John McClane has a way of elevating any script he’s in. No matter how threadbare the scenario, no matter how many times we’ve seen it before, tossing that old grizzled icon in the middle of it suddenly makes it work. Without him, A Good Day to Die Hard is pretty second rate. With him… well, it ain’t perfect, but it sure finds a way to get the job done.
By now, everyone knows what to expect from the Die Hard franchise, and the producers have long since given up trying to justify the plausibility of the scenario to us. That it exists is more than sufficient, and with enough hairpin turns thrown in there, we pretty much stop caring about the logic once the bad guys come out of the elevator. This fifth entry takes McClane out of the U.S. for the first time, a smart idea heightened by the Cold War nostalgia of its Moscow setting. He’s there to help his son Jack (Jai Courtney), a lifelong screw-up who apparently got himself thrown in Russian prison. That’s before he busts out of a Russian courthouse with a high-profile defendant in tow: part of a complicated bit of espionage that McClane royally fucks up with his impromptu arrival. 90-odd minutes of heated yippee-kay-yays follow.
Credit director John Moore for refusing to dwell on superfluous nonsense. A Good Day to Die Hard easily ranks as the shortest film in the franchise, largely because we don’t waste time on any lugubrious set-up. The sinister plot unfolds along with the action, and we’re never entirely sure who we should trust (besides the two guys in the middle of it all) until we arrive at the whizz-bang finale. We need only understand why McClane is in Moscow; the rest arrives as a means of keeping the mayhem interesting.
And Moore certainly knows how to stage that mayhem right. The showstoppers involve a helicopter gunship – deployed multiple times to great effect – but he also manages a nifty truck chase in the Moscow streets, as visceral and hard-hitting as anything the series has yet produced. The simple plot keeps a handle on the action, ensuring that it leads us in an interesting direction instead of making sound and noise for their own sake. Moore also inserts some nifty little touches to elevate the overall intelligence levels, as when McClane’s policeman’s instincts throws a wrench into the elaborate international espionage thrown up in his path.
That, of course, is the name of the game in a Die Hard movie: set up an interesting scheme full of intricate tricks and double-crosses, then watch Willis’s blue-collar irritant go through it like a bull in a china shop. The actor knows this character far too well to drop the ball now, and adding his son to the mix keeps the fifth entry engaging. Courtney’s presence reminds us that saving the world still doesn’t solve this family’s dysfunction, and their halting, bickering partnership comes laden with the kind of domestic dynamic that you rarely see in action films. It lends the mayhem an additional amount of spice, as well as connecting us to the heroes the same way the previous four films did. The villains lack a certain memorability, but only because we’re not entirely sure who they are. Once they show their true colors (starting with Radivoje Bukvic’s tap dancing heavy), they feel right at home.
No one will mistake this for the best film in the series, and one begins to wonder how many times this sort of thing can happen to one guy. But Willis proves more than game and his character still has some life left in him. A Good Day to Die Hard elevates its boilerplate status with a lot of resolute competence, as well as a refusal to take its audience for granted. The formula has worked for twenty-five years; there’s still no earthly reason why they should change it.