It’s been 25 years since Bruce Willis first played scrappy New York police detective John McClane, a role that would launch him from television star to action-movie icon. Highly regarded for its ingeniously efficient narrative structure, 1988’s Die Hard is considered by many to be one of the greatest action movies of all time.
A Good Day to Die Hard finds McClane once again playing reluctant hero when his estranged son Jack (Jack Reacher’s Jai Courtney) is arrested in Russia for murder. Dropped at the airport by his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, reprising her role from 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard), who pleads with him not to get into any trouble, McClane soon learns Jack has become mired in a political firestorm between the slick Russian criminal Chagarin and his former partner in crime, the bookishly idealistic Komarov.
Amid the chaos of a savage and deadly political scandal, father and son grudgingly join forces to prevent a disaster of epic proportions, but a deeply disappointing script and sloppy direction mean neither McClane will survive the fifth entry of the franchise unscathed.
One of the more inspired moments has McClane, a fish out of water in Russia, attempting to speak the language to a local taxi driver. Too bad this is the only glimpse the audience gets of the charming protagonist of Die Hard movies past. In every other scene, Willis is playing the ugly American. Case in point: The character punches out an innocent civilian before stealing his SUV and making a snide comment about not being able to understand the man's protests. Aside from being gross, the behavior feels needlessly callous and makes the once loveable character look like a relic of the Cold War.
McClane has always been known for his acerbic wit, but in A Good Day to Die Hard, the character has evolved into a quip-happy Bugs Bunny parody, periodically shouting “Some fucking vacation!” as he fearlessly leaps out of tall buildings.
What’s missing isn’t just a reality check of what the human body can withstand; it’s also the genuine and relatable fear McClane felt in previous installments at being thrown into terrifying circumstances. By comparison, McClane version 5.0 drives off bridges and leaps into molten pools of radiation-laced water with zero anxiety about the outcome. He even appears bored by the carnage around him, making the character about as relatable as a hand grenade.
Even with his own flesh and blood, McClane feels like the bad guy. When he finally learns Jack isn’t a murderer for the Russian mob but instead a CIA operative working under cover, he doesn’t express relief at the development, but contempt, ridiculing his son's profession and dubbing him the “007 of Plainfield, New Jersey.”
The tax breaks for filming in Russia must be extraordinary, because aside from one rather terrific car chase on Moscow’s Garden Ring, the filmmakers take poor advantage of the locale. A story steeped in spies, Reagan-era politics and Chernobyl might hark back to the heyday of the first film and better days for the franchise, but the idea of Russian terrorists as it is presented here feels incredibly dated and out of touch.
Director John Moore also appears out of touch and without a clear thread of the bond between father and son. No sense of shared history exists between the McClanes, who speak abstractly about their damaged relationship. As actors, Willis and Courtney don't even appear to share the same idea of what it was that made their characters estranged in the first place.
The script, by Skip Woods (The A-Team) is a bland action-movie gumbo, which includes overblown stunt sequences, contrived double crosses and a lame MacGuffin that takes the form of a mysterious file, which every government, political entity and person in the film is desperate to possess, even though none of them appears to know what "the file" is or what it contains.
Willis made excellent choices in 2012 with the delightfully quirky Moonrise Kingdom and the existential time-travel mystery Looper, but despite the fleeting feeling of nostalgia fans might experience at seeing the actor with a big gun, there is little to love about the fifth installment of the franchise.
A Good Day to Die Hard opens today nationwide.