Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard, or: Of Course it Sucked, it Came Out in February

To start: It was not as bad as I'd feared. Granted, my expectations were through the floor. I'd dug a nice little trench in the crawl space for them alongside the Jewish family from the beginning of Inglourious Basterds. Based on the promo clip Fox released, I thought A Good Day to Die Hard would be literally unwatchable, but it turned out to be only figuratively unwatchable. The promo clip was incoherent, seemingly the work of a desperate editor trying to salvage a film after half the footage had been erased in an airport X-ray machine, but its defenders claimed that it had been cut down from the real scene. I thought that was impossible: why would anyone try to promote a movie by creating a clip that bad? But I have to eat my words on this one. The apologists were right and the continuity in the real movie was better; however, the shooting was every bit as inept as it appeared.

Director John Moore has convinced himself that it's a stylistic choice to look like you don't know where to point the camera or how to hold it steady, resulting in a "style" indistinguishable from "not knowing what the fuck you are doing." Imagine a Die Hard movie shot by the crew of The Office, if the crew of The Office was suffering from seizures and also didn't know how to use cameras. Going in I had feared that you wouldn't be able to tell what was happening. In fact, you can tell what's happening*, it's just that it all looks like shit.

Let's back up. Whenever people discuss Die Hard you have to go through the whole thing of What Makes Die Hard Die Hard. The big thing used to be, it's not Die Hard unless it's an enclosed setting. But by now we've had more sprawling Die Hards than claustrophobic ones, and With a Vengeance is better than Die Hard 2 (which is not all that claustrophobic) anyway. So that's out.

Next we say it's about how McClane is supposed to be a human-scale hero, a guy who gets hurt, bleeds, and strains to make it to the end. The funny thing is that everybody who's seen Die Hard knows this and says it constantly. Surely the people making the movies know that too and yet when it's time to make another movie it's always ignored. The writers and director and Bruce Willis must be aware of it, but I suspect it may just be impossible these days to make a tentpole action movie on a scale that isn't completely unbelievable. I expect that if you did walk in with a perfect Die Hard script, on the scale of the first or even second movie, with the vulnerable McClane everyone wants, it would be rejected because it doesn't have enough big trailer moments or something. The point is, that's out and it will never happen again.

Personally, I think a key ingredient is that McClane doesn't want to be there. Somehow he's put in a situation where he's the only guy fit to help and he has no choice but to do something. In the first movie it was because he's the only one in the building who can do anything. He's a cop, so he's tough and trained, he hasn't been caught by the terrorist like everybody else, and he's inside the building so he has important knowledge that the bunglers outside aren't privy to. Die Hard 2 suffers because the airport cops and the military are all there to handle the situation and McClane is just charging around like a dickhead telling everybody they're wrong. It turns out to be good that he's there because the military guys are corrupt, but he didn't know that, he's only right because he's the hero and the script validates him. The third movie forces McClane's hand by having Simon Gruber ask for him by name; a bit straightforward but it gets the job done. Live Free or Die Hard is pretty shaky in this regard -- again, the FBI cyber-squad is right there, but they ignore Justin Long for some reason so McClane has to do something. It's also forced, but unlike Die Hard 2, at least there's a clear reason why McClane thinks the proper authorities are on the wrong track. Ultimately, though, by the fourth movie, McClane seems to have resigned himself to being "that guy," as driven home in an unnecessary speech about what it means to be "that guy."

So over the years, everything that makes Die Hard Die Hard has gradually fallen away and become meaningless. We have been reduced to the level of the undemanding masses who shrug, "It's just a dumb action movie, what do you expect?" Well, we expected DIE HARD, you turds who make it okay for studios to pass off dreck like this! Stop letting them off the hook!

