Review: “A Good Day to Die Hard”

Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney star in "A Good Day to Die Hard," the fifth installment in the venerable action franchise.Bruce Willis is an actor whose effort is visibly proportional to his enthusiasm for the material. When he believes in the work, it shows; consider “Pulp Fiction,” “12 Monkeys,” “The Sixth Sense,” last year’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Looper,” and, of course, the first four “Die Hard” films. Now, think back to some of his lesser works, and how often he gave performances that fell short of even “phoning it in.” When Willis is unimpressed with the film he’s collecting a paycheck on, it’s clear.

With this in mind, it’s a bad sign when, at the start of “A Good Day to Die Hard,” Willis, looking down with a blank expression on his face, speaks his lines as if repeating them from a hidden earpiece. Willis clearly knows that the latest entry in his signature franchise is nothing short of a creative debacle, and, with a strange wink that has become too standard throughout his prolific career, lets the audience know by deliberately sleepwalking through the proceedings. It’s doubtful that anyone will hate “A Good Day to Die Hard” as much as Willis, which is saying something, because this installment in the series will be reviled by many.

It’s easy to blame director John Moore, helmer of such non-not-terrible films as “The Omen” remake and “Max Payne,” for this mess. And so film history will, even though special credit should go to screenwriter Skip Woods, whose script manages to be at least as bad as his previous one for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and to Willis himself, without whose approval none of these dreadful elements would have come together in the first place.

The film, which presents us with another violent misadventure of New York City cop John McClane, is that rare major theatrical release which defies one’s efforts to find a single pleasurable element. The previous films, despite being incredibly violent, were almost jovial affairs, filled with entertaining dialogue, intimidating antagonists, and wildly perilous scenarios for McClane to survive. “A Good Day to Die Hard” only retains the last element, plunging McClane into the center of countless explosions and lattices of gunfire, with each scene upping the outrageousness such that McClane’s apparent invulnerability quickly purges the exchanges of suspense.

Such an immunity to injury contrasts the previous installments, in which McClane’s limitations as a man at least gave the illusion that his survival was at stake. Consider the first film: McClane spent the majority of the time bleeding, nursing his wounds, and hindered by a missing pair of shoes. Here, he gets hit by a car, survives multiple explosions, and is hurled through several glass windows at amazing speed, not once sustaining a serious injury or even looking as if the experiences weren’t pleasant. Audiences know McClane won’t die or suffer a paralyzing wound, but for the sake of the entertainment, would it be too much for the filmmakers to pretend such could happen?

Even if Moore had been able to make McClane seem mortal, as other directors successfully did (even the semi-reviled Len Wiseman), it would have been difficult to tell exactly when to fear for his life, as the action scenes are so incompetently staged and incoherently edited that the screen becomes more a grimy morass of shootings and explosions than a visceral arena for combat. The idea seems to be that all the audience needs to know is that bullets are flying and that the main character need not worry about taking a hit.

Moore proves equally inept at handling the few quiet moments, employing a synthesis of shaky-cam and frequent extreme close-ups that enhance the dialogue’s banality and atrociousness. Scenes are shot through an ugly grey filter, an unwelcome change from the pleasurable aesthetics of previous installments.

The film’s irrelevant plot, which sees McClane travel to Russia to rescue his estranged C.I.A. agent son (a bland Jai Courtney), consists of an uninteresting, loud series of events bereft of narrative cohesion or basic rationality. The villains are a generic collection of Russians whose names pepper the dialogue without supplying the audience a reason to care. McClane himself, a sarcastic, dutiful everyman in the previous films, is rendered as a bloodthirsty dope, indifferent to the possibility of civilian casualties (in one sequence, he assaults a Russian motorist, steals the man’s Jeep, and drives it over several dozen occupied cars, potentially crushing the inhabitants). McClane’s signature line is wasted in lame fashion, while the film’s attempts to flesh out a relationship between McClane Sr. and Jr. consist of a few mumblings about “being there,” the kind of familial drivel that is usually too weak for network television, much less a franchise event.

Willis has said he wants to make one more “Die Hard” before putting McClane out to pasture. I certainly hope he does, because this is a bad film to end “Die Hard.”