A Good Day To Die Hard: passing on the franchise baton


Like father, like son: Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney contemplate their mirror image (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

FAMILY MATTERS AMID A MAELSTROM OF METAL AND GLASS

The slow strains from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony accompanied by gunfire and explosions over nothing but a black screen at the very onset of A Good Day To Die Hard is, come to think of it a clever trick that on the face of it seems rather a dim gesture. Heck, it’s not as if we needed to be reminded that this is the latest – count em: fifth – in the John McClane franchise. But that classical extract draws us mentally right back to the original and best, the Christmas-set Die Hard (1988), conveniently hurdling over the sequels and especially the aberration that was 2007’s Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0), the edition that many fans would rather did not speak its name.

And what’s so surprising about this reboot of the Die Hard franchise is how well A Good Day To Die Hard fits. I write as someone who can take or leave action movies, but credit where it’s due to ones that play well to someone like me who’s most at home watching quiet character-led indy pictures like Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy and foreign films like I Wish.

Passing on the baton

The point is that the Die Hard films know what they’re good at – throwing Bruce Willis into a maelstrom of shattering metal and glass and having him coming back fighting and with a wise crack on his lips. Here, he’s the same John McClane, only balder, and it doesn’t even matter if he’s a police any more. He’s headed to Russia to pull his son, Jack (a well-matched Jai Courtney, due to appear in this year’s Suicide Squad) out of an apparent almighty mess he’s got himself into – and has to swallow a smirk when he discovers his boy’s actually a CIA operative, referring to Junior flippantly as ‘double-O Seven of Playing Field, New Jersey.’

It’s obvious that the baton passing from getting-too-old-for-this-game Willis/police officer McClane to holding-his-own Courtney/spy Jack aka John McClane Jnr is no accident. The Daniel Craig-fronted revamp of Bond as well as the success of the Bourne films are stiff competition these days, and the Die Hard producers look keen to play ball and what’s more, from this film alone seem up to the game. If the plot seems shaky and convoluted, and the situations improbable, well, that’s par for the course for this film genre. As well as jaw-dropping vehicle chases, there’s a tremendous all-but-final sequence of a helicopter crashing vertically through a building as McClane and son themselves go tumbling down through the same floors to land, virtually unscathed, in a convenient swimming pool together.

A fight for family

Let me ask you something. Do you go looking for trouble or does it always seem to find you?’ asks a bemused Jack, trying to make sense of his Dad. ‘You know, after all these years I still ask myself the same,’ Senior replies. And no surprise, because the truth is that all this shoot ‘em up bluster is a huge McGuffin to disguise the Die Hard films’ fundamental tale of an Irish Catholic New Yorker attempting but not always succeeding to do right by his family. The first two Die Hards were both set at Christmastime with loved ones crossing the country to be with their family a major part of the plot set-up. In A Good Day To Die Hard, McClane is crossing continents to gather up the clan. Family ties are key.

Marriagewise, John has failed abysmally. The pressure and hours of his job and his recognition that wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedella) ‘was the best thing to ever happen to a bum like me’ at the end of Die Hard wasn’t enough. He saved her from her plane falling out of a snow-filled sky in the sequel (‘Oh, John, why does this keep happening to us?’), and left her hanging on the other end of the telephone in Die Hard With A Vengeance. The fourth film put the nail in the coffin of what had been a clearly struggling partnership indicating that the pair were long divorced (the film’s only notable point). Turns out we had been watching the sad tale of a marriage breakdown all along.

Killing bad guys together

At the onset of A Good Day To Die Hard, McClane and grown-up daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are on good terms. She waves him off at the airport with a ‘Love you, Dad. Just try not to make a mess of things.’ Lucy clearly has her father sussed. Jack, however, has a bone to pick with ‘John’. (Tellingly, when a shocked son’s getaway van’s path is blacked by McClane Snr in a Moscow street, he blurts out ‘Dad?’ in surprise, but he immediately changes his tune.)

The two haven’t spoken in years. ‘How come you never called and told me where you were?’ pleads John. ‘Like you give a shit,’ fires back Jack. Ouch. Of course, the point is that these two are too alike, that ’killing bad guys’ is both their thing. But they have to risk a fatal dose of radiation at the ruins of Chernobyl, being shot at and the possibility of being blown to smithereens together to realise it and be fully reunited.

For while John McClane might have made a balls up of his generation. his fatherly instinct to go and bring his boy home indicates that he’s going to make damn sure that splitting from his children’s mother wasn’t the end of the family. He seems to have learnt his lesson, even as he appears to be bowing out.

A Good Day To Die Hard is on Channel 4 at 9pm.

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