Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Die Hard: following the increasingly improbable misadventures of street-wise police detective John McClane as he repeatedly crosses paths with dangerous super-criminals. The series has spanned five feature films from 1988 to 2013.
The Installment: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
John McClane learns that his estranged son John “Jack” McClane, Jr. (Jai Courtney) has been arrested for murder in Russia. So he decides to get his ugly-American on and blunders over to the motherland to fix things, or whatever. But just as he gets there bombs go off and he realizes that Jack is actually undercover with the CIA, on a mission to extract government whistleblower Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) because Komarov has some special MacGuffin files that incriminate some other Russian government guy, and John has to come along with Jack even though Jack hates John and then Komarov’s daughter turns out to be evil but then Komarov himself turns out to be evil too and there is this other bad guy who likes carrots and then things blow up.
In an era that increasingly relies more and more on digital FX in action films, it is nice to see such wonton automobile destruction as we get in the epic car chase in Good Day. Plus, uh, Yuliya Snigir is sexy as Komarov’s daughter, I guess.
What Doesn’t Work:
The best thing that could have ever happened to Live Free or Die Hard was the release of A Good Day to Die Hard. I don’t know that I fully gave this impression in the previous installment, but I don’t think that Live Free is a bad movie, for what it is. As a cornball actioner, it works. It is just a thoughtless installment in the John McClane franchise. This stupid movie on the other hand… this movie is just steaming godawfulness, pretty much top-to-bottom, inside and out, anyway you slice it — to the point that discussing the ways in which it fails as a Die Hard film seems senseless. But let’s pretend there might have actually been a good John McClane movie hiding in here somewhere…
Why does Lucy McClane get regulated to bookend status? Her presence was disappointingly old-fashioned in Live Free. But whatever. The movie needed a hacker side-kick. Should Lucy have been that super hacker? No, probably not. But a follow-up to Live Free seems like an ideal time to make the character more useful. Not! Who wants to see girls do stuff, amiright bros? Let’s get another dude in here! *fist bump* So now we round out the McClane clan. We’ve seen the wife and both kids. On the one hand that does make sense. It would be a little conceptually strange to have gone five films with no John Jr. But on the other hand, by keeping Lucy on the sideline, as patronizing franchise connective tissue, we’re wasting whatever semblance of character development Live Free scrounged together by the end. We don’t know Jack from the other films, aside from off-handed mentions of his mere existence. I’m not saying that Lucy should have come along for the Russian trip (though that probably would have been more interesting), but it is getting tiresome the way this franchise keeps rebooting itself. Pragmatically, Jack did not exist until this film. I was never asked to care about John and Jack’s history before. Now we’re just tossed in head-first and asked to both sympathize with and relish in Jack and John’s head-butting and cantankerous relationship while they run around shooting things. At least Lucy was given a set-up in Live Free. Obviously, the kind of I-need-to-go-find-an-off-screen-family-member set-up Good Day is going for is not at all impossible to pull off. Indian Jones and the Last Crusade worked a similarly sudden father/son installment into its franchise with solid success. But that movie was well-written (though some Raiders purists didn’t cotton to that film either). Bottom line, I’m sick of starting over with new family members in this franchise, especially when we have two family members that are being under-used already. I now expect McClane to babysit a grandchild in the next installment.
