The last few weeks at the megaplex have been a veritable parade of aging action stars. First came Arnold Schwarzenegger with “The Last Stand,” then Sylvester Stallone with “Bullet to the Head” and now we have Bruce Willis with “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
With all of these movies being offloaded in Hollywood’s phantom zone between Christmas and the Oscars, it means the old-school brand of explosive, macho, head-splitting action films have fallen from box-office tent-pole to box-office afterthought in two short decades.
I could blame the decline on the fact that all of these guys qualify as AARP members, but there is no one to pass the torch to because Hollywood’s young-blooded action heroes are all wearing spandex and capes these days.
So what has changed in the past 20 years? Are the movies just not as good or have audiences gotten over the muscle-bound, tough guy who leaves a pile of bodies and one-liners in his wake?
If we look at “A Good Day to Die Hard” (easily the best of this recent batch), we can see that the answer is a little of both.
Willis gets a leg up here because he is resurrecting a beloved character, John McClane, for his fifth round of accidental terrorist-fighting.
The story this time has John traveling to Russia to reconnect with his estranged son, Jack (played underwhelmingly by Jai Courtney). Jack, it turns out, is a CIA operative, and John and Jack must work through their differences all while trying to protect a political prisoner (Sebastian Koch) from a well-armed battalion of assassins.
There are some really great action sequences here, including a car chase involving a tank and roughly 30,000 destroyed cars, plus an impressive climactic showdown in Chernobyl.
Director John Moore doesn’t do much well, but what he can do is direct the holy hell out of an action scene.
But then that’s part of the problem, “AGDTDH” is all “wham-bam” and no “thank you, ma’am.”
If you go back and look at the original “Die Hard,” it seems quiet by comparison. Sure it’s got plenty of action, but it also makes space for character development, suspense, and a few funny lines that didn’t have to be shouted over 50-caliber machine gunfire.
John McClane was such a great character because he was a reluctant hero. “All things being equal, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
He survived more on his wits and determination than his firepower. He seemed vulnerable, which raised the stakes and made the “Die Hard” movies that much more exciting. That’s really no longer the case.
In spite of all this, “AGDTDH” is not terrible. Its weakest links are an underwritten script and Courtney’s inability to hold his own opposite Willis.
If the studio had wanted, they could have taken a few more passes over the screenplay and thrown a couple million dollars at a Jake Gyllenhaal or Ryan Gosling to play Jack and this could have been a really good movie.
The fact that they didn’t even bother with these tweaks speaks to how much the audience’s tastes have changed. Even if “AGDTDH” was the best movie it could possibly be, it still wouldn’t finish as one of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of the year, as was the case with each of the first three “Die Hard” movies.
I’m not exactly sure why we’ve changed, and it’s clearly not all that much considering these movies are still getting made. But the fact of the matter is the glory days for John McClane and his ilk are in the past. These guys may die hard, but in the end, there may be nobody around to see it happen.
“A Good Day to Die Hard” is rated R for violence and language.