25 years after his first adventure, NYPD Detective John McClane is back, in his fifth film, A Good Day to Die Hard. McClane’s last outing, in 2007, we were given man left behind by the modern world and confronted with a threat he couldn’t fully comprehend. He was partnered with a geeky companion, and the juxtaposition was the perfect way to reintroduce Die Hard for the modern era. This time out, McClane travels to Russia in an attempt to help his son, who has been arrested for an assassination. I can see how this seemed like the perfect setup, offering plenty of opportunity for McClane to be a fish-out-of-water in a similar way to the very first film. The only problem is that I think the filmmakers have never seen a Die Hard movie before.
Live Free or Die Hard did almost everything right back in 2007, with my only real complaint being that they cut the film to get a PG-13 rating. That error has been fixed for A Good Day to Die Hard, but the R rating came at the cost of losing all of the positives from 6 years ago. This latest Die Hard is a clunky mess, a generic action film that seems to have no idea who it stars. When the original Die Hard came out in 1988, it was unlike anything that had been seen. McClane was a foul-mouthed improviser with a sharp wit, whose genuine fear at the situation did not hold him back from what he had to do but did make the audience relate to him in a way that no action movie had ever captured before. Over the course of his next three movies, that character grew and evolved into a hero with genuine problems (family, alcohol, technology) who was nevertheless the best man for the job.
In A Good Day to Die Hard, McClane is mostly a colorless hero, spraying and endless supply of bullets into the bad guys. It’s really a shame because Bruce Willis is a unique actor, a tough guy who is relatable and has wicked comedic sensibilities, and John McClane is possibly the greatest of all action characters. Things aren’t made any better by the rest of the cast. Jai Courtney plays McClane’s son, Jack, who has no defining characteristics other than he looks like he could be related to Willis. Jack, it seems, is actually working for the CIA (“The 007 of Plainfield, New Jersey,” John says, with a laugh) and his presence in Russia is part of some elaborate exfiltration scheme to remove a political prisoner from the country. The plot may have sounded interesting on paper, but it comes off as a convoluted tangle, so that by the time our heroes wind up at Chernobyl, we’ve long lost interest in the story.
A Good Day to Die Hard does have a handful of enjoyable moments, though they’re too few and far between to save the film. The action starts almost immediately (after some brief exposition and a cameo from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Jack’s daughter, Lucy, who appeared in the previous film) with an impressively filmed car chase. It’s one of those refreshing action sequences that feels as if everything was filmed for real, rather than using computer effects. McClane grumbles his way through it in a style that offers hope for the rest of the film, despite the chase’s complete lack of context (at this point in the film, I basically had no idea what was going on). Unfortunately it’s downhill from there, as the plot sets in and the humor mostly dies. McClane’s signature line is there of course, in a moment of McClane improvisation that feels like it fits the character despite the insanity of the context.
The one truly great moment in the film (mild spoiler) comes as Jack and John are tied up and being questioned by bad guys. John spots Jack removing a hidden knife and preparing to cut himself free, and he starts to laugh. The villain gets angry and asks John what he’s laughing about, but John smiles to himself, shakes his head and says, “I can’t tell you,” in perfect McClane fashion. It’s a moment that feels like it was written by a different writer (or more likely improvised by Bruce Willis, as he’s rumored to have done for much of the first film), and it’s a shame that there aren’t more moments like it. Instead, what we get is a straightforward, by-the-numbers explosion flick, with a convoluted spy plot and a weak father-son storyline, that just happens to feature John McClane. It’s as if he walked into someone else’s movie.
Imagine, instead, a movie with a similar setup: John McClane goes to Russia to find his estranged son. Except instead of a beefy spy, Jack McClane is a bookish, liberal arts sort of guy, who clashed with his father’s alpha male personality. John finds Jack in a museum, as part of a tour through Europe. While there the museum is taken control of by art thieves, and the inhabitants are taken hostage. John and Jack escape and must fight the hostage-takers and save the day, all while clashing over culture and their differences. There could be funny bits of John struggling to deal with people who don’t speak English and Jack learning his father is more than just a mindless killing machine. It’d be great fun, have a more endearing story, and most of all would be more Die Hard than the movie we were given. Hell, make Jack gay and the film could make a statement about an older generation coming to grips with things they’ve never experienced.
The funny thing is that A Good Day to Die Hard is not, in fact, a bad movie. It’s just a mediocre one. However, mediocre when compared to the Die Hard series is the equivalent of a total flop compared to the average film. I hope that this movie isn’t the one that finally finishes John McClane, because the character and the legacy are just too good to end this way. The series already survived the less-than-stellar Die Hard 2 and continued on with the brilliant Die Hard with a Vengeance, so it can certainly come back from this. There’s even talk of bringing Bonnie Bedelia back as Holly Gennaro (McClane) which I think could be brilliant, but only if the filmmakers learn from their mistakes. They made Die Hard ordinary, and in the end that’s the worst criticism of all.