A Good Day to Die Hard is the third movie in four weeks — following The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head — to take an aging star and feebly attempt to conjure some of the magic that made them popular several decades ago. (It’s the fourth movie if you also count Stand Up Guys, which wasn’t really about action stars but was definitely a lame shot at a comeback.) It’s a weak and disappointing film for many, many reasons, but the biggest is probably the sad manner with which the film eagerly tries to wind the clock back and trick the viewer into think that it’s still 1988 outside. The hero here is once again John McClane (Bruce Willis), and the villains are once again scuzzy Europeans. It’s been 25 years since the first Die Hard, but there’s no attempt here to update the story or evolve with the times. The film longs so desperately for the narratively simpler days of the Cold War that the enemies are actual high-ranking Russian political figures. What’s more, director John Moore and writer Skip Woods don’t hesitate to re-enact moments from the original film, which does nothing but underscore just how amateurish and forgettable their sequel is. The writing is thudding and predictable, the direction shows a staggering lack of understanding of basic visual space, and the filmmaking is so clumsy that certain scenes and beats have been omitted presumably because no one figured the viewers would care. It coasts smugly on its namesake, unable or unwilling to do anything to feel fresh or entertaining. If it weren’t for the franchise branding, it’s unlikely this film would even have been made. If only.
The hook this time finds McClane heading to Russia to find his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who’s been arrested for committing a politically motivated murder. McClane shows up right as Jack is being escorted into court alongside a man named Komarov (Sebastian Koch), a political prisoner who’s probably going to be put to death by Chagarin (Sergey Kolesnikov), a powerful official in line to be what’s probably defense minister. (The detail escapes me, but it’s pointless in the bigger picture anyway.) The trial or hearing or whatever’s about to happen is derailed not long after it starts, though, when Chagarin’s men blow up half the courthouse in an attempt to extract Komarov and retrieve from him the file he’s got on Chagarin that would ruin Chagarin’s reputation and chances of coming to power. That plan falls apart when Jack escapes with Komarov, though, because Jack’s actually an undercover CIA agent tasked with keeping Komarov safe and using him to take down Chagarin. Now, the stunning coincidence of Chagarin’s team’s assault isn’t really discussed. I mean, if Jack knew they were coming, why risk getting himself and his key asset killed? If he didn’t know they were coming, why was his escape apparently timed to happen then anyway? Once Jack flees with Komarov, he contacts his CIA handlers and is told he’s already a few minutes behind on his mission to get Komarov to a specific extraction point. So did Jack have a plan to escape the courtroom that was thwarted by Chagarin’s assault, even though the assault let Jack escape anyway? Or did he know about the impending attack and plan to use it as his exit, which again, if so, why take the risk?
These are the kinds of nagging questions that would unravel the most basic story you’d tell someone, to say nothing of a screenplay. But the whole movie is like that. It defiantly resists every urge to feel real or relatable, or even possessed of consequence. Moore’s filmmaking technique could charitably be called rough, reliant as it is on aesthetics cribbed from modern action movies (sweeping circular tracking shots, excessive use of close-ups and handheld shots during chases, a curious desire to process everything with a blue-green tint) and often ignorant of narrative continuity. For instance, when Jack and Komarov escape the courthouse after it explodes, they’re still handcuffed. A few beats later, we see Jack commandeer a van, and though the cuffs are still on his wrists, the chain that bound them is broken. Did he shoot the chain, or just develop superhuman strength? Jack leads Chagarin’s men on a car chase throughout the city, joined by McClane, who saw Jack flee, stopped him momentarily, and then stole a truck to keep up. The chase scene is choppy and unimpressive, setting the template for the bland and uninspired action that will follow for the rest of the film, and the occasional cuts to the CIA office that’s communicating with Jack are so poorly done — composed with oblique angles, rapid shakes, atrocious lighting, and nonsensical blocking — that I started to wonder if Moore had filmed that way as a response to a dare, or as punishment for losing a studio wager. At no point does he or the film exhibit anything like life.
If anything, A Good Day to Die Hard is nothing more than a re-animated corpse painted to look like the original film. When a bad guy gets chucked off a roof, we’re given a slow-motion view of his fall, a direct copy of the end of the first film. A climactic battle scene uses music cues from the first film, as well, and there are references to “cowboys” and even a water hose on a red metal wheel like the one McClane used to swing off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza a quarter-century ago. Such touches are a bad idea. They can do nothing but remind people that the movie they’re watching isn’t nearly as fun or energetic or impressive as the one that started it all. They feel like objects someone would use in a fan film, funded by hangers-on with no goal other than to graft a movie they love onto a story no one should see. As McClane and son join forces to carry out their mission with Komarov — then deal with the inevitable complications and twists — it feels like you’re watching someone paint themselves into a storytelling corner with increasingly outlandish ideas.
Woods’ script is also laughably bad at building any kind of tension or momentum. The thing that makes action movies work — including the original Die Hard — is the believability of the evil at hand. Villains have to present a real threat to the hero. Yet the bad guys here are stupid and interchangeable, and they’re prone to the most idiotic mistakes. At one point, McClane and his son are apprehended by Chagarin’s right-hand man, Alik (Radivoje Bukvic). Rather than kill them immediately, he toys with them, giving them plenty of time to escape. There’s no reason for him to do this. He doesn’t know these men, and we’ve been given no chance to see their battle of wills escalate. This isn’t Hans Gruber holding a man’s wife hostage as payback for an ongoing personal war; this is just a lazy villain spinning his wheels because the writer needed him to. There’s a reason that the most interesting movies in the Die Hard franchise have revolved around the way personal vendettas can cloud bigger criminal activity, specifically in the fight between McClane and the Gruber brothers. A Good Day to Die Hard doesn’t realize that action is nothing without a story behind it.
Action movies have changed a lot in the past 25 years, and Die Hard had a lot to do with that. The film marked the beginning of the end of 1980s action, which revolved around giant glistening men and piles of guns, and ushered in an era that attempted to inject (slightly) more realism into the genre. The movies were about smaller men, and men who could get hurt. Even Jason Bourne, the John McClane of his generation, wasn’t invincible. Yet the John McClane of the first film wouldn’t recognize the one from the fifth. The younger McClane said things like, “She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times. She never heard me say ‘I’m sorry.’” This one says things like, “Hey, boy, it’s been a good day. Let’s go kill some bad guys.” The younger man expressed emotions like fear, worry, joy, happiness, regret; this one exists in a state of perpetual smirking anger. The younger man was strong, but he was also human: he got winded after fights, and when he cut himself, the wounds didn’t just disappear. This older McClane, though, can fly through buildings and carom off walls without losing a beat. He never gets tired. He seems to regenerate tissue at will. He never seems to be in real danger. Oddly enough, in a sad attempt to re-create one of the most humanizing action movies ever made, Moore’s made one about a robotic gunman programmed with familiar phrases and a two-dimensional personality. A kind of terminator, if you will. A Good Day to Die Hard is a sequel, but it isn’t a step forward at all. It’s a regression, and an ugly one.