Thrilling, witty and masterfully staged, with fantastic characters and a genuine sense of peril, John McTiernan’s Die Hard remains one of the greatest action films in the history of motion pictures. Likewise, Bruce Willis’s resourceful, wise-cracking protagonist, Detective John McClane, remains one of cinema’s greatest heroes. But twenty-five years have passed since then, as have four increasingly silly follow-ups. Die Hard 5, aka A Good Day to Die Hard, is the most recent of the bunch, and sees both franchise and character transformed into tragically unimaginative, cacophonously violent and embarrassingly unfunny shadows of their once great former selves.
Scripted by Skip Woods, the man behind such piss-poor action affairs as Hitman and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and directed by John Moore of the equally unimpressive Max Payne, John McClane’s latest adventures see him hop the Atlantic to Moscow, where his adult son Jack (Jai Courtney; Jack Reacher) is standing trial for murder. Of course wherever McClane Sr. goes, explosions and gunfire tend to follow, and before you can say yippee ki-yay, mercenaries have stormed the court, Jack is revealed to be a CIA operative, and dear old Dad finds himself commandeering a jeep and chasing an armoured truck down the wrong side of a busy Russian freeway. Probably killing dozens if not hundreds of innocent bystanders while he does it.
Truth be told, this car chase is probably the film’s biggest strength. Shot practically – that is to say, with real cars being crunched, crashed and flipped through the air – there is an impact to the indiscriminate destruction of this opening set-piece that would have been lacking had Moore relied more heavily on CGI. And, while the whole thing is almost rendered unintelligible by the typically frenetic, post-Bourne, post-Transformers editing, the sequence remains a damn site better than the fizzler of a finale, so over-the-top and awash with unconvincing digital effects that the film already looks more dated upon release than anything in the ’88 original.
Yet even the film’s best moments of action are fundamentally out of step with what made the original so great. Trapped on the upper floors of a half-finished skyscraper, outnumbered, with only his wits and his service weapon to defend himself, McTiernan’s film drew its excitement from the fear that McClane could be dead at any moment. Comparatively, by forty-five minutes into A Good Day to Die Hard, he’s survived multiple car-wrecks, fallen twenty stories through glass and scaffolding, and still has the energy to take out a couple dozen machine gun wielding henchmen – in a room full of nuclear weapons, no less. There’s no danger in Die Hard 5. No tension. Just constant, increasingly less interesting mayhem.
What’s worse is, despite having apparently grown invulnerable with age, McClane as a hero has never felt less vital. Gone is the endearing wise-ass of movies past, replaced by a crotchety old senior who shouts at people in the streets of Moscow because they don’t speak English, while repeatedly exclaiming that he’s “on vacation”, as if the phrase somehow holds the cure to his rapidly escalating Alzheimer’s. The sole utterance of his signature catchphrase, meanwhile, is so forced, and delivered with so little gusto, that you’ll almost feel like crying. Why Willis, who surely cannot want for money, and who just last year seemed to demonstrate a desire to stretch himself with strong turns in Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, chose to return to this well, is baffling.
Courtney’s work is little better, although given what he had to work with, it’s hard to imagine what else he could have done. Woods’ script handles the rocky relationship between father and son with about the same subtlety that it does everything else, the animosity soon dispelled in that good old fashioned American way: the wholesale slaughter of bad guys with foreign accents. Violence runs in the family, apparently. I think I’ll skip the next reunion.