You’d think that by now any global super-terrorist worth their weight in weapons-grade uranium would have a phonebook-thick file on Det. John McClane, NYPD. Curiously undecorated dismantler of plots both foreign and domestic, veteran of the Naktaomi Plaza hostage incident (ca. 1988), the Washington Dulles International terrorist takeover (ca. 1990), the Federal Reserve dump-truck heist (ca. 1995), the Fourth of July “fire sale” (ca. 2007), and countless other non-canon counter-terrorism ops, McClane has ostensibly accrued a rep as a thorn in the side of Bondian proportions: resilient to the point of invincibility, able to pull to pieces the most carefully considered scheme by his auspicious virtue of being in the wrong place at the right time. For his fifth outing as the unkillable cop, a bulked-down Bruce Willis tumbles through Russia like a modern-day Rasputin, surviving a string of firefights, free-falls, automotive assaults, sucker punches, and a presumably lethal dosage of radioactive exposure by and large unscathed.
Len Wiseman’s Live Free or Die Hard, the franchise’s preceding nadir, rebirthed the too-old-for-this-shit McClane as a PG-13 superhero, ghost-riding cars in helicopters and leap-frogging onto F-35 fighter jets, with mixed results. (The fourth installment feels more like itself in the unrated director’s cut DVD, splatter and swearing satisfyingly restored.) Now, hired hack John Moore taps into the McClane mythology to drain any lingering humanity from the Die Hard series.
In the first three films, the sense was less of McClane simply “killing scumbags,” as he puts it in this one, then of his desperately rescuing office-party prisoners or airborne captives, or preserving the integrity of New York City—and, in turn, the American economy—despite a bruising hangover. This burden of actually giving a damn was shouldered by Justin Long’s hangdog hacker tagalong in Live Free or Die Hard, repeatedly expressing his shock at the human cost of a computer virus he helped seed into the U.S. government’s network of supercomputers. There’s no equivalent sense of vulnerability in A Good Day to Die Hard—in Willis’s character, the rounded-out cast of B-listers, or the plotting. And all despite a limp this-time-it’s-personal premise that has McClane jet-setting to the former Soviet Bloc to sock locals in the face and track down his ne’er-do-well son (Jai Courtney), whose own imperilment is never really an issue, given his introduction as an underworld thug and later reveal as an covert C.I.A. operative.
A Good Day to Die Hard feels like it was reverse-engineered from its “Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia” tagline, a wholly generic international actioner barely distinguished by the presence of Willis’s banner hero. The plot is somehow vaporously thin and needlessly dense at the same time, with the father-son McClanes stamping through Karamazov country in pursuit of a government whistleblower (Sebastian Koch) and his daughter (Yuliya Snigir), who may or may not be in league with a post-perestroika Russian billionaire (Sergei Kolesnikov). Since the dexterous turn by Alan Rickman in the original, Die Hard villains have fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns.
Where the last great film in the series, Die Hard with a Vengeance, succeeded in rewiring a novel formula ported over to action cinema writ large via the “Die Hard in a ____________” screenwriting scenario (see: Passenger 57, Speed, Lockout, et al.), extrapolating the lone-hero under-siege concept to an entire urban (and upstate) backdrop and adding a Heisenbergian element otherwise absent from the franchise (only in Vengeance does a Die Hard criminal mastermind bother to account for the super-cop’s presence), A Good Day to Die Hard chucks any semblance of formula. Here, it’s not even that a Die Hard movie happens to McClane, so much as that McClane skips across the Atlantic to kick start a Die Hard movie, only to squander the whole first act of standing around dumbfounded, yelling after his runaway son.
Moore’s ham-handed management of all the big-budget kablamo does little to invigorate the shaky setup or excessive repentant deadbeat-dad mea-culpa stuff. An early chase through the freeways of Moscow is absolutely garbled—a mess of twitchy zooms, dim, ashy-gray cinematography, and confused crosscuts between three oversized vehicles pursuing one another. A climactic showdown at, no joke, Chernobyl indulges a whole other set of contemporary action-cinema clichés, slow-mo explosions and all, as if Moore is attempting to anxiously split the difference between Paul Greengrass and Zack Snyder, in lieu of evoking the trim classicism of the original film(s) or, heaven forbid, establish something like his own style. In concert with Skip Woods’s moronic screenplay, which valorizes the McClane clan’s cowboy cavaliering as feasible foreign policy, while also trumping up the discerning of John Jr.‘s C.I.A. acumen by showing him call off a lethal drone strike at the last second, A Good Day to Die Hard manages to one-up the cartoonishness of its predecessor.
If the film is singularized by anything, it’s its tacit non-insistence on the continued viability of Willis as an action hero. Live Free or Die Hard, like Rocky Balboa and Rambo, served as a pleasant-enough last gasp at genre nostalgia. But post-Expendables 2 (and The Last Stand, and Bullet to the Head), it’s impossible to view the revival of ‘80s actions icons as anything other than a fogeyish reaction to their own irrelevance. A Good Day to Die Hard can’t even bother to reassert the need for the John McClane character, failing to equip Willis with any passably quotable one liners (even Live Free or Die Hard had a few) and devoting most of its energy to establishing Courtney’s burly, bullet-headed heir apparent as the new face of the franchise—fit to insert himself in the middling ranks of the action-movie hierarchy and cozily get rich, or die hard tryin’.