Die Hard, arguably the best Christmas movie ever made, was revolutionary when it came out 25 years ago. In a decade where action heroes were muscle-bound supermen, Bruce Willis gave us an everyman with an average physique and ordinary problems. When would-be terrorists invaded the skyscraper, he did not respond with over-the-top violence (at least, not immediately) and he got more beat up than Stallone or Schwarzenegger ever did. Every subsequent Die Hard tried to recapture this brilliant formula, and the latest offering A Good Day to Die Hard is no different. But, incoherent on every conceivable level, director John Moore’s foray into the franchise manages to be boring despite its nonstop destruction.
The scale of each Die Hard is bigger than the last, so now policeman John McClane (Willis) is no longer bound by country. He leaves New York for Moscow, where his son Jack (Jai Courtney) is about to go on trial for murder. There’s an explosion at the hearing, so Jack runs away with a Russian political dissident he’s struggling to protect. A car chase ensues, and John helps by repeatedly attacking Jack’s pursuers (like any decent father would). Jack surprises John when he announces he works for the CIA, and the political prisoner is instrumental in the takedown of a corrupt oligarch. Father and son are not on the best of terms, and as the pair destroys every building that comes in their path with all manner of explosives and weaponry, they also reconcile slowly. By the time John and Jack use weapons-grade uranium as a shield — yes, you read that correctly — their bond is more powerful than any megalomaniacal Russian terrorist.
The script by Skip Woods amounts to little more than a vehicle for three major action set pieces. There’s the previously-mentioned car chase, followed by two sequences in which John and Jack make decrepit Russian buildings explode real good. In terms of spatial coherence, Moore’s direction does not consistently follow the laws of physics. The bad guys are driving a tank/truck hybrid, for example, and it’s indestructible unless it’s a hit by car that one McClane is driving. Shoot-outs and explosions unfold without much suspense, so Moore relies on annoyingly shrill music to build-up the tension. The action only works on a moment-to-moment basis, particularly when Jack and John drop from improbable heights without any severe injury. Whenever the characters do speak, which isn’t often, the sound mix is strangely unintelligible. Willis and Courtney’s dialogue is rarely higher than a terse whisper, so there are stretches where it’s near-impossible to understand what they’re saying. Not that it matters, anyway, since Woods’ script makes no attempt to preserve the blue collar charm of the 1988 original.
In 2012, two movies came out that were more Die Hard than A Good Day to Die Hard. Gareth Evans’ The Raid was a brutal, minimalist action film set almost entirely a single building, and the grimly funny Dredd 3D had a similar formula. Moore, on the other hand, creates a more traditional action film, with only a few passing references to the four previous entries (there is a droll reference to the original where, in an act of desperation, John and Jack shoot out all the glass in a crowded room). With a broader scope and improbable stunts, McClane and son move from their everyman roots toward the tough-guy heroics the original film rebelled against. It’s a predictable shift, and the only surprising thing is how Moore handles it with such clumsy, ham-fisted style. Willis already sounds half-asleep when he delivers the classic line, “Yippee ki yay, motherfucker,” so there is not much hope for the audience, either.