In A Good Day to Die Hard, John McClane emerges from a taxi cab in Moscow as a man finally transformed into an action movie caricature. Sure, the three installments standing between this film and the 1988 original have done their part to dehumanize their hero, but even Live Free or Die Hard, where the boozing, troubled detective launches a cop car into a helicopter like a kid seeking an achievement trophy on the X-Box 360, knows its protagonist well enough to put something of his—a daughter—up as stakes against the megalomaniacal villain of the moment. Not here. As soon as McClane lands in Russia, he’s running and jumping and shooting through a procession of grey, vaguely Russian sets with his son, who has grown up to be a CIA superspy. John McClane in 1988 winces as he walks barefoot across a sea of broken glass. John McClane in 2013 leaps from a tall building and pinballs through chutes and girders, miraculously dodging machine gun fire from a helicopter before landing on the ground, where he pulls a hunk of rusted metal from his son’s abdomen without so much as a hint of concern.
John McClane is minimized in what’s been marketed as a tribute to his legacy, to the point that both his son (Jai Courtney) and daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, in a brief cameo) make light of or treat as a burden their father’s decades-spanning, if incidental, career thwarting large-scale terrorist plots. They seem resigned to the fact that his mere presence in Russia means that cars will be smashed, guns will be fired, and anything combustible will explode. McClane was formerly an interesting protagonist. He drank too much. He was estranged from his wife. He was distant from his children. Even with a machine gun in his face, the worst part of his day was waking up with a hangover. Now he’s been neutered. He’s just an ornery old man, but not in the way of so many Clint Eastwood characters. John McClane is Bruce Willis in The Expendables: an image meant to inspire nostalgia and given one throwaway joke. Here, it’s that he’s on vacation, a sentiment as truthful as it is funny. McClane repeats the phrase so often you wonder if director John Moore had Willis record it once in a soundbooth so it could be played whenever things got too quiet.
Despite every attempt to convolute things, the plot of A Good Day to Die Hard is stupidly simple. John McClane, hearing that his son is in some kind of unspecified trouble in Moscow, hops a plane and ends up making a mess of a years-long sting intended to flip a Russian dissident (Sebastian Koch), who has spent the last few decades in prison due to his connection to the Chernobyl disaster. Things between John and his son are pretty sour, which is reflected upon whenever the McClanes aren’t haphazardly massacring civilians: Jack refuses to call his father “Dad,” instead opting for his Christian name, and both men agree that they don’t come from a “hugging family.” It’d be tragic were not these macho platitudes meant to be celebrated.
Willis is often accused of not trying very hard in vehicles like this, letting his smirk and the accumulated dirt on his wifebeater do the heavy lifting, but movies like RED, Looper, and Moonrise Kingdom either work with or around Willis’ limitations, using him less as a featured attraction than as part of their palette. That’s impossible here, given that Bruce Willis is John McClane, and that a Die Hard movie without him simply isn’t a Die Hard movie at all, but there are ways of accounting for Willis—interesting villains, innovative action sequences, a non-standard plot—that A Good Day to Die Hard has no interest in. Sure, there’s a lot of smoke as to who the bad guy is, but when picking one out from a line-up of uninspired Russian mafia types, does the end result really matter?
No, and that’s exactly why the McClanes make a 12-hour car ride to Chernobyl in 30-minutes: so that the fallen statues and ruined hammers and sickles of the ruined city can once again beat the dead horse of Cold War nostalgia. Here, in the third act, things get implausible—the lightspeed trip to the city, the chemical spray that immediately de-radiates the area it’s sprayed in, the fact that the McClanes walk around Chernobyl wearing regular clothes when every Russian in the city is wearing a biohazard suit—but not in a fun way. There are thirty-something well-trained Eurothugs patrolling the city with an arsenal of guns, explosives, and helicopters. There are two Americans among them, loudly dispatching everything in their crosshairs. A Good Day to Die Hard is just another action movie asking its audience to believe and be invested in this scenario.
Every Die Hard movie, in an effort to somehow be bigger and badder—more Die Harder—than the first, has comicaly exaggerated McClane’s abilities or his wit. A Good Day to Die Hard is guilty of the former and largely abandons the later. Say what you will about any of Die Hard‘s sequels, but none of them have felt this unnecessary. A “Die Hard” movie in name only and a “Bruce Willis movie” insofar as it’s a movie Bruce Willis appears in, A Good Day to Die Hard could have been called anything, could have starred anybody but Willis, and would have been better off, if only for the lack of comparison. Do the movie a favor and cast the albatross around its neck overboard, and you’re still left with a sub par action movie, the kind that’s released early in the year not to grab a larger audience during the late-winter burial period, but because it’s one of the films being buried.
A Good Day to Die Hard. With Bruce Willis (John McClane), Jai Courtney (Jack McClane), Sebastian Koch (Yuri Komarov), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lucy McClane), Yuliya Snigir (Irina), and Cole Hauser (Mike Collins). Directed by John Moore and produced by Alex Young and Wyck Godfrey. Screenplay by Skip Woods, based on characters created by Roderick Thorp.