Bruce WillisIn the event this discussion of Bruce Willis‘ fifth outing as John McClane trails off after a couple paragraphs, let me offer a pre-emptive excuse: that might be the purest way to reflect the prime characteristics of A Good Day to Die Hard. Willis gives a detached, disinterested performance in the series’ fifth film, and the movie skips from scene to scene as if being played from a DVD that had been dragged across gravel.

A Good Day to Die Hard is a sketch of a movie, and a bare outline of a Die Hard film. It feels small, constrained, even cheap. Its closest kin are Luc Besson’s Euro-quickies, rather than director John McTiernan’s densely-choreographed, gorgeously anamorphic franchise installments. If there’s praise to bestow, it goes to Fox’s marketing department for making this dead-eyed bore look zippy and energetic, even if that illusion can only last for bare minutes at a time.

Near the end of the long car chase that makes up much of the first act, put-upon New York City cop McClane pulls a stolen truck up next to a military rig full of bad guys. He growls a question: “Remember me?” They couldn’t possibly, because at that point they have no idea who McClane is. Neither would anyone else who hasn’t seen a Die Hard movie. And why’s he acting like a cop? He’s not in New York, or even the United States.

The old guy is in Russia on the trail of his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney). The younger McClane is working to preserve the life of an imprisoned Russian ex-official who is marked for death by the current defense minister. A greasy primo triggerman and a hot babe play into some evil plot, as well. Hoping for the magnetic charm of Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons? Forget about it.

And then there’s the elder McClane, who swaggers through the foreign land with a total disregard for the fact that he’s not at home. We see spare glimmers of the inventive, observant, smirking McClane of old; the brief moments where Willis smiles threaten to light up the movie. This version of the character, however, is generally a grumbling, trigger-happy misanthrope. One line sums up his current ethos: “kill all the scumbags.” The Die Hard films have always been violent — even increasingly so — but their hero has never seemed like a thug, until now.

What drives this version of the character? Age-based alienation or discontent with his broken family life? There are hints of those ideas, and the shadow of an idea to parody the old criticism of fascist American action heroes. Or maybe there’s a desire to engage that concept full-on; it’s difficult to tell what the real idea was. It’s unclear what sort of script was turned in by writer Skip Woods, but what hit the screen is bare, indeed. It’s a frayed patchwork of action beats, shoehorned quips, and ideas recycled from previous entries…

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