Sorry, no, of course that is unrealistic. Die Hard is dead, but what we can expect is a competently-made, if somewhat generic, action film. Against all odds, that is what Live Free or Die Hard delivered: Invincible McClane and spectacular action gags mostly involving motor vehicles getting thrown in the air. What was easy to take for granted is how director Len Wiseman shot it and cut it in such a way that you could see the cars getting thrown around. It looked cool and the effects were mostly practical, not CG (until the silly, disposable Harrier set piece). Live Free was a respectable throwback action picture, despite the fact that any Die Hard fan could give you a litany of reasons why it was not much of a Die Hard, whatever that means anymore. I have Live Free on DVD and have rewatched it and have shown it to others. It's pretty good.

So know that I am not holding A Good Day to Die Hard to any super-elite film snob standard when I say it is a big, loud, stupid mess. It is the biggest, loudest, stupidest, messiest Die Hard of them all. If what you want is big, loud, stupid and messy, then have at your trough of slop, piggy. This movie has buckets of what your undiscerning maw craves.

Big and loud is not a problem in and of itself, although this movie takes it to laughable extremes. Unlike Live Free, A Good Day is rated R, because you can make a super-shitty movie or you can water it down to PG-13, but you can't do both. To its credit, there is a grittiness that has returned to the franchise. Expendables are expended more mercilessly, there is a higher body count, bloodier (harmless) injuries and far more gunplay. In retrospect Live Free was oddly gun-light, substituting a smidge of martial arts and lots of aggressive driving. Now the aggressive driving remains -- does it ever! -- but the gunfights have returned and boy, are there lots of them. The movie is obsessed with big, loud guns, the bigger and louder and gunnier the better. There are so many and they are so big, and how fucking manly are all these guns! There is nothing inventive or clever or memorable about the gunfights, but there are lots of bullets flying and it is all oh so hardcore.

Now, when I say stupid, I'm not talking about how improbable the plot is or the fact that they survive unsurvivable things. The very first thing that happens to McClane is that he is flips a truck in a violent wreck, and the second thing that happens is he gets hit full-on by a sturdy Mercedes SUV. Neither of these things registers more as a slight annoyance, and it just builds from there. So if we were going to talk about that bullshit, well, forget about it. We'll be here all day.

The stupid part I'm talking about is the part we're still supposed to kind of care about, and that's the character story. There's a germ of brilliance here, in that teaming McClane with his son is long overdue. At this point Die Hard has become enshrined as the Guy Movie to rule them all, the male bonding movie that dudes enjoy with their dads or sons, and it's a no-brainer to do a father/son Die Hard. Too bad, then, that his son is played by Jai Courtney. Courtney is fine if what you want is a macho muscled tough guy bro because only the manliest manly men will do in your overcooked man gun bang bang fantasies. But he is lacking in terms of charisma, humor and screen presence. So McClane spends the movie trying to reconnect with this bland zero in a series of flat exchanges sandwiched between massive destruction and who cares? It doesn't help that neither of them ever act like they might die. Vengeance was filled with preposterous action, but Willis and Samuel L. Jackson's performances really sold that they were were risking their necks every time and that bought a lot of goodwill. But now I'm back to the part of Die Hard that is dead. Never mind. Moving on.

The big issue is that McClane's son is mad because McClane has been an absent father. It turns out this is because McClane worked too much. Why did McClane pour himself into his job instead of his family? As he confesses in a subtext-free exchange with a fellow father while his son poignantly/cornily overhears, "I always thought it was good to work a lot." What? That's it? You thought it was good to work a lot? Not anything complex or interesting, like you were afraid to work things out with your wife (as implied by earlier movies), or emotions were always difficult for you, or you wished you could be there but the job was so demanding, etc., etc.? Virtually anything is more interesting than this weird second-grade-level logic, like "someone once told me working was good so I thought it was good to work more." What? Seriously?

As if to emphasize the flat dialogue, every talking scene is staged as two guys standing next to each other talking. No Sorkin-style walk-and-talks here, not even any minor business for the actors to occupy their hands, just two dudes standing side-by-side on the same plane with their heads turned slightly toward one another. All the panache of a Kevin Smith scene minus the snappy comic timing, and yes, this movie just made me compliment Kevin Smith in the year 2013.

