Review: Bruce Willis may save Russia, but there’s no saving the ‘Die Hard’ series after this

I’ll keep this brief.

Even taken at face value as a stand-alone film, unconnected to a franchise, “A Good Day To Die Hard” just plain doesn’t work.  Reverse-engineered to try to duplicate some of the key pleasures of the original film, now 25 years old, the film breaks the cardinal rule of action movies: it’s boring. Worse than boring. It’s one of those films where every time they explain more exposition, I found myself more and more disconnected. The basic idea here is that John McClane has to get closer to his estranged son, and he flies to Russia to help him when he learns that John Jr. (Jai Courtney) is in prison.  Mayhem happens, and male bonding follows in its wake.  Those bare bones could work, but first, I’d have to care about John Jr. as a character, and since the script never seems to figure out who this guy is, there’s nothing to him onscreen. Courtney seems to carry himself well enough, but there’s almost nothing here for him to actually play.

Bruce Willis isn’t on autopilot here.  I think he’s genuinely still interested in playing McClane and making him human-scale and playing the ridiculousness of the situation with a wry observational wit, and all of that is fine.  But what made the first “Die Hard” great, and what’s been missing in almost all of the sequels, was the sense that there was a game being played here that McClane doesn’t fully grasp at first.  The really wonderful thing about the first film wasn’t just the “trapped in an office building” conceit, but the way the film slowly unpacked its surprises.  Every supporting character had a purpose, played some part, fit into the larger overall picture.

And when the entire thing finally stood revealed, it was a clever, interesting plan that made Hans Gruber seem like an actual threat, a truly competent bad guy who just plain crossed the wrong path when he ran into McClane.  I’m sure many of you weren’t old enough for “Die Hard” in the theater, but there are two places in that film where a twist is revealed or some surprise is sprung, and both times, audiences would go ballistic.  They were totally engaged by the entire story, not just by Bruce blowin’ shit up.

That will not be the case here.  I knew I was in trouble when the opening titles finally kicked in, about four minutes into the film, and I realized I hadn’t absorbed anything the two characters speaking Russian onscreen were talking about.  I don’t mind subtitles, but if the first four minutes of your big silly action movie are two people we don’t recognize shot in shaky-cam with subtitled Russian being spoken, you’re going to lose some people.  Even after I started to recognize the players and make sense of what was going on, the plot feels like a big bag of “so what?”  Late in the film, there are some cursory attempts to game the audience the way the first film did so successfully, but none of it lands because we’re not invested at all by that point.  John Moore remains totally tone-deaf as a director.  He can capture some pretty images sometimes, but I don’t think he has any idea how to actually make a scene live and breathe.  Even worse, there are a number of moments in the film where he fumbles the basic geography of staging an action sequence, and in one case, I’m still not sure who the hell opened the handcuffs or who had the knife or how things happened.

Skip Woods has made a career out of writing movies that feel like they were made in 1993, and I’m not sure that’s a compliment.  There is a particular version of the big Hollywood action aesthetic that he’s fond of that I just plain don’t like, and throwing all the hot Eurotrash in the world at an inert script isn’t going to suddenly make it more interesting.  Yuliya Snigir may be the hottest woman in film right now whose name I can’t spell without peeking, but I have no idea if she can act or not based on the role she plays here.  Same with Courtney, who also appeared in “Jack Reacher” at Christmas.  I don’t know if he’s any good with real material.  Sebastian Koch has been very good in other films, but he’s playing such a tired archetype here, and when he’s got to try to do the Hans Gruber trick of playing a part to lull McClane into a sense of false security, it’s not fun the way it was when Gruber did it.  There’s no friction, no urgency.

Ultimately, the biggest complaint I have is the one that you can’t get around if you’re making this into a film franchise:  I don’t buy it. I think the excuses for John McClane to find himself in these huge dangerous only-guy-who-can-stop-them scenarios have been increasingly lame, and it frustrates me that they took what could have been a juicy bit of character to hang a movie on, this estrangement between father and son that manifests in choices that put them on opposite sides of the law, and squanders it on a “let’s steal some nuclear stuff” storyline that no one seems committed to or excited by.  Most unforgivably, there is a scene about 2/3 of the way into the brisk 97 minute film where John and his son both realize that they could just walk away.  There’s no reason for them to charge into the situation at the end of the film, other than stubborn personal pride, and it makes them less heroic.  They are not pushed into the situation… they dive in, head-first.  That’s a complete refutation of the first film’s premise, and shows just how far they’ve gotten away from the original idea of who McClane is. 

There are a few images here and there that I liked, and Jonathan Sela’s cinematography certainly helps give the film a huge-budget sheen, but it feels to me like they’ve cut as much meat off of these bones as they possibly can.  They’re stripped clean.  There’s nothing left.  I never thought I’d be the one saying this, but it looks like one of the oldest cliches in the book is actually true:  John McClane is officially too old for this shit.

“A Good Day To Die Hard” opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.