Should an action movie care? Should it care to do more than send a state-of-the-art helicopter sinking out of the sky because there's an armored truck dangling, chained, from its cargo bay? Should it care that as inventive a stunt as that weighed-down chopper might be, it is, alas, only a stunt in a film littered with similar stunts? Should it care that an audience might need more than cars that fly off one level of a Russian highway only to cause mayhem when they land on the road below, that we might need actual screenwriting to give some sense and structure to all that chaos?
A Good Day to Die Hard is an action movie, and it definitely doesn't care. This is the fifth and least of the Die Hard movies. Its most loving imagery all involves people and vehicles falling to the ground. One of those falling people finds the mental clarity to thrust up his middle finger on his way down. That's supposed to be a rousing moment of triumph, but it's just a depressing show of contempt — for the audience, for the genre, and the series. The movie never earns the right to be so cavalier.
The bird-flipper is Bruce Willis's John McClane, the NYPD detective who became an iconic movie hero in the first three Die Hard movies, outsmarting and outliving terrorists, and a cartoon by the fourth. It's not simply his indestructibility that now makes him less than real (his die-hardness has never been up for debate). But for at least the first three movies, the excitement came from both McClane's vulnerability and epic lucklessness (he was once allegedly just a cop). Bad news and worse people — Europeans, all! — refused to stop intruding on his already dysfunctional life.
In these last two, terribly titled movies (2007's Live Free or Die Hard stunk up screens a dozen years after the urban fun and racial daring of Die Hard: With a Vengeance, which actually began life as a Brandon Lee thriller called Simon Says), McClane has gone completely bald and turned into a kind of disaster junkie. He's as turned on by mass destruction as the nutjobs we expect him to vanquish. Originally, Willis was something new for the action movie, which had been defined by old-guard right-wingers and muscly, monosyllabic ethnics. He was this little blue-collar smart-ass with a receding hairline. What he lacked in physicality he made up for in attitude. When the first Die Hard arrived in the late summer of 1988, Willis was known as the guy bantering with Cybill Shepherd on ABC's Moonlighting. His charm came from his seeming both mildly drunk and slightly hungover. He was louche and sleazy and cocky but not secure enough to believe that he was more charismatic than she was. That, of course, made him kind of sexy: He wanted her approval and, by extension, ours. Putting Willis at the scene of a hostage situation where one of the hostages was McClane's wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), with the scene being a Los Angeles skyscraper gave his macho street intelligence potentially a real challenge: Could he take out an entire gang of Germanic evil?
The excitement of Willis in these first three movies was how he kept surprising himself. He seemed to have no idea what he was doing until he was doing it. But the directors — John McTiernan for the first and third; Renny Harlin for the outrageous second — understood how to take a formula thriller and proceed as though the world had never seen a heist movie. They had clever-enough scripts that bumped up the scale — terrorists in our buildings, our airports, our subways! — without sacrificing our ability to relate to the stakes or navigate the action. Will McClane save Holly? Will he save New York?
It's hard to appreciate, but Die Hard was such a mold-breaking hit that it made most action movies strive, almost parodically, for its formula. Speed was Die Hard on a bus. Cliffhanger was Die Hard on a mountain. Virtuosity was Die Hard in cyberspace. Setting aside mild-mannered suspense dramas like 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Die Hard was the action-movie Big Bang. What's remarkable about all three movies is their attention to pacing and setup. In the first film, there's so much going on in and around the Nakatomi building that creates tension and suspense for McTiernan to exploit. Each establishes precisely the terms of the various conflicts so that once the action gets under way, it's inextricable from the drama that's driving it. The chases and murders and explosions are part of the narrative. This is also known as storytelling, and it's virtually extinct in the action movie's current iteration.
By 2007, the action movie was thinking more globally. The North American box office was no longer enough. These movies weren't content with saving Manhattan. They had to save the world, mostly by hopping from one time-stamped locale to the next. But to work on that scale, a movie needs a prevailing scope, a sense not only that the planet is big but an idea of how the heroes fit within all that borderlessness. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is a wonderful example of how an internationalist franchise had found a way to work globally yet with some humor and intimacy. A Good Day to Die Hard is set in Moscow but has a plot that changes its mind. A political prisoner plot becomes an international intrigue plot, which becomes an epic terrorism plot. With each narrative costume change, the location becomes increasingly beside the point. Never mind that most of the later action involves Chernobyl, a specific, notorious Russian location that's treated with little reverence for the atrocity that's left it such a barren wasteland. How the movie gets here isn't important: Basically, McClane's estranged adult son, Jack (Jai Courtney), is a spy shepherding a Russian oppositionist (Sebastian Koch) first to retrieve an important file and then to his sexy daughter and then to safety.
