In a dark, dusty vault beneath a studio back lot, are there stacks and stacks of unproduced Cold War-era screenplays? A pile of untapped bad movie potential, like a hidden stockpile of enriched uranium, just waiting for a film crew that's looking to make a quick buck with a dirty bomb of a movie?
A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth entry in the annals of hard-to-kill New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), is not that explosively bad movie. It's the decaying radioactive wreckage left behind after that bomb goes off.
It doesn't even feel like it was ever intended to be a Die Hard movie: It's like someone went into that Cold War boilerplate pile, found a buddy-cop script about two mismatched heroes out to thwart the nefarious plans of some generic Russian bad guys, and substituted McClane and his son for the leads.
That son, Jack (Jai Courtney), is an undercover CIA operative working to bring down a corrupt Russian official; to accomplish that take, he's after a file that's supposedly in the possession of whistle-blower Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch). Komarov is being sent to trial on trumped-up charges to keep him quiet; the younger McClane, too, is up on charges, having publicly assassinated another Russian government official in what seems like a particularly boneheaded CIA ploy designed to get him close to Komarov.
Back in the U.S., the (increasingly) senior McClane finds out his son is in a Russian prison — the movie's version of the CIA is terrible at keeping secrets, it seems — and hops on an Aeroflot flight overseas to ... well, it's not entirely clear what he's hoping to accomplish by just wandering into the courthouse unannounced.
But never mind all that. Plot is incidental to this franchise nowadays, and the needless convolutions of this particular story seem largely like mere ploys to make it seem more interesting than it is. Suffice it to say, things start exploding right before the trial, and pretty much keep exploding, in more and more ludicrous ways, right up to the end of the movie.
This is the Magpie School of action filmmaking: Anytime things start to make so little sense that you might lose the audience, just throw something shiny up on screen to distract. Hence lots of slow-motion jumping and falling while fiery explosions billow up in the background. Cars seem to do more flying than driving, jumping off of overpasses or over other cars, rolling and flipping through the air. In one particularly inspired bit of lunatic misdirection, one of the Russian thugs chasing McClane delivers a menacing speech to the hero ... while loudly eating a carrot.
I have no recollection of what plot details were conveyed in that speech. But I do remember the carrot — and I'm guessing that's exactly the effect director John Moore was going for.
There's little left of the qualities that made the original Die Hard such a masterpiece — or even the things that made the substandard sequels marginally watchable. Where before McClane was out to save the life of a family member or a school full of kids, here — after the self-preservation that drives him in the opening sequence — he's fighting mostly to save his son's reputation and also to thwart a vaguely defined potential terrorist threat.
Humor has always been an essential element of McClane's appeal, but the attempts here aren't even in character. Are we really meant to believe that McClane would answer a cellphone call from his daughter in the midst of a car chase? Or knock out an innocent civilian who's (justifiably) yelling at him for running out into traffic?
Even McClane's trademark one-liners are fewer in number, generally clunkers, and often nearly drowned out by things going boom. It's difficult to tell if the mildly bemused air Willis carries with him through much of the movie is a character choice or just smug satisfaction that he's actually getting away with getting paid for this.
A Good Day to Die Hard does have one redeeming aspect: It has finally ended the debate over whether Die Hard 2 or 4 is the worst of the series. We finally have a clear loser.