Dated by 25 years, “Die Hard” is still a first-rate action yarn that found a perfect fit for Bruce Willis’ physicality and quippy sense of humor. It also coined the catchphrase “Yippee ki-yay!” The next two ’90s-released sequels (“Die Hard 2″ and “Die Hard: With a Vengeance”) were entertaining and grew less exceptional, but even 2007’s “Live Free or Die Hard” was a lot of fun to watch. Regardless of anyone actually holding their breath for a fifth “Die Hard” movie, desperately titled “A Good Day to Die Hard,” it’s here anyway, and now would be a good day to let this franchise die. An early teaser might have promised an unadulterated, go-for-broke blast of John McClane’s Greatest Hits with Beethoven’s symphonic “Ode to Joy” blaring, but even for mindless escapism, the final product is much less fun and without any of the former joy.
Ignoring the law of diminishing returns, Willis mails in his star-making role of grizzled New York cop John McClane, who finds himself in more trouble. Or, more trouble finds him. What sets the plot in motion is John’s estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), a CIA operative, being based in Moscow and arrested for murder, so John must “vacation” to Russia’s capital. At the start, his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was kidnapped one movie ago, tells him to behave, but little does she know that Daddy already has four movies under his belt. Before John even reaches the courthouse for Jack’s trial, chaos ensues and the son has broken out, with political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) in tow. Livid over his father’s sudden appearance during his “undercover” mission, McClane Jr. seeks a “file” (isn’t it always a “file?”) and must take Yuri to safety. Naturally, this can’t happen before father and son join forces to take down some Uranium-seeking bad guys and destroy the streets.
A cartoonishly overscaled and wearying free-for-all, “A Good Day to Die Hard” doesn’t even feel like it belongs in the “Die Hard” collection. Even as a generic, cut-and-paste actioner, it doesn’t fit the bill, more closely resembling the hilariously stupid “Taken 2″ with as much destruction and noise as a Michael Bay movie. Director John Moore (who found work after his 2008 anti-diamond “Max Payne”) strips down this fifth film to relentless explosions and gunshots, until nary a building or vehicle is left standing or able to operate. That’d be fine if the knowingly over-the-top action was staged with some finesse and not shot with so much shaky-cam and seemingly cut with a chainsaw. The other offender is Skip Woods’ empty script, an afterthought of nonsensical plotting, majorly lackluster villains, and pointless 11th-hour plot twists of Russian betrayal.
Remember when McClane ejected his seat out of an airplane before it exploded in “Die Hard 2,” or when he drove a car up a ramp to crash into a chopper in “Live Free or Die Hard?” Those were breathlessly inventive set-pieces. Here, before McClane even starts chasing his son on a busy highway, driving off an overpass and onto a car carrier (while his daughter is on speaker phone!), all credibility and consequence get thrown to the winds for preposterous action and stunts of messy destruction. A few explosions get the job done, okay, but when that’s all the film has, and without much tension or heart-pounding excitement, what’s the point when our heroes race around like invulnerable video-game avatars? As soon as John and Jack enter an elegant dining hall with beautiful glass and chandeliers, we know it’s about to be trashed after they’re done with it. And when our heroes crash through a glass window of a high-rise and plummet from floor to floor of the scaffolding, they both come away with merely a few bloody gashes on their foreheads. All that’s left are the viewer’s two responses, “Oh, come on!” and Who’s going to clean all of this up?”
At 57, Willis still has what it takes to perform some practical stunts and spit out one-liners, but McClane needs to retire from going anywhere. He’s just back-up here, helping his son leave destruction of property wherever they go. As for wisecracks, they range from cute to as perfunctory as the film’s tagline, “Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia!” John’s “I’m on vacation!” line is repeated four times and, natch, it grows less amusing with repetition. Australian up-and-comer Courtney is tough and buff, but hopefully he has more to work with on TV’s “Spartacus” because he lends little charisma to the one-note role of Jack.
For the briefly quiet stretches where things pause from going kablooey, the father-son bonding moments fall dramatically flat. When they first come face to face, Jack calls his dad by his first name, pulls a gun on his Pops, and they bicker like 5-year-olds, each telling the other to shut up. Why Jack hates his father so much, aside from estrangement, isn’t clearly fleshed out, so it turns Courtney’s Jack into a whiny hothead. It’s almost self-parody when the McClanes try mending their relationship as they shoot up bad guys. Aww, good father-son time. On top of it all, the coda is prime for more unintended giggles, as the McClane boys reunite with Lucy, without any audio track.
More man-made havoc climaxes in the radioactive Chernobyl (for reasons not worth explaining), and don’t even ask how John and Jack get there in what seems to be only a couple of hours. In what is perhaps a homage to the slow-motion demise of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, there is the satisfying use of a helicopter blade for the evil brains behind the evil operation. Otherwise, any “Die Hard” fan is better off re-watching the original or any of the superior sequels. While the long-running Bond series got better with age, the exciting adventures of John McClane have officially tapered off with this junky, dumbed-down dud. Its grave marker is all ready for burial.
97 min., rated R.
Grade: C –