Jai Courtney's career is really starting to move

Posted 7:25am on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013

By late 2011, Jai Courtney had given up on trying to take Hollywood by storm and simply wanted to go home.

The brawny Aussie actor had absented himself from the Land Down Under for nearly half a year to hustle work in the Northern Hemisphere, spending 3 1/2 months in Pittsburgh to portray an evil mercenary in the romper-stomper Tom Cruise action flick Jack Reacher. Less than 24 hours after Courtney auditioned for his most high-profile role to date -- co-starring in the new installment of the blockbuster "Die Hard" film franchise, A Good Day To Die Hard -- his mind was not on his next job. It was on boarding his flight at LAX.

"I was not going to gamble on this -- I had been away so long," Courtney, 26, recalled. "I went to the airport and was walking down the jetway when my manager called. She said, 'You've gotta get off and get your bag. They want you to test with Bruce.'"

Bruce, of course, being Bruce Willis, the franchise's yippee-kai-yea-ing forward face, whose previous four "Die Hard" films have combined to gross more than $1.2 billion worldwide. Reprising his role as hard-knock police detective John McClane, the '80s action stalwart had final say over who would be hired to play his character's long-estranged -- and now pistol-packing, combat-trained -- son, Jack.

It was a hotly contested part for which such Hollywood up-and-comers as The Hunger Games' Liam Hemsworth, Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul and D.J. Cotrona ( G.I. Joe: Retaliation) were reportedly in serious contention. There was a screen test, some gunplay in front of a camera crew, and a natural chemistry between Willis and Courtney blossomed.

"He sounded like me," Willis, 57, explained recently. "He got the character, got what he had to do and just seemed like family."

The son also rises

Landing the role in A Good Day To Die Hard stands as a coup for Courtney, a drama school grad whose biggest credit before Jack Reacher was a 10-episode stint on the New Zealand-shot Starz swords-and-sandals series Spartacus in 2010.

The Sydney native capably handles the physical rigors of the Die Hard role; his character crashes through windows, jumps down garbage chutes, attempts to reconcile a tenuous father-son relationship amid hails of gunfire and wages a single-handed rooftop battle with a military assault helicopter. But in accepting the part, Courtney was implicitly handed the torch for the future of "Die Hard," one of 20th Century Fox's most enduringly lucrative properties.

"The log line to the whole casting process was, 'It's the son and the idea is, one day he'll take over the whole franchise,'" Courtney said.

Over a bloody mary at a Beverly Hills watering hole, however, the actor quickly clarified his standpoint on any post-Willis "Die Hard" films. "If I'm being fair, it's all about Bruce. He's the one constant throughout. If you took him out, I don't know how I'd feel about it," Courtney said. "I'd love to do another one with Bruce, though."

Set in Russia -- and employing every cent of its $100 million production budget to bring to the screen some of the most concussive mayhem, steroidal car chases and gnarly shoot-'em-up action in recent memory -- A Good Day To Die Hard references the original 1988 film's theme of hangdog heroism while heaping on additional genre trappings like so many pizza toppings.

The film opens with Jack, a reputed mob thug, on trial in Moscow for murdering a Russian gangster. The predicament compels John McClane to head east to explicate the mess. But as is necessarily the case in any "Die Hard" film, the truth is messier and far bloodier than it appears.

Jack escapes captivity just in time to reveal himself as a CIA operative in a smash-mouth, meet-cute scene with his father. Although initially leery of each other, the two are soon in cahoots attempting the seemingly impossible exfiltration of a political prisoner -- whose possession of a mysterious key could topple Russia's government. Between bursts of automatic-weapons fire, father and son also try to sort out their emotional baggage.

From Australia to America

It's all a far cry from the earnest theatrical-studies curriculum Courtney pursued at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (also fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman's alma mater), where the fledgling actor immersed himself in Shakespeare and Chekhov while harboring fantasies about breaking into mainstream moviedom.

In 2011, after his portrayal of the doomed Roman gladiator Varro on Spartacus helped establish his action-star bona fides, Courtney landed a splashy part as a paramilitary heavy -- Tom Cruise's trigger-happy antagonist -- in Jack Reacher. On that set, Courtney was schooled in the ways of wielding an assault rifle and casually instructed on how to crash a car into an A-list movie star.

"There's a driving sequence where Tom and I are slamming into each other in these vehicles," said Courtney. "It literally was Tom and I. The rehearsal was like, 'OK, Jai, here's you and here's me. We're going to go into each other like this. Three, two, one, action!'"

He now joins the ranks of Aussie heartthrobs in Hollywood including Chris Hemsworth ( Thor), brother Liam Hemsworth ( The Hunger Games), Ryan Kwanten ( True Blood), Sam Worthington ( Avatar) and Joel Edgerton ( Zero Dark Thirty).

In the coming months, Courtney will be seen in two more high-profile projects: the horror-thriller I, Frankenstein, directed by Pirates of the Caribbean scribe Stuart Beattie, and the Australian cop drama Felony opposite Edgerton and Tom Wilkinson.

But the young actor remains intent on resisting categorization. For a career model, Courtney points to Jackman and his capacity to deliver in big-budget studio action fare (four installments of the blockbuster "X-Men" franchise), sweeping movie epics such as Les Miserables and even Broadway musicals, including The Boy From Oz.

"I'm sure once Die Hard comes out there'll be offers for action-heavy stuff. That's not necessarily what I want to do next," Courtney said. "I hope to explore a diverse landscape of genres. I'm trying not to box myself in."

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