McClane heads to Moscow to see Jack and winds up a gleeful participant in highway demolition derbies and elaborate shootouts. But the movie is determined to force the drama of this story into some kind of father-son reconciliation. John turns goopy with resentment. Jack's eyes begin to well up with the tears of a son who misses the father he spends an hour saying he hates. Of all the illogic on display in this movie (is neutralizing radiation as possible as it is here?), the sentiment curdling between these two is the most galling — mainly since it's the least of the reasons we've come.
None of it seems to bother Willis, though. He looks happy to be in a movie he can dominate with his smirk. Despite McClane's no longer being a smoker, Willis does things with his face that make it appear as though he's taking long, satisfying drags on an unseen cigarette. But he's much better than this sort of payday exercise. Did he not see himself in Looper or Moonrise Kingdom? He doesn't have much else to do here beyond shoot and smirk. Covered in blood and broken glass, he seems superfluous. The movie is more a showcase for the stunt team and the effects department, and their work, especially during all the slow-motion absurdity of the finale, is often stunning.
For what it's worth, the director is John Moore, working from a rickety script by Skip Woods. Moore is competent, but he might as well be designing one of the video games that's spun off from this franchise. There are all of the mechanics and rote villainy (one of the Eurobaddies chomps on a carrot and declares his contempt for America) but no higher (or even lower) purpose to speak of. We get all the series's destruction with none of the plot, character actors, suspense, coherence, or tank tops of the first three movies. It's cheap, dissatisfying, and sad — a blockbuster with Die Hard flavoring.
This fifth installment actually embodies what Sylvester Stallone's two Expendables films should have obviated — action stars of yesterday fighting their obsolescence by going back to basics. But that, of course, was the problem with those movies: Stallone wasn't sending up old action films; he was trying to revive dead or dying careers. Last month brought Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand and Stallone in Bullet to the Head, and nobody cared. Willis, at least, is simply leaning on something familiar. Still, you can't blame any of them. They've surveyed the landscape of action-star alternatives and seen no one younger who threatens them.
Take this Jai Courtney. He's a young, physically fit Australian who's uncomfortably Tom Hardy–like (it's the eyes, lips, and vaguely disguised non-American accent). But he's not anything else. I don't know that he could carry a franchise on his own. Almost no one's expected to now. The effects departments are the new stars. And the flesh-and-blood men who could carry an action movie — the Hugh Jackmans, Channing Tatums, and Dwayne Johnsons — are too good at other stuff to purely Stallone themselves. The version of the action movie that Willis and his ilk helped popularize is on its last legs. A jalopy like A Good Day to Die Hard merely italicizes its demise.
Ladies, it's Valentine's weekend. And some of you might want to spend part of it at the movies. Hollywood thinks it's got two winners for you, each based on a popular book and set in the South.
The first is Safe Haven, which began as a Nicholas Sparks novel and, depending on how you take your romantic dramas, is either the equivalent of a warm bath or a sink full of dishes. Sparks has cornered the market on love in sleepy seaside towns. The grubby tragedy of his first books (The Notebook, A Walk to Remember) has morphed into the kind of New Age nonsense that when faithfully produced on screen can cause you to spit out your Pepsi. The glorious badness of Safe Haven comes from the way the veteran director Lasse Hallström applies the greeting-card tastefulness he's used for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Something to Talk About, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Dear John, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen to a movie whose punch line is so delightfully absurd that even after you pretty much know what's coming you spit out your Pepsi anyway.
Julianne Hough plays a young woman who desperately flees Boston by bus, hops off in Southport, North Carolina, and gives herself a new name (Katie) and haircut (Mary Stuart Masterson). She rents a great house, gets a job at the local seafood shack, makes pals with another single lady (a lifeless-looking Cobie Smulders), and falls for the hunky widower (Josh Duhamel) who runs The Only Store in Town. His name is Alex, and he can't seem to understand why it takes so long for his hotness and the cuteness of his two kids to occur to her. But we know why. We have flashbacks. "Katie" is running from an abusive drunk (David Lyons) who we see in separate scenes harassing people for Katie's whereabouts. You think you know where this is headed — and you're mostly right. The abuser gets to Southport in time for the Fourth of July! But there's more.
