By Adam Blampied.
John McClane was an underdog. Before his debut in 1988, the community of the action hero was dominated by the superman. They were overwhelmingly-trained elite soldiers (Cobra, Delta Force, Rambo), baby-oiled sculptures of tightened meat (Schwarzenegger in Predator, Raw Deal, Red Heat), or a combination of the two (Schwarzenegger in Commando). They were above us, something we could never hope to be, their wealth of preparedness or cosmic physique incurably alien to the majority of the filmgoing public. Not that this is a bad thing – the success of Bourne and Bond show we still have a compulsion for the unfathomably capable – but when John McClane showed up with his shabby vest, receding hairline and without his shoes, we were introduced to a different kind of hero: the everyman.
To me, and many others I’m sure, the character of John McClane (and perhaps the Die Hard franchise as a whole) is defined in one scene: the bathroom scene. After over an hour of playing cat-and-mouse with Hans Gruber’s cadre of germanic scofflaws, McClane retreats to a bathroom at his lowest ebb. His feet are cut to ribbons, he’s missing his family and, simpler than all that, he’s “feeling like shit”. Picking the glass from his feet in an unfinished toilet, the fatigue just pours from McClane. He’s not black-ops, he’s not a guy who eats green berets for breakfast, he’s just a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, using on-the-spot street-smarts in a panicked chase for survival in a claustrophobic metal maze of ducts and steam and glass. He doesn’t even come up with his own catchphrase; he steals it from the movies. But he perseveres, he crawls through the shit, and foul-mouths his way to victory over the highly-trained bad guys. For the workaday masses, for the people who’ve yearned to spit hollywood catchphrases at our suited bosses, for the people who’ve also felt like shit John McClane was a hero they could truly own.
But watching A Good Day To Die Hard made me realise something. John McClane might still be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he’s not an underdog anymore. John McClane is a superman.
Fundamentally speaking, the idea of even one Die Hard sequel doesn’t work, never mind four. People don’t worry about seeing a litany of Bond films, because, although Craig’s tenure has done a lot to humanise the character, James Bond still isn’t a real person. He an android who eats sex and liquor and shits carnage and cruelty, a charismatic vector through a number of set piece action scenes from which we gain vicarious power fantasy thrills. If you’re a franchise player, while you gain recurring symbols, catchphrases and in-jokes, you lose that rich vein of tension that the threat of death gives to an audience. The whole point of John McClane is that he’s out of his element, so it’s possible he might be killed, but as soon as you bring him back for even a second film he’s ‘that guy who survived the first Die Hard movie’
Jumping off the roof is The Big Stunt of Die Hard. The peak of John McClane luck and balls. Wisely the movie shies away from topping it, and the subsequent final showdown is much more low-key – it’s a highnoon duel, after all. Yippie Ki Yay – which is a service to the character, and maintaining his believability. Regular Joes can’t keep jumping off buildings, but over the years I’ve seen John McClane be thrown from the wing of a speeding plane, suft a tidal wave of water in a dump truck, and jump on top of a harrier jet. In A Good Day To Die Hard he survives two spin-out car crashes within ten minutes, evades a helicopter by jumping several stories off a building twice and he’s pushing sixty! Because the UK release of the film was trimmed by the studios to squeak a 12A rating, we can’t even see him bleed! He’s a fucking terminator, so why should we care?
You’ll notice that most of this review isn’t actually about A Good Day To Die Hard, but that’s because there’s almost nothing to say about it. There’s one tremendous car chase at the beginning but the rest of the film is devoid of character nuance, memorable quips or original stunts. Other than Chernobyl, which only really functions as a series of rooms that could be set anywhere, there’s almost no indication we’re in Russia.
Structurally, it’s incredibly rushed. The film feels an act light. The plot twists into a plan to steal uranium but we never find out why. A new villain stepps out of the shadows to complicate the plot but is then immediately killed before he can make an impact. The film just ends. Bad guys die. Done. A Die Hard film should feel like a bloody sweaty slog, this was a 12A breeze. John Moore does a functional enough job making sure the action scenes are comprehensible but there’s very little weight to anything and the few bravura shots are robbed of their power by being shown whole-sale in the trailer.
The whole ‘two McClanes’ thing is underdone too, because McClane Jr is saddled with exactly the same arc as Lucy in the last movie. John was never there, John saves my ass, I finally call him Dad, the end. Worst of all, Skip Woods writes McClane Sr’s “I’ve been such an ass to my family” speech into the first act! That belongs at the end of act two, at the lowest ebb, picking glass out your feet in an unfinished toilet. There is a nice human moment where John McClane Sr is unable to hold his son’s gaze when he tells him he loves him, but it comes out of nowhere and goes right back there when SuperMcClane is hanging out of a chopper before being thrown 50 feet through plate glass and walking it off.
John McClane is still fun company, sure. It’s nice to hear him call bad guys ‘scumbags’, even if there is something unsettlingly right-wing about a 50 year old American travelling to a foreign country to ‘kill all the scumbags’, but there’s barely anything left of the John McClane, and the Die Hard, that once was. The claustrophobia, the unbeatable odds, the elite bad guys, the tension, the blood, it’s all gone, leaving nothing but an ageing charismatic vector through a number of Bond-lite set piece action scenes. Die Hard 6 is being planned (hopefully called Old Habits Die Hard) and don’t get me wrong, I’ll be there to see it. Because maybe they’ll remember what makes this character tick. Maybe they’ll remember why we loved him. Maybe John McClane will remember to feel like shit, so I don’t have to.
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