A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD-- 2 STARS
For some reason, after a litmus test of two Expendables movie entries, the old school action heroes of yesteryear got greedy and made the winter of 2013 their landing strip for follow-up solo projects. While Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone attempted to blaze new territory with original content like The Last Stand (my full review) and Bullet to the Head to mixed results, fellow big-timer Bruce Willis chose to revisit his most classic character, NYPD Detective John McClane. Six years after he graced us with his balder and none-the-wiser presence in the horrendously-titled Live Free or Die Hard, our favorite modern cowboy is back, grayer and wrinklier, for the equally poorly-titled A Good Day to Die Hard. Like The Last Stand and Bullet to the Head, I can't say this venture was all that worthwhile.
Know ahead of time, that I love these old guys. Schwarzenegger can intimidate with the best of them and will still get me to buy a ticket to the next Terminator chapter, no matter how lackluster The Last Stand was. For my money, Stallone really proved himself when he returned to his classic characters in the under-appreciated Rocky Balboa and the well-tuned Rambo. Unlike Sly and Arnold, Bruce Willis really never went away like those two and, every now and then, in movies like Sin City and Looper, he really rang the bell. I love you, Bruce. You're a blast, but I'm sorry. A Good Day to Die Hard is just a cashed paycheck for this movie star.
Not that story matters in movies like this, but A Good Day to Die Hard surrounds John (Willis) finding out that his son, John Jr. (played by Jack Reacher's Jai Courtney), who goes by Jack, is being held in a Russian prison and soon looking at life in prison or worse. Little does Dad know, Jack is actually a CIA spy on a deep cover assignment to thwart a powerful government official named Viktor Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov) from smearing a high-profile political prisoner named Yuri Komarov (German actor Sebastian Koch) from his whistle-blowing tendency that could sink his regime. Jack let himself get sent to prison in order to stay close to Yuri and keep an eye on him while his partner (Cole Hauser) covered the outside fallout.
Kissing his daughter Lucy (the returning Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who's seeing him off at the airport, John boards a plane for Moscow for a "vacation" to see about Jack. Naturally, the two don't exactly see eye-to-eye and have been sour for years, with John being the neglecting father from a life of police work and Jack being the son who knows he can be better than him. When Chagarin's people try to apprehend Yuri in a daring and explosive courthouse attack, Jack leads Yuri to a safe escape only to run into dear-old dad, who doesn't know he's a spy. After a few car chases and shoot-outs, Jack's mission becomes more clear and John stays to help Jack deliver Yuri and his vital information on Chagarin.
Of course, you can't trust all of that as double and triple crosses occur across the board before the nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl sets the scene for the movie's bombastic climax. I think that's the problem with both A Good Day to Die Hard and also Bruce's previous modern return in 2007's Life Free or Die Hard. These two movies were overblown trying to top everything that has been done before in the Die Hard franchise, especially the all-over-NYC-in-a-day Die Hard: With a Vengeance. They have bitten off more than they can chew in taking John McClane to bigger, wider, and now foreign places. There's one-up-manship and topping yourself and then there's blowing way past the mark and beating a dead horse.
The strength of Die Hard and Die Hard 2 were their mostly single-location adventures. The scale was clear and the stakes were compacted nicely within those boundaries. They didn't need to sell weak plot twists. All we wanted was good guys vs. bad guys.
Now, it feels like the series has no boundaries left. In Live Free or Die Hard and now in A Good Day to Die Hard, an above-average cop has now, somehow and inexplicably, become a national and international player. John McClane is not Jason Bourne. John McClane is not James Bond. His coolness comes from being completely the opposite of those two action heroes. I get that over-the-top is expected with a good Die Hard movie, but this is too much. I'm fine with suspending disbelief for a good action movie, but this just doesn't work. Next thing you know, John McClane will be in the next Transformers movie.
