Warning: Some spoilers ahead
The special edition DVD of Die Hard With A Vengeance, the third installment in the Die Hard franchise, features an alternate ending in which maverick New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) tracks Teutonic supervillain Simon Gruber down in a cafe in Hungary and challenges him to a game of Russian roulette with a Chinese bazooka.
A Chinese bazooka… and a cheeky grin.
No… Seriously. That was an ending they actually filmed for Die Hard With A Vengeance, the movie in which Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson drive around New York and try to stop things exploding with only partial success.
It was a major departure from the franchise template, firstly because it was set outside the narrow time frame used in the first two films. Secondly, it was set outside the US. Thirdly, in setting it outside the US, in having our New Jersey born cop follow a villain all the way to Eastern Europe, armed with a bazooka, they had taken the blue collar character of McClane and turned him into some sort of Bondesque super-spy.
It just didn’t work, hence why it ended up on the cutting room floor.
With this in mind, it was anyone’s guess how the fifth film, A Good Day To Die Hard (seriously, 20th Century Fox, we would have accepted Die Hard 5) would turn out. It’s the first of the sequels to have been written specifically as a Die Hard film (all the others started off as other projects and were then tailored to fit the franchise), and it’s set in Russia. How the hell do you get McClane, a guy who doesn’t even look like he’d own a passport, to Russia?
The writers of ‘Police Academy 7’ were plagued by a similar dilemma.
The answer, it turns out, is “with great difficulty”. Scriptwriter Skip Woods (who is an actual person, and who wrote the positively barmy script for the big screen version of The A-Team) has settled on turning not John McClane but John McClane Jr (Jai Courtney) into some sort of super-spy, a CIA black ops agent who gets himself arrested in Moscow by assassinating a Russian gangster in a nightclub. McClane Sr jumps on the first Aeroflot out of JFK, and before you can say “Ура ки яй, мать ублюдок”* he’s in Moscow, getting shot at by lots of swarthy, tattooed men in black suits.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the trial of Russian oligarch Yuri Komarov (The Lives of Others star Sebastian Koch), who McClane Jr was meant to rescue from the clutches of a corrupt politician. Things go tits up when the politician’s henchmen, led by a suave, tap-dancing reject from Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise, bomb their way into the courthouse, and chase both McClanes and Komarov across Moscow in what is possibly the most ridiculous car chase you have ever, ever seen.
That this car chase is the most credible, belief-suspending scene in the whole movie speaks volumes of what follows.
Pictured: John McClane attacks a Humvee with a Landrover. And wins.
Strange things have happened to Bruce Willis’s McClane Sr in the 25 years since the franchise began. For one thing, he’s beginning to look uncannily like my Dad, so that watching any Die Hard film from Live Free or Die Hard onwards is, for me, a little like having a really weird dream in which my Dad saves the world from terrorists while wearing a grubby vest.
But not before complaining about the price of ammunition and watching a Fred Dibner double-bill on Blighty. (Pictured: My Dad.)
More than that, the producers behind the movies seem to have realised that while turning McClane into James Bond was never going to work, they can perhaps turn him into something else; a Blue Collar Bond, as impervious to quadruple flip car crashes and falling from the top of a 400 foot hotel as 007 would be, but without the tuxedos and meaningless sex with doomed, self-hating nymphomaniacs.
“Good God, Jill’s been murdered! Well… That’s put the kibosh on my plans for this evening. Wonder if Susan’s free for a bit of no frills fun?”
The best thing about John McClane has always been his haplessness. He never asks for these terrible things to happen to him, he just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Five times. In 25 years. That means that once every five years he gets embroiled in a major terror attack. And he knows it’s ridiculous. He spends at least 30% of each film shaking his head in disbelief or expressing his consternation that – once again – things turned out this way.
What the third and fourth films lost sight of, and suffered as a result, was McClane’s soft side. It’s easy to forget that the John McClane in the original Die Hard isn’t Rambo, or Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando. There’s a scene in the original Die Hard in which he cries. Okay, so he doesn’t exactly break down and wail, but he gets teary and he actually sobs.
