“A Good Day to Die Hard” has some of the stuff you expect from a “Die Hard” movie — Bruce Willis as John McClane, insanely over-the-top action — without any of the charm, wit or personality that actually defines the action franchise.
It’s too easy to say “Good Day” is as bad as “Die Hard” gets, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. At 97 minutes — a record brief running time for the franchise — it’s a nasty, brutish and short movie that relies on nonstop destruction to distract from an overly convoluted plot.
The basics of the story involve McClane traveling to Moscow in search of estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney) a.k.a. John Jr., only to discover that Jr. is an undercover CIA agent trying to protect whistleblower Komarov (Sebastian Koch) from government assassins. When things get really heated, the older McClane steps in to help out. Limited father/son bickering follows but mostly the movie is an excuse for massive destruction, explosions, shoot outs, etc.
The plot hinges on double crosses, triple crosses, a lot of shouting about files and an absurd climax in Chernobyl, as if someone uncovered a Cold War action script from the ’80s that had never actually been produced. Unfortunately it’s just the latest bad screenplay from writer Skip Woods (“Hitman,” “Swordfish,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “The A-Team”) collaborating with action hack director John Moore (“Max Payne,” “Behind Enemy Lines”). The biggest mistake was trusting these guys with the “Die Hard” brand, but no one involved seems terribly concerned about quality.
Willis sleepwalks his way through the role, without any trace of the movie star spark that sent his career into overdrive after the original “Die Hard.” Relative newcomer Courtney (a regular on the first season of “Spartacus”) seems to be a capable actor, but his interactions with Willis are flat and his character remains bland and uninteresting throughout. Willis had more fun with Justin Long in “Live Free or Die Hard,” a far more spirited sequel directly referenced here by the fleeting return of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as McClane’s disapproving daughter.
A few of the “Good Day” set pieces — especially those involving an attack helicopter — are so elaborate and overblown that action junkies could walk away satisfied, but the “Die Hard” movies have never been simply about the action. That’s a critical piece of the puzzle, to be sure, but the beats in-between — Willis’ sarcastic asides, colorful supporting characters, the pre-“24” excitement of a loose cannon taking on cartoonish bad guys, a meaningful sense of what’s at stake — were always what gave the series its unique flavor and distinct appeal. Even when “A Good Day to Die Hard” nods at the past — when McClane trots out his trademark “Yippe-ki-yay” or a villain falls to his death in slow motion — it feels tired and obligatory. The mood should be celebratory — a victory lap for a beloved character — but instead it’s just cynical.
Back in the days of “Jaws,” “Rocky” and “Superman” audiences were accustomed to diminishing returns from sequels, but today’s bar has been raised. When we’re living in an era of “The Dark Knight,” “Toy Story 3,” “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and “X-Men: First Class,” it’s foolish to make an uninspired knockoff, slap a brand name on it and throw it out into the market place seeking a quick buck.
Audiences expect more from John McClane, and they deserve more too.