Thursday, February 14, 2013

‘A Good Day to Die Hard’ (2013) directed by John Moore

A few days ago I was asked a hypothetical question.  “If you could stop one person working in cinema forever, who would it be?”  The usual names flew through my head: Michael Bay, Adam Sandler, M Night Shyamalan, Uwe Boll, maybe Brett Ratner.  But I took the high ground, saying that even if I didn’t like (or even outright despised) these people’s work, I didn’t think they shouldn’t be making films.  But last night I saw A Good Day to Die Hard and things have changed.  Director John Moore should never, ever be allowed on a film set again for the rest of his natural life.

A Good Day to Die Hard is a staggeringly incompetent, borderline unwatchable film.  From top to bottom it’s total shit.  The more you think about it the worse it gets, each layer you peel back revealing something fouler.  Before seeing this I had relatively high hopes - the original Die Hard is perfectly constructed, and the two subsequent sequels are not without their charms.  I definitely saw Die Hard 4.0 on it’s 2007 release, but it’s probably telling that I can remember almost nothing about it.  But hey, how bad can a Die Hard film be?  As long as you’ve got Bruce Willis crackin’ wise, playing the underdog and running around in a dirty vest while things explode around him it can only be so bad right? …...right?


Bruce Willis as John McClane and Jai Courtney as his son Jack.
This instalment finds Detective John McClane travelling to Moscow to reconcile with his son Jack.  In the opening sequences of the film Jack shoots a man dead in a nightclub and is jailed for murder, and John arrives at the courthouse just as his son is about to give evidence.  Coincidentally, just as John arrives terrorists attack and the two McClanes must rescue a guy for some reason.  The phrase “for some reason” should probably be amended to most sentences describing the plot of this film, because none of it makes any sense.  

How hard can it be to create a bad guy with a plan and a motive?  I’m not asking for Shakespeare here, but if in an action film you never have any idea what the villains want or are trying to accomplish ,then why should we care about stopping them?  There’s some vague and incomprehensible mumblings about nukes, but there are maybe four antagonists in this film all with unknown motives and all remarkably characterless.

It’s surreal when the film expects you to take the stakes seriously when you’ve got no idea what they are.  Skip Woods (writer of Wolverine, Hitman and The A-Team) repeatedly proves he's one of the laziest script-writers around, for example, about two thirds of the way through the film the two McClanes decide they need to get to Chernobyl for some reason.  They steal a car, and find that the boot is full of machine guns, body armour and a cool leather jacket for John to wear for the rest of the film.  They half-assedly explain this by saying that they’ve picked a car that must belong to some Chechnyan gangsters.  How convenient.  Then, overnight they drive 600 miles from Moscow to Chernobyl for the final scenes of the film.

I have to admit, when they said they were heading to Chernobyl, my attention perked up.  The abandoned town with the concrete sarcophagus of the reactor is one of the most visually striking places on the planet; a Soviet brutalist ghost town, haunted by the spectre of radiation.  Oh well, I thought, at least the rest of the film will have neat set design.  Sadly it was not to be. Chernobyl, in A Good Day to Die Hard, is a cheap looking generic warehouse set.  Oh.

The setting does lead to one of the films more bizarre moments.  Our villains are heading into a spooky warehouse, clad in thick black rubber radiation suits.  Their electronic geiger counters begin measuring high levels of radiation that has (in their words) ‘pooled’ here.  Then they get out a bleepy bloopy magic wand that “neutralises” the radiation, followed by everyone happily stripping off their radiation suits without another word.  Now I’m not no nuclear physicist', but I really don’t think radiation works like that.  I usually try and avoid pedantic criticism like this, but even in a very stupid film these scenes stand out as particularly dumb.

The guy on the right looks how I felt watching this.
So the script is insultingly badly constructed and the plot doesn’t make sense.   These are tricky hurdles for any film, maybe, just maybe it can carry itself through on pure visual panache and Willis’ considerable charisma.  

Apparently John Moore got a degree in Media Arts from the Dublin Institute of Technology.  I’d imagine on seeing this film they’re furiously scrubbing any mention of his name from their records.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director so completely fumble the ball as Moore does here.  It’s like he spent his time on set ticking off entries on a list of modern action movie directorial cliches.  The camera appears to be being held by someone trying to kick the booze, jiggling all over the place and frequently and randomly zooming in quickly. All these cinematographic tricks are intended to make action films seem more immersive, making the events feel spontaneous and dynamic.  But what works for rigorously technical directors like Paul Greengrass doesn’t work for hacks like Moore.

These headache inducing techniques aren’t the only thing that make this deeply unpleasant to watch.  The colour palette has been ruthlessly digitally graded to eliminate all other colours except teal and orange.  It’s a common enough modern fad (and I admit I enjoyed it in Source Code), but the extremes it’s taken to here result in our heroes skin being an alarming shade of orange; the McClanes sometimes look weirdly like extras from The Only Way is Essex.  Moore seems to have recognised this though, because for much of the climax gigantic lens flares obscure about half of the characters faces.  

This adds up to a film that’s borderline unwatchable.  It’s somehow inevitable that within this cluttered and confusing set of visual tricks the action sequences have no sense of geography or space.  An early chase sequence features John McClane in a van pursuing an armoured car, which is in turn pursuing another van containing John’s son.  The spatial relationship between these three vehicles is pretty damn crucial to working out what’s happening here, but for the most part the vehicles are not only in completely separate shots, they appear to be on totally different roads!  The rest of the action scenes makes similarly little sense.  There’s TWO separate ‘helicopter firing into a building’ action scenes, the repetition speaking volumes about the lack of creativity on display.

At the centre of this abomination is Detective John McClane, Bruce Willis’ most iconic role, a modern fictional demigod.  Surely, even if all else turns to shit around him, Bruce Willis at least knows how to play John McClane well?  But this character just isn’t recognisable as John McClane, he’s a painfully generic Bruce Willis action hero.  It’s instructive to look at exactly why McClane is such a beloved character.  He’s a blue-collar hero, a smart-mouthed schlub who gets by on his wits, luck and intuition rather than expert training and brute physical force.  Most of all, he’s loved because he’s vulnerable.  Sure he gets tossed around and blown up, but by the end of the first film he can barely walk and is totally caked in blood and filth.  

State of the art special effects!
That man is dead, replaced by an invincible action hero.  Whereas once he’d sneak around, grumbling about being stuck in an air vent, now he stands stock still in the centre of a room holding an enormous machine gun mowing down wave after wave of generic masked henchmen. In Die Hard one of the most excruciating scenes comes when McClane has to walk across broken glass, cutting his feet to ribbons.  Here, he’s repeatedly thrown and jumps through plate glass windows with little or no injury.  At one point he essentially jumps out of the 10th floor of a building with no obvious injuries to him.  How are we supposed to empathise with this invulnerable creature? Where’s the danger?

This is an absolute stinker of a film, something so bad that you figure there must have been some serious problems during production.  It’s an extinction level catastrophe for the once highly-regarded Die Hard franchise.  The only silver lining is that it’s so unrecognisable as a Die Hard film, that it won’t retroactively piss in the well of the brilliant first entry.  They should bury all copies of this in the desert and salt the earth.  Throw the writer and director in the pit too while you’re at it, I wouldn’t trust these men to direct an advert for a used car showroom.


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