John McClane has become a superhero in increments. Taken sequentially, each Die Hard sequel feels like a semi-reasonable, if not precisely logical, extension of its predecessor. Die Hard 2 is a bigger version of Die Hard, moving the lone terrorist-fighting cop from an office building to a sprawling airport; Die Hard with a Vengeance ups the ante from Die Hard 2 by expanding to the whole of New York City; Live Free or Die Hard bloats out further to replay that formula on a coastal level; and now we have arrived at the Russia-set A Good Day to Die Hard, which feels like a junky sequel to Live Free — and bears little resemblance to the first movie.
That first movie had an action-picture purity unlikely to be recaptured in any sequel; to this point, then, the Die Hard sequels have all functioned as enjoyable imitations with varying degrees of paleness — an entertaining outlet for the John McClane/Bruce Willis persona. There was no reason to expect anything less from A Good Day to Die Hard, which sends McClane out to Russia to retrieve Jack (Jai Courtney), the black-sheep son he assumes to be in big trouble. Jack turns out to be, in the first of many improbabilities, a CIA agent, and McClane finds himself in the middle of another terrorism plot, of sorts.
Take the movie’s first big action sequence: McClane bursts into the middle of a covert CIA operation, demands to speak to his son, and a massive car chase ensues between the bad guys, the CIA, and McClane. At first, it seems like director John Moore is going to cut the sequence too fast, as has become the car-chase standard, but as the scene presses on, you realize that the shots, while sometimes quick, are almost always long enough to identify; Moore just cuts between them nonsensically. By the time the smashing comes to a close, it looks like Moore didn’t actually get the requisite footage needed to make a convincing and scannable fast-cut car chase, and scrambled to assemble random bits of Willis, anonymous bad guys, and cars to create the impression of a set piece.
The incoherence makes it easy to focus on the story mechanics of this scene, which are equally nonsensical when they aren’t actively off-putting. To participate in this chase (ostensibly helping his son), McClane steals a civilian’s car and crashes over countless vehicles — all in the name of talking to and/or “saving” his son. In the other movies, even at their most ridiculous, McClane was a cop in a tight spot. In A Good Day to Die Hard, he’s so far out of his jurisdiction that his behavior seems vaguely psychotic; the old action-movie standby of commandeering a civilian vehicle looks an awful lot like plain old theft. I’m not sure, but I think the movie finds McClane’s chasing down of his son to be charmingly old-school; that’s probably why he angrily and repeatedly insists that he’s “on vacation” even though the express purpose of this trip is to get his son out of a perceived jam — not a vacation at all. (Was the “on vacation” line left over from a previous draft of the script, credited to batting-zero hack-for-hire Skip Woods? If so, I wish they had used it; McClane visiting his son in Russia on vacation makes about a thousand percent more sense than his rogue mission to retrieve him — and, you know, squares with the wisecrack the movie wants to use.)
There are flashes of the McClane who survived four previous films with plenty of goodwill intact. Early in the movie, pre-mayhem, he has an amusing exchange with a Russian cabbie. There are a handful of stunts that defy normal human physical capabiltiies — but in a fun, Die Hard sequel sort of way, like a pleasingly ridiculous bit with a helicopter toward the end. Even at his most hardened, superheroic, and borderline psychotic, McClane brings out the sort of movie star charisma Willis rarely deigns to waste on action roles (when he goes full actor, as in Moonrise Kingdom or Looper, it’s another story — like a parallel universe of a career).
But the reluctant bonding between McClane and son never really comes off, the Russian location amounts to abandoned warehouses in a different time zone, and the movie is as unpleasantly mercenary in its execution as McClane’s unsanctioned bad-guy killing spree. Moore directs his shot at the Die Hard title like he’s just trying to slap together enough action-thriller crap to qualify his assemblage as a feature film. A Good Day to Die Hard isn’t just half-boring and indifferently made; at its worst, it’s downright dispiriting.