A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (the '80s) there was an action movie that set the bar for tension-fueled thrill rides both before and after. Die Hard, the tale of a New York cop, John McClane (Bruce Willis), who comes to Los Angeles to reunite with his estranged wife, but instead of having a nice reunion at the company Christmas Party, McClane finds himself a sort of guerilla warrior -- though a very human one -- when an international terrorist, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his henchmen storm the building and take the party hostage -- for their own nefarious ends.
Bold action sequences, killer direction, and a taut heist tale were framed in the gorgeous cinematography of Jan du Bont (who would later direct his own action-staple, Speed) set the film apart in a big way -- but it was really the fun, wise-guy performance from Willis that sealed its success. It became an HBO staple that I've probably seen a hundred times, and one of those rare action films that feels as fun and involving as it did the first time around. Die Hard 2: Die Harder didn't quite live up to it, but it was still fun. Die Hard with a Vengeance was even less so, but taken over all, they were still a solid trilogy. The subsequent two installments never overcame the greatness of the first; kind of like the Indiana Jones trilogy.
Aw, Shucks. Sebastian Koch contemplates where everything went wrong while Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney hold guns badly in A Good Day to Die Hard.
But now we're up to Die Hard 5, A Good Day to Die Hard, and it boggles the mind how little its makers seem to know or care what made that first movie work.
Opening in Russia, we learn a corrupt government official, Viktor Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov, Cold Souls), is holding a rigged trial of a political prisoner, Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch, Black Book) so that he might extract "a file" he's hiding that proves Chagarin was up to corrupt stuff -- the film doesn't bother letting on more for an hour or so. Meanwhile, Jack McClane (Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher), the heretofore unknown son of John, assassinates some Russian dude and winds up ready to testify against Komarov.
John McClane (henceforth known as Die Hard, since the McClane character long ago devolved into some unstoppable killing machine) starts missing his son out of nowhere. So when he figures out Jack's in Russia, Die Hard goes to find him. Of course, he winds up in the middle of a deadly conspiracy while trying to make up for his absentee fatherism to Jack (henceforth known as Die Hard Jr.) and killing the shit out of anything in an ushanka hat.
Cue unlikely plot twist and that's pretty much your whole film. Not that economy is a bad thing -- especially when that film is so aggressively stupid, shallow, and charmlessly awful. Irredeemable has a new definition.
Director John Moore (Max Payne, oy) tries so hard to load the film with contemporary visual flourishes that A Good Day to Die Hard comes off like a poorly constructed, horribly edited test reel for a videogame director. Action sequences go on too long and have all the spatial cohesion of an epileptic riding a jackhammer. The opening car/truck chase goes on beyond the point of overkill while the story goes nowhere. Die Hard keeps exclaiming "Jeez!" all the time, though it seemed like much of his dialogue (such as it is) is mangled by piss-poor sound editing. Moore's narrative pace is clumsy and the vacuous characterizations would have more depth if the film were adapted into a pop-up book.
The script by Skip "This Movie" Woods (of the suck bomb that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine) misses every opportunity to make sense or do anything remotely smart; it's a generic, under-baked turd from the pen of a proven hack. For reasons unknown Die Hard keeps complaining about how he's on vacation (he isn't, but he does this about 15 times because, you know, it's supposed to be funny) and apparently it takes falling out of a 15-story building to give Die Hard a fucking nosebleed. Woods even misses an opportunity for Die Hard to use his signature line ("Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker") in a way that he was seemingly setting up -- when the principal bad guy, Alik (Rasha Bukvic, Taken) gives a lame speech about how he hates cowboys while he interrogates the Die Hard Boys. Penultimate showdown? Not so much.
Sure, Die Hard was always a smartass, but when he was just John McClane, he was vulnerable. He could be hurt and while he pulled off some death-defying moves, there was always a sense that he could be killed. He had limits. That was part of his appeal -- think of his relationship with Al from the first film (the overweight cop) and how they kept each other comforted on the radio, giving each other strength. None of that charm is here. Even if the story remained as substance free as this, interactions like that would have made the terrible scripting more forgivable. As it is, Willis and this franchise are the cinematic equivalent of a shriveled up, used condom.
Nothing about A Good Day to Die Hard works. Unlike other action entries of the last few weeks, Bullet to the Head and The Last Stand, AGDtDH is utter balls that will sadly enjoy the success those other two films rightly deserved -- because Die Hard 6 is already a go.
If those apples aren't your thing (and they shouldn't be) then perhaps these oranges are more your speed. Quartet certainly couldn't be more different than A Good Day to Die Hard. Based on the play by Ronald Hardwood, Quartet features not a single gunshot or quick cut edit, and it's full of characters that feel, you know, real and somewhat likable. What a novelty.
Set at a British home for retired musicians, Quartet tells the tale of a group of talented former stars who practice for a yearly gala to celebrate the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, the proceeds of which help to fund the palatial estate that houses them, the Beecham House.
Reg (Tom Courtenay, Doctor Zhivago) is a singer, as is his best friend, Wilf (Billy Connolly, The Hobbit), a lecherous Scotsman who, recovering from a stroke, still has enough spunk to be rudely adolescent while trying to get up the gowns of any woman he might have a shot at. Along with Cissy (Pauline Collins, Shirley Valentine), another singer suffering sweetly from onset dementia, they make up three-quarters of a quartet whose well-regarded version of Rigoletto still earns re-issues and fans.
Smiling Too Big. With no conflict until well into the film, Quartet is almost too delightful.
They, along with a gaggle of other charming olds, labor under their well-meaning, blowhard of a musical director, Cedric (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter), as various conflicts, both circumstantial and personality-inflicted, cast doubt on the success of the new year's gala. Should it fail, they might all be out on the street.
All of that changes with the arrival of Jean Horton (Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey) an opera megastar who is reluctantly giving up her old life to spend her last amongst her peers -- she is, in fact, the other member of that Rigoletto quartet. Unfortunately, Reg is her still-heart-broken ex-husband.
Cedric is convinced they can recapture that Rigoletto glory, and with Jean's star-power, fund Beecham for at least as long as everyone who's there will live. But Jean has sworn off singing. Reg has sworn off Jean. Wilf has sworn off maturity and Cissy might have sworn something off and forgot.
If there were an Academy Award for Most Pleasant Film of the Year, Quartet would win it. It's easy to see how it would appeal to Downton fans; the pastoral estate (sumptuously shot by John de Borman), the all-star cast of British acting legends -- and a host of real-life veteran musicians -- and the smoothly unobtrusive conflicts make the film soothing in its comfortable tone.
That's kind of a problem, considering that initially there isn't much reason to care about these characters -- outside of them being cute and charming (Connolly excels there) and it takes a while for any meaningful strife to occur. Even then it's all fairly by the numbers. I thought they might even kill off Connolly's character but then realized that would be too heavy.
And at first the characters aren't even very likable. Connolly comes off like a guy trying to be funnier than he actually is, Courtenay is annoyingly lovelorn, and Smith affects bitchy ice queen in a way awfully similar to her Dowager Countess character on Downton. By the time the plot starts hitting on all its cylinders, we've warmed to them but it takes a bit to get there, transparently serving their character arcs.
All that is probably harsher than a film like Quartet deserves, and it does follow through on its feel-good premise. Dustin Hoffman, in his directorial debut, clearly has a love for this material and the audience for it likely will too. Just don't expect for it to stick with you for long.
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