The “Die Hard” franchise, now on its fifth installment, is powered not by wild stunts (though this movie has those), not by a whole mess of shooting machine guns (ditto) and not by that yippee-ki-yay catchphrase that even the guy who has to say it seems a bit bored with (three-for-three).
No, the generally insipid “A Good Day to Die Hard” is powered by Bruce Willis’ smirk.
It is ever-present, as much a character in its own right as Willis himself, who is never without it for long. One imagines it has its own insurance policy and personal assistant.
It often seems more interested in being in the scene than Willis himself, an actor as capable of rich, pulpy emotion as anyone who nonetheless knows a good payday when he sees it and gives it the minimum amount of attention. Here, John McClane’s world-weariness reads as the actor being bored stupid, and that’s not fun for anyone.
Remember when McClane was kind of a schlubby New York cop who, transported to the alien environment of coked-up, 1980s Los Angeles, was about to experience the worst Christmas vacation ever? Those were good times, times when the original “Die Hard” all but established the pattern for the next few decades of actioners.
And they are long over. At this point, McClane is a cape, a cowl and a sad origin story away from being Batman, a status he’s had at least since the third Die Hard movie (which, to the lasting shame of everyone involved, was not called “Die Harderer”).
He was once a vaguely relatable everycop thrown into extraordinary circumstances. He was the action hero that could be you. Now his distance from humanity is somewhere around Rambo and the Terminator.
Speaking of names, it seems a shame that this one was not called “Die Hard Goes Hawaiian — uh, Russian.” This time around, McClane is headed to Moscow to track down his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney, an Australian actor best known for “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”), a CIA agent who managed to screw up a mission right into Russian jail.
Director John Moore (“Max Payne”) wastes no time in getting us from New York to Mother Russia, and by wastes no time, I mean gets us to the Motherland so fast that I thought for a second that I had missed a scene.
One minute Willis is shooting target practice in New York, he’s handed a file on his kid and the next he is on a Aeroflot flight to the land of rogue scientists, ambitious politicians and kind-hearted Russian cabbies who love Sinatra (character actor Pasha Lychnikoff, of whom we could have used more).
And it’s oddly unclear at first if John knows that Jack is a CIA agent or thinks Jack is just a doof who got mixed up with the proverbial wrong crowd. Moore just cannot wait to get to the good parts — the running, the shooting, the running and shooting, the exploding, the jumping off things that are exploding.
Turns out that Jack is a Company man, charged with protecting political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) from oily Russian official Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov).
But the plot is pretty much beside the point. It would have been nice if Willis and Courtney had any chemistry whatsoever — estrangement is one thing, not seeming to care if the other guy is in the scene is something else — but that doesn’t even matter much, either. The Die Hard franchise has become a vector for directors to work out their action chops and Willis to hit some character beats. Moore leans heavily on hand-held camera work, close-ups that don’t seem to have any emotional resonance and (to his credit) a minimum of computer-generated special effects.
But one continues to long for the days when McClane was just a cop on vacation and his smirk was just one of his weapons and not the entire arsenal.
Rating: R for violence, language. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Theaters: Alamo Lake Creek, Alamo Ritz, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Galleria, Cinemark Round Rock, Cinemark Stone Hill, Cinemark Southpark Meadows, City Lights, Flix Brewhouse, Gateway, Galaxy Moviehouse, Highland, Lakeline, Starplex, Tinseltown South, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Westgate.