I didn’t think it was physically possible to doze off at a movie as loud as A Good Day to Die Hard, but for a few moments — while Bruce Willis as New York detective John McClane and the slab of beefcake going by the name of Jai Courtney as his son, John Jr., were being chased around Moscow by … well, chasers, and McClane was having another wry chuckle over why mayhem seems to follow him everywhere — my mind found some distant, peaceful refuge, leaving behind a swirl of ink on my notepad from a thin line of drool, like a drowsy filigree.
It’s tempting to think that the writers and director had nodded out at about the same point, but it’s harder to do something you don’t believe in — don’t you find? The director, John Moore, is not a hack: If nothing else, he created a distinctively whooshy syntax in Max Payne (which flopped), and I loved his clean desert palette in his undersung remake of Flight of the Phoenix. But A Good Day to Die Hard is the opposite of a labor of love. It has no good lines, no crackerjack fights, and only one mildly orgasmic revenge killing. It will satisfy no one — high-, low-, or middlebrow. Die Hard is finally in its death throes.
After a stylish mishmash of a prologue set in Moscow, John McClane gets the news at a shooting range that his estranged son has been taken prisoner by the Russkies. He says something to the effect of, “Kids … y’know … better see what’s going on,” but there’s no sense of urgency about it, either in the U.S. or when he gets to Moscow. (Liam Neeson would have wasted a dozen people before he left the airport.) Then the explosions begin and McClane is suddenly face to face with his son who (spoiler) (Okay, no spoiler if you’ve seen the preview or commercial) is actually a trained CIA agent fighting to liberate a political prisoner (Sebastian Koch, a lifetime away from The Lives of Others) from the Putin-esco government. His father’s appearance screws up his timetable, so Jr., Sr., and the Russian are suddenly on their own — with, doncha know, many double-crosses and double-double-crosses down the roadskie to the climax in Chernobyl, which McLane cracks looks like Newark. Funny. Corey Booker says hey, Bruce. Visit anytime.
McClane Jr. calls McClane Sr. “John” instead of Dad, which is nowhere near as hurtful (or emasculating) as McClane’s wife, Holly, going by her maiden name in Die Hard. But it points to the movie’s token emotional arc: whether McClane will show his son he’s a strong father. This he does by proving himself right and his son wrong at every turn. Willis has taken risks in his career — played bad guys, acted in serious movies with little hope of making serious money — but in pictures like this he’s in selfish-superstar mode. It’s always McClane — the street-smart New York cop — who smells something fishy while his son blunders blindly ahead. McClane acts the martyr (“Kids!”) and then, when Jr. appears to be licked, taunts his son by asking if he wants a warm glass of milk with some Bosco in it. Then it’s the family that slays together, etc.: “That’s what we do,” he exhorts his kid. “Get out and kill all the scumbags.”
Willis has rarely been better than he was in John McTiernan’s Die Hard — barefoot, bloodied, blackened, limping toward the peeved but amazed villain (the peerless Alan Rickman) and bellowing for his wife. (Bonnie Bedelia, where art thou?) The movie was brilliantly plotted and all that glass raining down made you giddy. But there were, on the other hand, those Cro-Magnon politics: the maiden name thing (only when McClane kills the bad guy will she identify herself as Holly McClane), the media bashing, the cop Al who recovers his manhood by shooting someone — red-meat right-wing tropes. In A Good Day to Die Hard, there’s a conspicuous Obama portrait in the shooting range followed by a villain’s taunt that it’s not 1986 anymore, that Ronald Reagan is dead and America has no more power or stature. But that kind of liberal baiting is so limp that you have to laugh: Is that all you got?
Action freaks will be surprised at how lame this is, given that the last Die Hard film, Live Free or Die Hard, had an inventive setup (Timothy Olyphant as enraged super-hacker who sabotages the infrastructure), an amusing sidekick for McClane in Justin Long, and an outlandish but well-sustained fight in a giant data center. I didn’t care much for Willis going bald, not because he’d look better with a rug but because he suddenly seemed more like rich hipster Bruce than working-class McClane. But the movie did the job. A Good Day to Die Hard doesn’t. It has a passable fight in an empty ballroom and a nice comeuppance for one villain, who’s whirred by a helicopter blade into a human smoothie. But that’s it. I think I fell asleep to keep from getting even more depressed. Every scene is a little death.