IIt’s not 1986 anymore,” a sneering Russian villain (one of several in A Good Day to Die Hard) says to John McClane. “Reagan is dead.” McClane is in no position to argue at just that moment, though you can be sure he will have the last word. (It’s not “Yippee ki-yay” which is reserved for a different Russian villain and which has somehow joined “Make my day” and “I’ll be back” in the lexicon of deathless action-movie catchphrases.) But the bad guy’s remark pays oblique homage to the longevity of the Die Hard franchise, which made a movie star of Bruce Willis in 1988, and also perhaps to its patriarchal, populist politics.
Back then McClane was an avatar of embattled American masculinity, a regular working stiff whose essential good humour was challenged by Japanese corporations, bureaucratic red tape, feminism and a nasty Euro-nihilist with a fancy suit and a silky accent. That those days are gone is signalled by the portrait of Barack Obama on the wall of the shooting range where we first encounter McClane in this movie, the fifth in the series.
McClane himself has evolved from angry Everyman to weary, worried dad. He travels to Moscow to help his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who at first looks like a bad seed but turns out to be a chip off the old block. Some dads take their boys fishing or to the ballgame or to a movie like this one, but the McClanes prefer a more primal form of bonding — killing miscreants, though Pop McClane uses a more evocative word.
And there is never a shortage. The cold war may be a fading memory, and CIA superspies (like the younger McClane) may have displaced big-city cops (like his dad) in the pop-culture pantheon. But this off-the-shelf blend of car chases, fireballs and the rat-a-tat, thunk-a-thunk of automatic weapons fire is not likely to go out of style. Style, sad to say, is precisely what is missing from A Good Day to Die Hard, the latest entry in the flourishing geezer-action genre. Directed by John Moore (Max Payne, Behind Enemy Lines), it consists of a handful of extended set pieces — each more elaborate and therefore somehow less exciting than the last — linked by a simple-minded plot and a handful of half-clever lines, most of them muttered by Willis.
It’s hard to hear the words over the noise of weapons, vehicles and Marco Beltrami’s bludgeoning score, but I’m pretty sure that McClane refers to a beautiful Russian woman named Irina (Yulia Snigir) as “Solzhenitsyn,” though he might be referring to her father, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who looks a bit more literary. The relationship between those two — Komarov is a former mogul at odds with the Russian government; Irina is an avid consumer of lipstick — might have made an interesting parallel to the McClane father-son drama, but interesting is the last thing this movie wants to be.
Though it will most likely scare up some domestic business in the pre-Oscar lull, A Good Day to Die Hard is squarely aimed at the overseas marketplace. About a third of the dialogue is already subtitled, and the rest would take a competent translator about 15 minutes to render.
The movie’s real idiom is the Esperanto of violence — sex is a more culturally sensitive issue, so there’s none of that — and sweaty machismo. Willis himself is something of a universal language, or at least a popular international brand. There’s a new-ish Rolling Stones song playing over the end credits.
This is what the new global cinema looks like. The special effects sequences are put together with some ingenuity, though the last one (spoiler alert: Willis drives a truck off the back of a helicopter in Chernobyl) shows signs of sloppy digital overkill. But everything that made the first Die Hard memorable — the nuances of character, the political subtext, the cowboy wit — has been dumbed down or scrubbed away entirely. I’m not saying I wish it was the ’80s again — or maybe I am. If that makes me a grumpy old man, it’s John McClane’s fault.
A good day to die hard (u/a)
Director: John Moore
Cast: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Rasha Bukvic
Running time: 97 minutes