Except in very rare cases, film franchises of a certain age eventually move past the challenge to build a better mouse trap every time, toward simply building a viable or interesting one. As with a long-running play, we don’t just know the key characters, we know the personality tics of the actors playing them so well that we can anticipate their likely line readings as they encounter the usual plot points or crises.
But we keep coming to the theater to see each one of these movies for a reason: we happen to really enjoy the series. In the best cases, we love that series—there is a pure joy associated with that character, that star, and the cinematic journey that we’ve been through on the previous installments. And for a new addition to the series to succeed, the people behind it need to have (or at least be able to fake) that same joy, enthusiasm, and, yes, even love for the series as well.
That just isn’t the case with John Moore’s A Good Day to Die Hard—a tired, by-the-numbers presentation that, given its lack of imagination or inventiveness, would have been more honestly titled Son of Die Hard.
The film opens with Det. John McClane (Bruce Willis, as if you need reminding) setting off to Russia to help and maybe retrieve his son, who is in trouble with the Russian authorities for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to McClane. However, upon arrival McClane gets a first-row seat to an audacious (and literally) explosive attack on the Russian courthouse where his son John (Jai Courtney) is about to face trial side by side with a notorious Russian underworld figure, Komarov (Sebastian Koch). To McClane’s confusion, John then leads Komarov to safety away from the attackers. McClane, not understanding what is going on, first messes up the getaway plan before eventually helping his son and Komarov to escape from the pursuing assassins.
Once the trio arrives at a hideout, McClane is filled in on the fact that his son is a CIA operative in the middle of a mission: to retrieve Komarov and a file implicating his former partner, a powerful and dangerous Russian politician, in crimes that led to the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster. But Komarov also has a lethally vengeful daughter (played by the exotically beautiful Yuliya Snigir, because that’s how they grow them in the Die Hard universe). More double crosses emerge, and ultimately a diabolical plan more grandly diabolical than anyone had anticipated—all the more stuff for McClane to sniff out and thwart.
The film does deliver all the twists and roadblocks that we expect from a Die Hard film—and there is destruction aplenty. Cars, trucks, helicopters, buildings, and bodies get destroyed or, as they used to say on SCTV, “blowed up real good”. The problem is, the plot turns out to be kind of a yawner, and the actors don’t bring an ounce of charisma—neither Courtney, as McClane’s alternately sulky and no-nonsense son, nor the bland set of bad guys who collectively have the threatening presence of a file clerk at the passport office. Seriously, Alan Rickman’s wristwatch in the classic first Die Hard had more menace than all of these guys (and girl) put together.
With no one to “play with,” Willis’s performance suffers as well. The previous installment, the infinitely more enjoyable Live Free or Die Hard, had that kind of chemistry in spades. Willis needs to be surrounded by personalities like Justin Long, Kevin Smith, and Timothy Olyphant – guys that can crack wise, bring a smart-ass attitude, or have a little crazy glint in their eyes to give Willis something to play off of. There is none of that in this film. The only holdover from that film, Mary Elizabeth Winsted (who showed great promise playing McClane’s daughter, Lucy), shows up very briefly to pick up a check—I mean, her dad—to drive him to the airport. And no, I’m not kidding (on either point).
All of this dilutes the goodwill we have for McClane. And despite Willis’s best efforts, the movie makes him skew more boorish than entertaining—the stereotypically ugly American, in Russia.
When the original Star Trek cast was making feature films, the conventional wisdom was that the even-numbered entries were great and the odd-numbered ones sucked. For anyone other than the truest and most forgiving Die Hard lover, that now looks to be the pattern for this series as well. Here’s hoping the next installment will be a good one—right on schedule.