The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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February 22, 2013

Benji Tunnell: Time to pronounce 'Die Hard' franchise dead

JOPLIN, Mo. — I was pretty surprised when a fifth "Die Hard" movie was announced. The previous installment, while it had its moments, was a pretty lackluster product.

But then I stepped back and looked at the whole picture, and it became clear: The "Die Hard" franchise is actually a large-scale social experiment; an examination of our culture's view of the life cycle and aging.

It all starts with the first "Die Hard." The birth of a franchise, Bruce Willis was young and new, and we cared about him because he could be vulnerable. We cringed when he walked on broken glass or busted through windows because we didn't want him to hurt himself.

Much like cute kids, he also said the darndest things, although in a more colorful way, such as his "Yippie ki yay" line. And, like the bedtime stories that lull our children to sleep, it has a nice, happy ending, with John McClane saving the day and semi-reconciling with his estranged wife.

Then came the second film. John is a little older, and the franchise has matured slightly. But still there is a brashness, with the movie trying harder to top its initial success. Heck, it's even a part of the title: "Die Harder."

The movie wants so hard to achieve validation and to impress, so it ramps up its action, takes it airborne and proves that it has the genuine goods.

In the third film, "Die Hard with a Vengeance," the franchise and McClane are both realizing that they aren't as young as they used to be. McClane still wants to prove that he has that youthful exuberance that made him so endearing early on, but both the series and the character are beginning to show age.

"Live Free or Die Hard" shows the franchise hitting the mid-life crisis point. It needs to be hip and more relevant, to try to stay cool to the kids, so it cuts back the violence and obscenity to get a PG-13 rating and ditches its more seasoned partner for a younger cohort in Justin Long.

That brings us to "A Good Day to Die Hard." The series has entered its twilight years, and age has taken a toll.

Willis comes across as tired and indifferent, punching the clock and waiting for his check, coasting on previous work and hoping that we'll all be polite enough to not point out that he just doesn't seem to care anymore.

You see reflections of old age throughout, starting with the horribly shaky camera work. It's as though they've strapped a camera to an overly caffeinated 5-year-old and put in him in the middle of an earthquake. Cars crash, stuff blows up good, but barely any of it is decipherable with the violent bobbing and weaving that goes on.

The story itself makes very little sense, reminiscent of a great uncle rambling a stream of thoughts with all of the kiddies gathered around, each one cautioned by mom to be polite and to listen.

Even the villain has been adjusted to reflect the aging process. Gone is the truly scary Hans Gruber, or even brother Simon. Instead, this time we get some Russian guy who seems to have dietary issues because he spends his time chomping on carrots.

I'm all for fiber, but at what point has anyone ever been intimidating while eating carrots? But we can't be too scary for McClane anymore. He's done his time; he's averted four other major terrorist attempts -- if anyone deserves to fight off a carrot-wielding baddie, it's McClane.

The movie also shows the memory issues caused by aging, as not only does the film keep using the same sad running joke throughout (McClane constantly yells "I'm on vacation!" regardless of the situation, even though it was made apparent at the beginning of the film that he wasn't, in fact, on vacation, but was actually going to try to help his son who he thought was a cold-blooded killer), but it rehashes the same daddy-issue drama that was used in the previous film, only this time with his son.

I'll give McClane the benefit of the doubt in that if he continually has to save buildings, planes and cities, he may not have that much free time to pass the pigskin with junior. I'm willing to give him a pass for that. But his partner isn't, and the two must work through their problems while bonding over slaughtering countless bad guys. Plus, McClane has to find time to pull his once-clever catch phrase out of mothballs and shoehorn it in in such a pathetically sad way that you begin to question whether it ever had any life to it in the first place.

At this stage, the "Die Hard" franchise is past the point of riding off gracefully into the sunset. Willis' McClane is trying desperately to cling to long ago faded youth and relevancy when he is best suited for a retirement home full of daytime TV and the occasional chess game.

With any justice, this franchise will no longer "Die Hard" -- it will just be dead.

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