Clearly, the fourth Die Hard film was written by someone who last saw Die Hard ten, maybe fifteen years ago, and could only remember that McClane is a badass; not that he’s a Dad and a husband who just wants things to work out so he can patch things up with his increasingly estranged wife and kids.
I spent the first 15 minute of A Good Day To Die Hard worried that Skip Woods might have forgotten all that, too. So much of the first act is exposition and/or things going bang, that I feared McClane may have ceased to be a character and become a cipher or – weirder still – a bizarre distillation of Bruce Willis’s own worldview, given a $92million budget and a global distribution deal. Thankfully there are still moments in which we see a bit of the character who made the original Die Hard a success. And no, I’m not talking about Alan Rickman.
Seen here seconds after performing a Wile-E.-Coyote-style glance down.
Sure, Rickman was great, but the film’s anchor is McClane. He’s the sympathetic everyman, the average Joe dragged into extraordinary circumstances. (Had McClane been played by, say, Stallone the original Die Hard would now most likely languish in the collective bargain bucket of our subconscious, like Cobra and Nighthawks.) There’s a scene in which he and Komarov ruminate, as middle-aged men, on their respective shortcomings as fathers that I found weirdly affecting, because it rang true. It sounded like the kind of thing my Dad would say, about the regrets he has. It may not be sparkling dialogue, but it’s a damn sight more resonant than what you’d expect from a film in which pretty much everything explodes, often with little or no encouragement.
And if it doesn’t explode, John McClane will shoot it.
Ultimately, I’d have to admit that A Good Day To Die Hard is not a great film. It’s not even a good film, not really. It has a few scenes that are reasonably exciting, but suffers from that same “substituting tension with bombast” that plagues so many films these days. And that’s nothing to do with CGI, either. Many suspenseful films (Children of Men, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Life of Pi) have used CGI without sacrificing thrills.
The problem here is more a giggling indifference to logic.
The writers know we’re not really buying that any man (let alone most of the characters in the movie) could survive the kind of multiple pile-ups on offer here. They know their predecessors had to contrive clever ways for McClane to be on his own (trapped in a hijacked skyscraper/airport on lockdown, subject to the whims of a terrorist, running around in a country that’s been hacked), and yet the best they can come up with is, “Hey… it’s Russia. Gangsters destroy whole stretches of motorway and machine gun major landmarks all the time over there, and the police do nothing.”
Number of Moscow police this incident attracts: 0.
They know all this, and they know we know, they just don’t care that we know, and that’s kind of sad. The magic trick of writing this kind of movie is making the audience forget, if just for 90 minutes, that you can’t walk out of a massive exploding fireball of a car crash with minor cuts and bruises.
By the film’s climax, in which everything explodes at the increasingly old-hat location of the abandoned power station at Chernobyl, our disbelief hasn’t so much lost willing suspension as launched into a gaping chasm of cynicism.
“So… Let me get this straight… They sprayed the room with anti-nuclear stuff so they could take off their protective suits seconds before something dramatic happened, and we’re not supposed to think this was just to allow us to know who was who when people started getting shot?”
“Everything is exploding. In a place that will be radioactive for another 48,000 years (and uninhabitable for at least 600). Lots of smoke, lots of dust. Will the sixth Die Hard movie see a gang of Iranians take over the cancer ward where John McClane and his son are dying a slow and painful death from acute radiation sickness?”
Had these questions occurred to me after I’d left the cinema, or in the days and weeks after watching it, I wouldn’t have minded so much. If anything, I’d have applauded Skip Woods and director John Moore for performing such a splendid sleight of hand.
“Mwa ha ha! Our film was riddled with plot holes and implausibilities, and you fell for them! Each and every one!”
As it is, I found myself rolling my eyes long before the end credits were rolling. The fifth Die Hard movie is good fun, and perhaps a little better than I’d expected, but still… If McClane is a Blue Collar Bond, it feels like he’s entering his Roger Moore years. And not in a good way.
* Trans. – “Yippee ki yay, motherfucker.”