A Good Day to Die Hard: Yippee-Ki-Yay, Mother Russia

Bruce Willis is back as John McClane, an indestructible cop on a noisy but bland mission to Moscow

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20th Century Fox

New York City cop John McClane is about to board a plane to Moscow because, he has heard, his wayward, long-lost son Jack (Jai Courtney) is in trouble. At the airport, McClane’s daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sees him off. She must know that her father is Bruce Freakin’ Willis, who has foiled many an evil genius in the 25 years since the first Die Hard movie. Hell, she was in the fourth one, just six years ago. Yet Lucy pleads, “Just try, try not to make a bigger mess of things.” The bullet-headed McClane is too much the gentleman to reply, “It’s called saving the world, honey.”

With Live Free or Die Hard — the fourth in the series, after the original (1988), Die Hard 2 (1990) and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) — Willis and director Len Wiseman defibrillated the franchise with an old-fashioned action movie that boasted some spectacular car stunts and a passable camaraderie between McClane and a computer hacker played by Justin Long. The movie’s antique zazz stoked vagrant hopes that Willis, who turns 58 next month, could keep matching his grizzled, retro cop to the noble craft of man-made rather than digital filmmaking.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Live Free or Die Hard)

A Good Day to Die Hard, directed by John Moore (Max Payne) and written by reboot hackmeister Skip Woods (X-Men Origins: Wolverine; The A-Team), douses all optimism with that early moment at the airport and any other scene in which the performers have to speak or impersonate human beings. It’s the lamest and most vacant of the quintet — though if you mistakenly think you’re buying a ticket to a demolition derby instead of a night at the movies, you’ll feel right at home.

Taking McClane’s nickname (“the 007 of Plainfield, New Jersey”) much too seriously, Woods plants his hero in creepy-exotic locales — Moscow and the Chernobyl nuclear plant — to crack an international terrorist plot that could have come from an ’80s James Bond film gone wildly commie-phobic. The new Die Hard paints a post-Soviet Russia in which the glasnost is shattered, everything’s grim and gray, and an over-muscled tough sports a large CCCP (USSR) tattoo on his upper back. Everyone’s corrupt, and nothing works. The national anthem ought to be “Putin on the Fritz.”

Not that it matters, but here’s the plot. Back in Soviet Union days, two venal biggies, Komarov (Sebastian Koch, star of the German Oscar-winning spy film The Lives of Others) and Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov), hatched a plot to make themselves billionaires and the world way less safe. Komarov became a public dissident; Chagarin, now Defense Minister, wants to settle scores before he kills his old partner. Jack, an undercover agent for the CIA, hopes to keep Komarov alive and spirit him out of the country. To balance the McClane father and son, the movie gives Komarov a daughter, Irina (Yuliya Snigir), who also has a familiarity with firearms, and a ballet-loving henchman named Alik (Radivoje Bukvic). Everyone shoots at everyone else, though somehow the Russian super-marksmen keep missing. Probably has to do with American know-how.

(READ: Corliss on Bruce Willis’ Zen machismo)

Absent the inspiration of Live Free’s great stunts, A Good Day makes up for what it lacks in quality in the quantity of things that go CRASH! and BOOM! Instead of an “I’ve never seen that before” feeling, your reaction to the explosions and car crashes is likely to be “I’ve never seen so much of that before.” The two McClanes endure endless minutes of deafening fire from an Mi-26 Halo helicopter, and no one nearby, not even any of the cops on the ground, takes notice. A chase around Moscow’s downtown Garden Ring — involving the elder McClane in a Unimog, his son in a Sprinter van and the bad guys in a heavily armored MRAP with a ZIL truck chassis and a 500-hp Dodge Ram engine — may break even action-movie records for collateral damage. At one point, McClane crashes off an overpass and navigates over the hoods of a dozen or so trucks and cars to reach the highway below. After flattening one car he lands on, McClane mutters, “Sorry, ma’am,” and speeds on. It’s both borderline sociopathic and kinda cool.

How can a standard-issue Manhattan liberal like me — who has never owned a car and who thinks guns should be made of licorice — take pleasure in this well-staged mayhem? Partly by default, since the rest of the movie stinks. The tough-guy banter lack the requisite snap or wit. The interludes in which the two McClanes try groping toward father-son rapprochement are embarrassing to actors and viewers alike. Courtney, a young Australian, seems as removed from Willis’ acting space as Jack has been from his father. Even the veteran star looks disengaged from the project, as if he were fulfilling a contractual obligation. Isn’t this his franchise?

(READ: Joel Stein’s 2007 profile of Bruce Willis)

At this strange crossroads in film history, the work of action choreographers and visual-effects wizards has far outstripped the talents of most writers and directors. A movie like A Good Day to Die Hard ought to either hire someone who can write catchy dialogue and at least superficially plausible characters or just let the real artists, the stuntmen, run the whole picture. No Humans Allowed.

And yet: There’s a moment when, after the 800th explosion, Jack groans in pain, a screw sticking in his stomach. Papa McClane pulls it out, and the two continue their quest. Like the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz, Jack could be just a mechanical man, a cyborg, in need of a tune-up. No Humans Needed either.