarity with the action genre. Bruce Willis has the most extensive action CV, and although into his fifties is still deemed sufficiently cool to be leading man material. John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman both have history in this genre, but in both cases it’s less auspicious in the relative terms of their previous works. Crucially, while all of them can normally be relied on to deliver good work, none of them is a reliable mark of quality when it comes to bullets and explosions. They are all at least serviceable here, although Willis especially is little more than that.
But they are just the tip of an iceberg that’s made of acting quality so solid it would put a hole in your average battleship. Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss and even Ernest Borgnine, who was retired before I was in short trousers, all pop up, often far too briefly. Getting more screen time are Mary Louise Parker as Bruce’s love interest, wandering through wide-eyed and screaming, and a rather stoic Karl Urban as the man sent to track down and round up this bunch of geriatric gunslingers. The biggest stunt of the casting is Helen Mirren, who gets a very big gun and smiles sweetly as she twists most of the male cast around her little finger.
So what do you make out of a comic book and a bunch of willing actors of generally advancing years? Director Robert Schwentke, whose previous form peaked with the Jodie Foster snoozefest Flightplan, manages to make a serviceable and lightly enjoyable action movie, with the odd entertaining set piece and a few mildly smirk-worthy lines, but it never really gets into top gear. It is worth saying, though, that the action is at least clean and generally well handled, and avoids the camera fitting and shaking so prevalent in today’s action movies. It will take up an hour and a half of your time divertingly enough, but that’s also about how long it will last in your memory – and, given the age of the cast, it’s probably about how long it lasted in theirs as well.
Why see it at the cinema: Some solid, well handled action, a few decent laughs and an absolutely killer last scene which mixes both will all get benefit from a large screen and some company.
The Score: 7/10