Here's the essential thing we like about the Die Hard movies, the 25-year-old action series that made Bruce Willis a big movie star: They always have the surprise of the accidental. Willis's Detective John McClane never starts his day wanting to foil terrorist plots, he's always trying to do something else — reconcile with his wife, pick his wife up at the airport, sleep off a hangover — when he gets thrown into the adventure by some dumb trick of luck. This device gives the movies a winning underdog spirit; even though we know McClane will be victorious in the end, it initially seems impossible that one cranky man could fight his way out of all this inherited mess. But then he does, wisecracking all the while, and it's a jolly good time.
Of course, with time, these mechanics begin to wear down. McClane's last adventure, 2007's Live Free or Die Hard, trafficked in way more computer mumbojumbo than these once blessedly analog movies ever should. And McClane's involvement in the plot was guided by a bit too heavy a hand. But it was still fun, even if McClane seemed like more of a straight-up jerk than an irascibly lovable grump. The Die Hard franchise was showing some age, sure, but it was still mostly sturdy. Which is why it's such a sad disappointment to say that the fifth John McClane film, A Good Day to Die Hard, has stripped away most of what makes this series enjoyable and replaced it with lazy whiz-bang set pieces and a nonsensical non-plot that no one involved in the production, from top to bottom, seems remotely invested in. It's fitting that the film takes place in Russia, as it has all the wit and excitement of a Timur Bekmambetov movie. Which is to say, very little of either.
The movie's chief sin is violating the above conceit. The story does not find McClane in A Good Day, he goes running right at it. After some Bourne-style shaky-cam stuff involving a Russian politician and a rival in jail awaiting trial, we're introduced to McClane's heretofore unseen son Jack (Jack Courtney), a hulking lug with simian features and some sort of job in the CIA. He gets himself arrested and then we briefly rush back to the States, where John is told that his son, from whom he's estranged, is in the clink. So John decides to fly to Russia to... Well, it's unclear. Help him? Visit him? Who knows. All that matters, I guess, is that he's outside the courthouse when a great cacophony of guns and explosions erupts, his son escapes, and the two embark on a mission to stop some bad guy from getting some nuclear weapons and blah blah blah. The sole purpose of the story is to see how many different ways the McClane boys can throw themselves off of or into things miraculously without fatal injury. Oh, and of course they have to rekindle their familial bond, just as John did in the last movie with his daughter. Bond they do, but not before half of Moscow is wiped out as collateral damage in their reckless rampaging.
Because the action starts so abruptly, without scene-setting preamble or time to build tension (John shows no reluctance in jumping right in), we really don't viscerally care about any of the bashing car chases or various scenes involving attack helicopters shooting shit to shreds. It's all just noisy clutter, unartfully staged by the director John Moore. (An auteur whose brightest resume line is Flight of the Phoenix, which should give you some indication as to his abilities.) I found myself devoting most of my mental energy to worrying about the other motorists, regular unassuming Muscovites who don't deserve to be plowed into or smooshed by these two blundering Americans. At least when the movie moves to Chernobyl — oh yes, the film ends with a big man vs. helicopter melee in that poisoned ghost city — there's no one else around to hurt. Well, unless you count us in the audience. In which case, ouch.
Willis is handed the task of giving this airless movie some hint of soul, so he squints his eyes and says quippy things, but his heart doesn't seem in it. His repeated joke in the film — some variant of "I'm on vacation!" — doesn't even make sense. No you're not, you're in Russia to get your son out of Russian prison. Aren't you? Is that a vacation? I don't get it. Relative newcomer Courtney, who did some time on Starz's Spartacus series, is an opaque actor, brawny without much grace, a test batch Rocky who would have Dr. Frank-N-Furter adjusting his recipe and trying again. I suppose there are a couple of moments when Willis and Courtney have a little tough guy charm, finding common ground in injuries and love of big boom-booms. But ultimately they're as lost in this ungainly, though at least blessedly short, knock-off product as anything else. The big hulking muscleman who is totally supposed to engage McClane in thumping hand-to-hand combat? Just disappears without fanfare, unchallenged, unpunched. The movie can't even seize on opportunities it's built into itself, let alone glean anything good from its outside inspirations. If this is what the future of the Die Hard franchise looks like, well then they weren't kidding. The movie's deadly, and it goes down hard.