I don't blame Bruce Willis. I blame the people around him making this movie. We should have known Max Payne director John Moore was going to be a step down from Len Wiseman and John McTiernan. The style is way off. The best of Die Hard was the real-time speed of it all (at least until Hans Gruber gets dropped out of a window), not "hey check this out" slow-mo shots that occur in every single scene like we're watching The Matrix. We should have known Hitman and X-Men Origins: Wolverine writer Skip Woods would deliver another hunk of junk. Worst of all, he shamelessly tries to copy signature moments (like that Hans Gruber drop) from the previous movies. Be original and do something unique.
Speaking of hunks, Jai Courtney does nothing to a movie camera. When I reviewed him in the recent Jack Reacher, I said that he was a "yawn of charisma" and came from the "Australian Sam Worthington School of Shaved Heads and Wooden Acting." He is continuing to cement that legacy and reputation. Beyond our two American men, the rest of the cast is comprised of cookie cutter Euro-trash villains we've seen before time and again. Like the old myth says "a hero is only as good as his villain" and no one in A Good Day to Die Hard is worthy of full-on audience hate or poses a legitimate challenge to either McClane. This movie misses the screen presence brought by the likes of Alan Rickman, William Sadler, Jeremy Irons, and even Timothy Olyphant in the past.
The best and most redeeming part of the movie is that we, for at least 97 minutes, get to see Bruce play John McClane again. The tired one-liners, smirks, yells, punches, cuts, bruises, and jokes are all here. And, unlike the wimpy PG-13 Live Free or Die Hard that watered down McClane's edge, this go-around proudly earns the R rating for language and violence that the character requires. No verbal vasectomy this time around! Even with crap around him, this character is an old leather broken-in baseball mitt for Willis. He (or at least his many stuntmen) brings his A-game for bullet-spraying action, explosions, and spectacle. If it's action you're ordering with A Good Day to Die Hard, you'll get it, but you'll wonder where all the fun and purpose went from what you've seen before.
LESSON #1: APPARENTLY, YOU CAN SURVIVE A ROLLOVER CAR ACCIDENT, TWO OF THEM IN FACT, WITHOUT A SCRATCH, ALL WITHOUT WEARING A SEAT BELT IF YOUR NAME IS BRUCE WILLIS OR JOHN MCCLANE-- There's suspend disbelief and then there's WTF. At least John gets to keep his shoes on for the whole movie.
LESSON #2: APPARENTLY, THIS ISN'T THE 1980'S ANYMORE...-- ...despite the fact that John McClane is still acting like he always does, his catchphrases are old, his machine gun magazines still never empty, Russia is still corrupt with saber rattling and chock full of predictable Euro-trash villains, and (a conveniently radiation-free) Chernobyl is somehow still relevant enough to become a necessary plot point in a 2013 movie.
LESSON #3: THERE'S NEVER A COP OR MEMBER OF THE MILITARY AROUND WHEN YOU NEED THEM-- Moscow (played by Budapest, Hungary in heavy makeup) is one of the busiest cities in the world. Our plot is set-up by a high profile courthouse trial with hundreds of demonstrators, media presence, and heavy police and military security. However, once the bad guys blast a sidewall in the building, not a single cop or soldier can be found. The previously-packed scene and surrounding streets are somehow empty enough for heroes and bad guys to walk around and look around for each, taking their dear sweet time. The ensuing car chase is even worse. Three vehicles are tearing up traffic and just one quickly-dispatched cop car shows up? The Jason Bourne movies at least pretended to have our chaser and chasee have to avoid the ever-increasing local law enforcement in their epic car chases. Finally, we have bad guys walking around, coming, and going like they own the place in Chernobyl, which has to be one of the most guarded, quarantined, and restricted places on the planet. Where are the guards? Lazy work, Die Hard.
LESSON #4: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON-- Alright, I'll set the sarcasm and cynicism aside to put down the one semi-serious lesson from the film. Don't worry, it's still a cliche. No matter what you call it, apples from trees, chips off of blocks, or other idioms, A Good Day to Die Hard is a 97-minute running father-son joke we've seen before. John strives to reconnect with the son he neglected all his life as a busy cop while naturally seeing a lot of himself in him, something the son reciprocates. Their compromising middle ground is a loaded gun and the mutual love for dispatching scumbags.