Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Action Icon Gauntlet: Willis

Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, Statham, The Rock. January and February will see new releases from these titans of action cinema on a near-weekly basis. In The Action Icon Gauntlet, Jeremiah will evaluate their performances and rank their icon standing based on box office take, critical reception and personal bias.

What a bunch of assholes.

The Everyman Icon

Bruce Willis holds a curious spot among action royalty. He’s never relied as heavily on action as Stallone or Schwarzenegger, giving comparable time to thrillers and comedy. He also doesn’t have many iconic action characters. And much of his action work has come in forgettable late-career junk like Tears of the Sun, Hostage and 16 Blocks.

On the other hand, Willis is the star of the greatest action movie ever made (Die Hard), and portrays one of the most enduring, iconic action heroes of all time (John McClane). So yeah, it’s kind of hard to argue against his inclusion with the greats, even if it’s almost entirely thanks to Die Hard (and a little bit of The Last Boy Scout).

Part of what makes Willis work so well in these roles is that he’s not the stereotypical action star and these aren’t stereotypical action heroes. These men are not highly trained military specialists. They’ve suffered their fair share of personal defeats. They crack jokes as much to mask their fear and self-doubt as to taunt bad guys.

The very title of Willis’ defining action franchise, Die Hard, doesn’t relate to the plot or emphasize his training or proficiency in combat (like Lethal Weapon, Commando, The Specialist or Demolition Man). It just invokes his stubborn refusal to die already. At Willis’ best, he’s not a superhero on a crusade for justice, he’s a poor slob forced into the role of hero. In McClane’s own words, he’s just a fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass.

At His Worst

It would be easy to tear A Good Day to Die Hard down for all the ways in which it’s a lousy Die Hard movie, as it violates just about everything fans know about or expect from the series. But that’s sort of beside the point. This is the 5th entry in the series, and there’s already relatively little tying the other four together, aside from Bruce Willis. I’d wager that if a Die Hard movie delivers a fun, exciting adventure, then critics and fans won’t really care what franchise rules get broken. And I’d submit Live Free or Die Hard as exhibit A.

What’s much more damning is how epically A Good Day to Die Hard fails on every conceivable action movie level.

From the opening moments, when McClane throws himself into a truck chase on crowded Moscow streets completely ignorant as to what’s actually going on, not only is our reluctant hero nowhere to be seen, but he’s been replaced by an agent of wanton destruction and chaos with a hard-on for killing “scumbags.” This isn’t the John McClane we know, nor is it someone worth rooting for.

The decision to set the action in Moscow is essentially arbitrary. McClane unloads some knee-slapping cultural ignorance, and the climactic battle is set at Chernobyl, I guess just because it’s a convenient place for ceaseless gunfire and explosions without any police involvement. Other than that, I’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence the movie actually takes place in Moscow. There’s more English speakers here than at Brighton Beach.

Is it even worth mentioning that the convoluted plot is more a necessary evil than a driving force for the action? Or that Jai Courtney gives a stiff performance as the younger McClane, a bland direct-to-DVD caliber CIA agent? Or that he and Willis share less chemistry than Willis and Justin Long in Live Free, despite the former being father and son and the latter being complete strangers? Or that the action scenes are all dreadful and a serious waste of what appears to be a great deal of dangerous stuntwork?

I’d say the whole thing was a huge disappointment, but what can one expect from the director of Max Payne and the writer of X-Men Origins: Wolverine?

King of the Trash Heap

Good Day’s $29.3 million take over the 4-day Presidents Day weekend ($37.5 if you include receipts from Valentine’s Day, its first day of release) dwarfs the opening weekends of the other movies in the Gauntlet. Never mind that it was a holiday weekend, and that this is Willis’ biggest franchise, and it’s more than $10 million off the pace of Live Free, and that Safe House, a non-franchise action movie starring non-action icons Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds earned almost as much over last year’s Presidents Day weekend (in its second week of release!); Willis got some people to come out to the theater. That’s more than Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Statham can say. That’s the (marginally) good news.

The bad news is that I wasn’t the only one who hated Die Hard 5. It’s got a 16% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 28 on Metacritic. Those numbers are well below what the other action icons did, and are downright disgraceful when compared with the rest of the Die Hard franchise.

In happier times.

***

Statistics

Opening weekend: $29.3 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 16/28

Best Line: "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” It’s not that it’s a good use of the franchise’s trademark line, it’s just that there is nothing else I can put here. 

Best Kill: In all the explosions and gunfire, I don’t think McClane notches a single memorable kill. I’ll give him half-credit for his son throwing the villain off a roof and into a helicopter rotor.

***

Rankings

1. Schwarzenegger

2. Stallone

3. Willis

4. Statham

Analysis: Willis needed a much stronger showing than he got in order to challenge Schwarzenegger and Stallone. The real story here is how much Statham could have closed the gap on Willis if he’d released something good. I bet you he’s reading this right now and wishing he’d starred in another Crank movie instead of Parker.

***

Next Up: The Gauntlet’s final entrant, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, tries to protect his juvenile delinquent son by becoming an FBI informant. Professional wrestling ensues.

Ow! My Balls!

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