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It’s a bad day at the office for a durable 25-year-old franchise in A Good Day to Die Hard. Comprised of one shakily filmed action sequence after another, all of which are more preposterous than anything previously served up by the Die Hard series (and that’s saying something), this fifth John McClane saga takes the New York cop (Bruce Willis) to Moscow and, of all places, Chernobyl, to help his CIA officer son (Jai Courtney) save modern Russia from its own worst enemies. Franchise fans and action-hungry audiences will pile in over this double holiday weekend, from Valentine’s Day on Thursday to Presidents Day on Monday, but returns figure to tumble fairly quickly thereafter. Overseas draw should be quite strong.
After a 12-year break, 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard proved there was still plenty of life left in a series that many assumed would forever remain just a trilogy. The four films thus far have generated $1.13 billion worldwide, and this fifth installment certainly has enough sinister goons and crazy action to satisfy the mob that has made Fox’s own Taken series such an unexpected success.
But it must be said that, alongside the rebooted Bond franchise and the Bourne films, poor old McClane’s vehicles look pretty cheesy, even if one of his rides here is a Maybach. The Bond series hasn’t run out of ideas to the extent that it’s begun dragging in hitherto unknown offspring with whom to team the leading man, but in Live Free or Die Hard we met John’s daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and this time we’re introduced to his estranged son Jack, a hunky undercover CIA operative who’s trying to pull off a major coup by helping nuclear scientist Komarov (Sebastian Koch) spill the beans on the evil Defense Minister Chaganin (Sergey Kolesnikov), a rich gangster with ambitions for higher office.
Hearing Jack’s in prison, John decides to head to Moscow to help but is warned by Lucy, “Try not to make an even bigger mess of things.” Of course, that’s promptly what he does, naively intervening just as the courtroom where Jack and Komarov are sequestered in special booths is attacked. “You shouldn’t be here!,” Jack yells at old Dad when he spots him — and that’s an understatement, as the operation turns into one of the most ludicrous and incoherent chase sequences ever filmed, with a truck, a van and a giant military vehicle trying to ram through bumper-to-bumper highway traffic. This is all covered by jittery cameras that look like they’re mounted on a vibrating bed rather than a tripod and operated by little kids who’ve just been shown the zoom button.
The MacGuffin here, which revives the specter of bad old Cold War days, is a file Komarov claims to have that confirms Chaganin’s theft of huge amounts of U235, or weapons-grade uranium, at Chernobyl, where both of them worked at the time of the reactor meltdown. Chaganin’s such a loose cannon that he could either use or sell the stuff to rogue buyers, so the fate of the world, as usual, could be at stake.
The sophistication of the screenplay is no greater than previous ones written by Skip Woods (Swordfish, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The A-Team). Some effort is made to spin a few pithy lines that the public might retain — John at one point snidely calls his son the “007 of Plainfield, New Jersey,” a contemptuous Russian thug says to McClane, “You know what I hate about Americans? Everything. Especially cowboys” — but the main aim clearly was to create as many action scenes as possible.
Unfortunately, John Moore has directed these sequences in a way that makes the incidents look so far-fetched and essentially unsurvivable that you can only laugh. McClane & Son evade hundreds, perhaps thousands of bullets in an untold number of fusillades, endure more than one crash through giant plate-glass windows with just a few scratches and walk away from a fall from several stories up. Their luck also holds when, stranded at night and needing to get to Chernobyl quickly, they survey the fancy cars outside a nightclub and steal one that just happens to have a trunk loaded with heavy artillery. Good thing it was a Chechnyan hangout, they agree.
The big action climax happens in and around the Chernobyl compound where the nuclear material has lain waiting all these years. What happens is no less inevitable than it is in Bonds or Bournes or any other mass entertainment movies, but it’s cheapened by a rather cut-rate-looking set and darkish photography that would have looked at home in a Cannon film back in the 1980s. The production mostly was shot in Hungary, with some scene-setting second-unit stuff of Russia providing proof of setting. It does make you wonder if Russians themselves won’t resent the way they’re represented here: thoroughly corrupt and in need of an American cop and the CIA to set them straight.
The fifth time around, everyone knows what to expect from Willis in this role, and the only funny part of it is how so almost puppydoggedly eager McClane is to repair the rift with his son. Aussie actor Courtney — who played Varro on TV’s Spartacus and the shooter in Jack Reacher — is bigger and brawnier than Willis ever was and temperamentally is a pretty good match with his American veteran partner. German actor Koch, who memorably co-starred in The Lives of Others, is very good in the key Russian role, while Yulia Sniger is hot and fiery when angered as his daughter.
At 98 minutes, this is by far the shortest of the Die Hard films, the rest of which run more than two hours. But it ends not a moment too soon.
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