And then there's messy, which to me is actually the biggest sin. Because if the action were good, we could go join the pigs in the slop and say it's just a big dumb action movie, who cares, I got my eye candy. But the bare minimum for a big dumb action movie is that the big dumb action is good. And here, it's not only mediocre in conception but abysmal in execution. If you make an action movie, your job is to make the action look cool, not shitty. If your action looks shitty instead of cool you have failed, the end. This action looks shitty, and it looks shitty on purpose because John Moore had some dumb idea about how handheld cameras are fitting because McClane is out of his element or whatever and he was wrong. He made a wrong choice and now the action sucks. And that is death because the movie is already stupid and unbelievable and the Jai Courtney is a black hole of nothing and GOOD ACTION WAS THE ONE THING THAT COULD SAVE IT BECAUSE ALL IS FORGIVEN IF IT'S COOL but no, it's ugly and dull and hard to follow and that's that, you lose, shut up and go home.

You know you're in trouble when a director can fuck up credits. Like, opening titles, those things. It's kind of not even something you can fuck up. Or so you would think. And it's not like it's hard to get right! I don't really remember if Die Hard had opening credits, aside from the nice title where the words "Die" and "Hard" slide together from opposite sides of the screen. But that movie had a nice slow build, plenty of time for credits if it did indeed have them, no problem. I remember they didn't piss me off, and that's pretty much all you ever should have to remember about opening credits.

Die Hard 2 throws the title on the screen, we fly through the letter "A" to see McClane's car getting towed, and we're off. All business, no more credits. Same with Vengeance, which is my favorite -- "Die Hard," in small letters, timed to the opening bars of "Summer in the City," then BAM! "WITH A VENGEANCE," huge, smashing everything, on the big kickoff drumbeat of the song, and it's terrific. Pretty soon stuff is blowing up, and again, no opening credits, which feels very fitting to the franchise.

Live Free was different. They did the whole opening credits roll, with a cheesy computer-themed font and all the letters cycling, and then settling on the right letters, and then fading out individually. Too fussy for Die Hard, in my opinion, but taken on its own, nothing really wrong with it. The credits played out over some minor setup with lots of people typing. Great.

A Good Day to Die Hard opens with a couple of Russian guys we don't know speaking obliquely, in Russian, about stuff we don't understand yet or care about while hilariously super-serious music booms over everything to let us know the movie we are about to see is very serious and hardcore, no really. Then, while people are still having subtitled conversations, we start cutting to new locations, which are established with more subtitles like "Moscow," and then while subtitled conversations and subtitled establishing shots are still going on, opening credits begin! There's some animated boxes behind the text to set the credits apart, but they're synced to nothing in particular, musically or visually. They continue to appear as we cut to Jai Courtney walking through a loud nightclub and the evil T-Mobile girl riding around on a motorcycle and unzipping herself sexily, and occasionally other subtitles continue to appear on screen as more Russian is spoken and more locations are established, and it's a ridiculous mess.

You can't roll titles when other titles are happening and then compound that with really busy scenes that demand our attention! It's a clusterfuck of text and images, and anyone with any taste would say why not wait for a quiet moment, like McClane walking through the airport, to dole some of this stuff out? Or, better yet, just do what most of the Die Hard movies have done and skip the opening credits since you clearly have no place to put them? I can't believe this noisy hunk of bombast, of all movies, passed up the chance for a big booming SMASH into a full-screen title card.

Like the whole poorly chosen handheld aesthetic of the movie, the clumsy credits are creating a problem where none needs to exist. It's a subtle thing and you might think it's nitpicky, but it's the first signal that you're in the hands of someone who doesn't know how to dole out visual information in a pleasing and coherent way, which is a problem when that person is, you know, making a motion picture.**

Still, I expected worse.

*Mostly. If you saw the movie, I dare you to tell me how McClane got out of his zip-ties. His son cuts off his own zip-ties, but McClane's just disappear.

**Another example of how loud and messy the movie is: I didn't hear McClane say "Yippee-kay-yay." My sister claims he did. I have no idea when that would have been. It's safe to say the moment didn't land.