I’m not sure what’s more depressing about A Good Day to Die Hard — its gassy qualitative failings, or the fact that star Bruce Willis, never particularly shy about what he deemed some of the shortcomings of the second and third movies in the series, thinks that this is what audiences want to see from beleaguered police detective John McClane. Unquestionably the worst entry of the once-great 25-year-old action franchise, this fifth film has the look, feel and defunct personality of an anonymous 1980s actioner. Drained of the spirit, charm and meticulous smarts that made the original movie such a breath of fresh air within its genre — and indeed, elevated it to a piece of great filmmaking, period — it’s an across-the-board dud.
Directed in mostly plodding fashion by John Moore, A Good Day to Die Hard plops McClane (Willis) down in Moscow, where he’s headed on some sort of impromptu diplomatic make-good mission, to try to assist his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney, the top villainous henchman of Jack Reacher). Jack’s been charged with trying to kill a scientist, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), on behalf of Chagarin (Sergey Kolesnikov), a former partner who has political aspirations and is eager to eliminate anyone who can testify to his dirty past. Little does McClane know, however, that his son is actually an undercover CIA agent, and in reality tasked with breaking Komarov free and protecting him in advance of American bureaucratic extraction. When things immediately get a little blow-uppy, John and Jack find themselves on the lam with Komarov and his daughter, Irina (Yulia Snigir), trying to stay out of the crosshairs of Chagarin’s henchman, Alik (Rasha Bukvic).
The vulnerability of McClane — physically, with his bare feet, but also emotionally, with his fractured marriage and two young kids — was a huge part of what made 1988’s Die Hard so special, and made the character’s wisecracks, alternately self-effacing and panicked, so swollen with legitimate feeling. In stark contrast to the hulking physicality of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, Willis’ character, his first starring big screen role, was a true Everyman — outnumbered and most of the time physically overmatched, but possessing of an indefatigable will and an inherent sense of wrong and right.
In A Good Day to Die Hard, McClane stills has quips, but they’re empty, pointless action movie rejoinders, and the manner in which he acts — at one point punching out an innocent guy after a car accident, in order to take his vehicle — feels like an utter betrayal of the character. When, late in the movie, he says he and Jack should be “doing our thing, out there killing scumbags,” it rings false, because that’s never what McClane, a reluctant hero, has been.
Instead, the screenplay, by Skip Woods (Swordfish, Hitman, The A-Team) and Jason Keller,
tries for a bit of parent-child reconciliation parallelism in the form of the McClanes and Komarov and Irina, though this is so half-sketched as to hardly matter. While missing some easy and potentially smart franchise callbacks (the notion of McClane as a nervous flier, and a chance to “shoot the glass”), it instead crams in a couple nods of homage
to the original movie (some helicopter stuff, a villain’s fall) which
seem especially awkward and forced. And while there’s a requisite twist, the villains and their plot — concerning some loose nuclear material from the Chernobyl disaster — are so colorlessly shaded as to invite complete disregard. In fact, the script lacks so much in the way of intelligence that it falls back on old cliches like having its villain eat theatrically (in this case a carrot… yes, seriously) whilst rhapsodizing about how much he hates Americans.
At its core, there is a chasm between the filmmakers of A Good Day to Die Hard. Its insistent editing — full of zooms and pulses — headlines a technical package that evinces no confidence (and rather justifiably so) in its actual narrative. An early chase sequence anchored by practical effects and the destruction of lots of automobiles offers some undeniably pulse-pounding thrills, but it’s all downhill from there. The film’s conclusion, awash in murky greys on a cheap-looking set, feels downright made for television. Even on the small screen, however, this Die Hard doesn’t represent a good day of work for Willis or anyone else — and certainly not a good time for viewers. (20th Century Fox, R, 97 minutes)