This maybe sounds like a nitpick, but — why Russia? Was it just for that poster tagline (albeit a good tagline)? The Russian setting chaps my ass in two inherent ways. On a purely surface level, in 2013 Russia is boring. The Soviet Union was the single greatest cinema foe America has ever and likely will ever have, but it is gone now and has been gone for a while. And post-Soviet Russia has been thoroughly used in numerous other action films already. Sending McClane overseas at this point in the franchise feels like a sitcom episode in which the cast goes to Hawaii to mix things up. As hacky as that is, the feeling is undercut by sending him someplace we’ve already seen a billion times and in a billion similar ways. But that’s just a conceptual gripe. On a more practical level, it is just dumb for a John McClane story. McClane is a cop. A regular cop who has routinely stumbled into bigger-than-life situations. One thing that has always remained a constant, even in Live Free, is that McClane is the sensible one. He has the cool head and the objective view. He is the one who has to deal with Feds and higher-ups who are incompetent and making the bad decisions. He is the one pulled into the problem. In Good Day, we start off on the wrong foot immediately. Why is McClane going to Russia? What the hell does he expect to accomplish? He just shows up at the courthouse? What was the plan after that? I’m not saying he should have just given up on Jack and moved on with his life back in America, but the John McClane we see here is shown to be something he has never been before…
Live Free featured John McClane as James Bond. Good Day features something closer to Sterling Archer from the cartoon Archer. Now not only does he just jump into violent situations with the devil-may-care zeal of Iron Man, he blunders into them too. The movie officially gets going once John and Jack are re-united. The moment happens like this: Jack, who has allowed himself to be arrested so that he could get close to Komarov while in court, has successfully gotten Komarov out of the building and safely into a truck. But before Jack can get to his safe-house, John bumbles across them, preventing them from continuing on their way with asinine “Hey, you and I need to talk” dialogue. Despite previously having been shown to have Sherlock Holmesian powers of perception, able to pick up on things that no one else in the room can, John apparently doesn’t think there is anything more going on here. He thought Jack had become a lowlife criminal, arrested in a foreign country for murder. Okay. So, nothing seems unusual about bumping into him while he is apparently in the middle of an incredibly masterful escape? With some other prisoner? Saying mysterious things to John while John asks stupid questions moments after a massive bombing rocked the courthouse his son was in? Then because John fucks up Jack’s escape, Jack’s partner Collins (Cole Hauser) gets killed and Jack’s entire mission is thrown for a loop. Later it turns out Komarov isn’t quite who Jack thought he was, but John didn’t know any of that. He didn’t fuck up Jack’s plan because he was suspicious. That would have been a lot more interesting. No, John is just lucky that his fuck up ended up doing something good in the end. I have a hard time getting past that. The whole movie is John’s fault. And the running gag of John grumpily retorting to everything/everyone with a Clerks-like “I’m on vacation!” quip doesn’t even make sense. I presume it was meant as something of a callback to the first film, but in Die Hard he was on vacation (“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…”). He’s not on vacation in Russia. He came to save his son. It is just a lazy and disconnected joke. And another thing, as long as we’re heaping on the shit — the only scene in this entire slog of a film that I actually enjoyed on any level was the aforementioned epic car chase. But I was repeatedly pulled out of the scene by the number of cars that John crashes into and onto, or sends the villains crashing into and onto. Were all those cars empty? I sure as hell hope so (though it seems completely impossible), otherwise John was killing innocent people left and right. And even if the cars were empty, he couldn’t possibly have known that given the frenzied nature of his driving. Fuck this movie.
Live Free used McClane to milk a series of Aging Tough Guy/Young Hip Dork jokes with Bruce Willis and Justin Long. I’m not really sure what Good Day was trying to accomplish with its duo. Father and son bickering is a time-honored comedic tradition at this point. The relationship between Willis and Jai Courtney is lifeless. I mean, I get their relationship. John was a never-there father, blah blah blah, Jack resented him as much as he slowly turned into him, blah blah blah. This is standard stuff. But there is nothing fun or funny about it. And there is most definitely nothing dramatic about it. As limp as the humorous banter between John and Jack is, it feels like Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau going head-to-head compared with the “touching” moments when John and Jack “get real” with each other. The sheer hollowness of their big ‘I love you’ scene is so flaccid I think it should have retroactively warranted a complete rewrite on the script. Why even have their relationship be contentious? Why not have them be friends from the beginning? Ugh. And the schmaltzy music at the end of the film. No one cares about their relationship! Bring back the ironic Christmas music.