This is the sort of movie (based on the sort of book) in which Alex's late wife took the time to write a letter to her children, which they're to open in their teenage years. It's the sort of movie in which she also bothered to pen one for "the woman my husband loves" or something like that. They've been written on paper that doesn't appear to burn in a house fire. And when Katie opens hers you'll feel bad that you had to spit soda all over it. But there's no other choice: What the letter implies is ridiculous. What the story pulls back to reveal at that moment — and no, I won't spoil it, though you can probably guess — is even more so. What the movie thinks is a loving piety is really just celestial dreariness saved up for a big plot twist. I don't know who'd want to spend Valentine's weekend this way, with the Keyser Söze of seaside romance.
Of course, that would be vastly preferable to the other movie that opened on February 14. It's something called Beautiful Creatures, in which a teenage Southerner falls for a girl who turns out to be a witch, except, because Beautiful Creatures is based on a series of young adult novels, you can't call her a witch. You have to call her a "Caster." The boy, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), can't take things too far with the girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), because she won't quite let him. Lena lives with her extended family in a mansion that looks like the gothic version of the surrealist house in Beetlejuice. She hails from a line of powerful Casters, and upon her 16th birthday she'll be ready for The Reaping, some kind of transformational rite in which her soul, her fate, or possibly her hair color will forever be "dark or light." And because the entire point of movies based on young adult fiction appears to be that nothing can be called what it is, no one ever surmises that, really, all the Reaping seems to be is either a garden party for your period or a very public acknowledgment that you might have a mental illness. (It might also be both.)
Beautiful Creatures is like the Twilight movies but with a chaperone making sure the boys dance a foot apart from the girls. (Twilight allows for heavy petting and then intercourse.) It's loosely like The Hunger Games but with nothing thoughtful to say about violence or popular culture or making something of yourself. The film feels very much the result of many people — the novelists Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl; the writer and director Richard LaGravenese; the assortment of producers; and Warner Bros. — taking stock of the young adult landscape and saying, "We can do that." I would beg to differ.
Very few movies based on so-called YA fiction is very good. The last two Twilight movies are difficult to watch, in part because the filmmaking drags one minute and is on cocaine the next. But you at least believed that this hot girl wanted to do it so much with this one undead guy that she'd risk her life. It's a stupid, confused way to look at sex, but at least it felt that way with a modicum of conviction. I don't know how Beautiful Creatures feels about anything.
There's no central drama or suspense. There's no sexual tension or eroticism or real comedy (although the night I saw it, the girls in the audience seemed to find Ehrenreich appealing). There's some overwrought business involving Civil War reenactments and the alarming image of scars on Viola Davis's back, which evokes a slave master's lash. But they're glossed over in a way that's shocking coming from a man who helped turn Toni Morrison's Beloved into a movie. It's more stuff you're not allowed to call by its name.
None of the actors at the center of the movie inspires anything close to enthusiasm. And there isn't one beautiful image in the whole film. The effects actually have a sludgy, muddy quality, so when Lena and her estranged, Little Red Corvette of a sister (Emmy Rossum) have a shouting match that makes the dinner table rise up off the floor and spin around, it's like watching a pottery wheel lose its mind. The bright, frilly costumes and makeup give naturalist actors like Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale a creepiness they shouldn't have. (You haven't felt truly sorry for an actor until you've seen Martindale in a big, cottony wig. She looks like dessert.) Jeremy Irons appears to be enjoying himself as Lena's hammy uncle. Davis makes the most of what's basically another caretaker (her character's name is Amma, which practically begs for rearrangement at the Soul Train Scramble Board), and Emma Thompson, as Lena's evil mother, attempts to tear the roof off the movie. It's unclear what she's going for but whatever it is, it's unserious, which ought to win her something.
Beautiful Creatures is what would happen if Tim Burton tried to film a William Faulkner novel as though it were Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. (That makes either Irons or Davis the talking cat.) These movies — and the so-called YA novels that inspire them — wind up taking real adolescent experiences (losing your virginity's a big one) and larding it with all kinds of fantastical danger that perverts the actual meaning of that experience. The directness and piquancy in the music of Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, and Tori Amos have retarded into euphemisms for lust. The piss and vinegar of the 1990s have dried up. A decade later, girls' hormonal-emotional surrogates in books and movies aren't getting mad, even, or straightforwardly laid. They're getting reaped.