LITTLE ROCK — Starting in 1964, British director and documentarian Michael Apted began filming the same group of people beginning when they were 7 years old and continuing every seven years since. Known as the 7 Up films (the latest installment of which, 56 Up, has just opened in selected cities), the series is an extraordinary account of the way in which our youthful vigor and limitless potential eventually give way to something a good deal more grounded, for better and worse.
There’s something ultimately heartbreaking there, of course, as Apted’s subjects suffer the injuries and painful miseries of their own choices over the course of their lives. A similar sort of trajectory appears to be taking place quite unexpectedly with Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series. What started out back in 1988 as a fun, inventive action flick with a smug, irritating and incredibly resourceful NYC cop has now generated four other sequels, spread out over the course of 25 years, with the lone constant being Willis himself.
We’ve seen him, as detective John McClane, fight desperately for his marriage (the first film); fight to save his beloved wife from airplane disaster (Die Hard 2); fight to retain his dignity after his marriage crumbles (Die Hard With a Vengeance); fight to save his daughter (Live Free or Die Hard); and now, in what appears to be a final resolution, fight to save his grown son from his own bad choices — and all the while leaving massive wreckage and a slew of bodies in his wake.
As a franchise, the Die Hard series is expected to maintain certain key tropes: with the exception of the weak-kneed fourth film — largely reviled by connoisseurs of the series — the R-rated action involves a fair amount of blood soaked (and spattered) carnage and plenty of salty language; the bad guys have to pretend to be enacting their intricate caper for some kind of political reason only to actually be in it for the cash; and, of course, McClane has to find the perfect opportune moment to belt out the series’ signature catchphrase (“Yippee-ki-yay, mother++++++”).
What the series has never had to contend with before is a John McClane who appears to be so bedraggled and beaten down. Upon finding out his estranged son (Jai Courtney) has gotten into trouble in Moscow and is awaiting trial, McClane wearily decides he’d better go and see what he can do to help. Once in Moscow, it takes almost no time at all for him to become involved in a daring courtroom breakout of his son and a high-placed Russian oligarch (Sebastian Koch), who is threatening to release extremely damaging information about the current evil prime minister.
The rest of the plot revolves around McClane and son (who steadfastly refuses to call his father “dad”) scrambling around Moscow and Chernobyl, surviving a hail of bullets, shrapnel, car chases, double-crossings, and a long car ride wherein they inevitably make peace with each other.
Willis, fast approaching 60, certainly seems ready for the series to end. Bald and gaunt, he carries little of the firecracker energy of his youth; instead he seems stricken with a heavy weariness — even the act of running down a street appears to be an effort. Willis has always been a better actor than the Die Hard series ever called for — he has more soul when he dispenses with the shtick and trademark smirk (see 12 Monkeys) — but as energizer bunny John McClane, he’s got to try and dig deep to give the people what they want. But now it feels like a completely different character going about it.
McClane was never meant to be James Bond, a smooth, impassive tactician; he was always a blazing hot mess in a filthy undershirt. A hard-charging, hot-headed, chain-smoking screw up who survived ultimately by not playing by everyone else’s rules of conduct. He was equal parts ingenious, tenacious, and pesky, and those qualities made him all the more endearing (“Only John can drive somebody that crazy,” his ex-wife once lamented.)
In the old days, it was McClane’s physical vulnerability that made him so accessible (who can forget the indelible scene of him having to pick broken glass out of his naked feet in the original film?) and, therefore, compelling. He might “die hard” as the film’s titles continually suggest, but he could most definitely die. Now, in the producers’ zeal to cover up Willis’ increasing frailness, they’ve made him practically invincible. Dropping him out of buildings, hurtling him through panes of glass, continually shooting at him with high-caliber shells and RPGs, even dunked in radioactive bilge water, he emerges with nothing worse than a few well-placed scratches and an innocuous bandage wrapped loosely around his arm.
At the end, reunited with his now-loving children (though, notably not his ex-wife, who doesn’t even factor into the series anymore), McClane survives this latest gantlet more or less emotionally intact. Battered and hobbling, he has made amends with his family in much the same way he estranged himself from them so many years before — by shooting, fighting, and clawing his way through squadrons of villains and their like-minded mercenary armies. Like with Apted’s restive, now middle-aged film subjects, he emerges with absolutely nothing left to prove.
However, I strongly suspect we still have not heard the last of this franchise. Much like Steven Spielberg’s leaden last Indiana Jones movie, the producers are clearly hoping they can replace McClane senior with his youthful, muscle-rippling son. Alas, Courtney, for all his obvious physical attributes and smoldering green eyes, has little of Willis’ insouciance and mischievousness, a huge part of the previous films’ appeal. The producers might hope they’ve successfully passed the torch, but like a campfire in a downpour, this is a soggy bunch of kindling that won’t light.
A Good Day to Die Hard
78 Cast: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch Director: John Moore Rating: R, for violence and language Running time: 97 minutes