A lot of people wondered why I didn’t list Timothy Olyphant in “what didn’t work” for Live Free. That was because I was indifferent to his performance and character. He was a sufficient enough villain for the story for me. I didn’t think William Saddler or Jeremy Irons were that amazing in the previous films either (both were let-downs from Alan Rickman). And Olyphant’s sufficiency becomes pretty apparent once you’ve sat through Good Day. I literally can’t recall what Alik – the Karl-esque primary adversary for most of the film – looks like. His only character trait seems to be that he eats carrots. He also delivers a really cheap anti-American rant to the McClanes, mostly as a way to work the ‘cowboy’ theme back into things. The whole villain dynamic in the film is convoluted. Viktor Chagarin is supposed to be our main villain, but he is conspicuously detached from most of the film, leaving the villainy up to Alik and Irina (Komarov’s daughter). This is of course because Chagarin is a fake-out. Komarov is the real villain. But this twist is not interesting, largely because I never cared about Chagarin in the first place. It is just a swap.
Overall Body Count: 30 (plus some ambiguous death from explosions and car carnage)
McClane Kills: 14 (presuming he didn’t kill anyone with his reckless driving)
Best Villain Dispatching: When Jack launches a bad guy into the whirling blades of a helicopter.
Jack: Certain death.
John: Like your mother’s cooking.
McClane’s Most Preposterous Feat: Driving a huge truck out of a helicopter (while in flight) in order to pull the chopper to the ground and prevent it from hitting Jack.
“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” Context: Said to punctuate the above-stated preposterous feat.
Should There Be a Sequel: Hell no. It is ridiculous we made it this far. I only want another one if McClane goes into space, and, I don’t know, fights a Predator or something.
Vengeance is two-thirds of a great film, but objectively speaking, this is a franchise that really only has one necessary installment — the first one. The rest, while on average entertaining, are skippable and more important they are unnecessary. This isn’t a real franchise. You don’t need to know anything about any of the previous installments to hop on board, except with Vengeance. And even then it is only of casual importance that you know who Hans Gruber is; there is almost no emotional relevance here. In fact, every installment is probably better served by being viewed with total ignorance of the other films (Live Free being the most stark example of this). Fundamentally that is not a sign of a strong franchise. Die Hard isn’t actually the John McClane franchise. It is the Bruce Willis franchise. Ironically enough, looking back at all five films, the uninspired reboot that was Die Hard 2 is really the only film that feels like it is actively interested in building a franchise (just a really repetitive one). This, again, is not a sign of a strong franchise. No one could find a way, or at least cared enough to find a way, to actually build a world for John McClane. This is most apparent in the fact that the sequels were all made from scripts that were originally about other characters. Even the Hellraiser franchise managed to make it through four installments before they got that uncreative.
But let’s cut the filmmakers some slack. Maybe there is a reason this happened. Maybe John McClane just isn’t a very complex character. Good Day cements that the true through-line of this franchise is family. The first two films center on John McClane’s relationship with Holly, his wife. And the last two films center on his relationship with his two children. Die Hard 2 is the only film in the series that doesn’t paint McClane as a bad father/husband. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Why are we supposed to like this guy when his wife, daughter and son don’t? I’m sure that wasn’t the filmmakers’ intentions, but all that unending shifting in focus from family member to family member adds up. This is why McClane isn’t consistent, because starting with Die Hard 2 he was always more of a performance than a character. Losing Bonnie Bedelia was probably a mistake. I don’t know the back story there, maybe she turned down appearances. Regardless, McClane was so deeply connected to Holly in his first two installments that the moment she disappeared things felt off. This is a critique without a fix, because I don’t think the franchise should have been exploring McClane’s home life. But it is maybe a sign that Die Hard just wasn’t a film to franchise.
Franchise ranked from best to worst:
Die Hard with a Vengeance
Die Hard 2
Live Free or Die Hard
A Good Day to Die Hard
Up Next: Superman
previous franchises battled
Back to the Future
Planet of the Apes