Willis' "Good Day to Die Hard" finds franchise running out of gas

Bruce Willis (left) again packs plenty of firepower, this time while he helps his son, played by Jai Courtney (center), protect a Russian witness, played by Sebastian Koch.

When the first Die Hard came out - yes, 25 years ago - Bruce Willis, armed with wisecracks, weaponry, and the boom and bluster of Beethoven's Ninth, helped redefine the action genre.

It seemed as though every other movie released during the next decades begged comparison: Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a boat, Die Hard at the yoga retreat.

And the formula - the tough Joe (or John, as in John McClane) with the snappy comebacks and the big guns, going solo against swarms of terrorists and madmen - was amped up and expanded upon. Bigger explosions, crazier car chases, loonier stunts.

The pressure was on. The Die Hard sequels had to not only top their namesake, they also had to top the imitators, the ripoffs, the, um, homages.

So here we are with A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth in the franchise and the first since 2007's Live Free or Die Hard. It's set in Russia, where McClane, the New York cop with a knack for getting into trouble, goes to help his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), out of a jam.

Unbeknownst to John, who apparently never was a very good dad (in fact, Jack's existence is barely acknowledged in the previous Die Hards), Jack is actually a CIA operative working undercover to protect a Russian thief-turned-government witness, Komarov (Sebastian Koch).

The film, directed by John Moore with keen attention to the action and little to anything else, kicks into gear with an epic demolition-derby shoot-'em-up around Moscow - on the Garden Ring, over, under, and sideways through tunnels and bridges, sidewalks, and boulevards. It's action as absurdism - like kids playing with toy cars, tossing them into each other - as if physics, and the physical well-being of actual people, didn't matter.

But for all its mayhem, for all the smashing windows and kabooming fireballs, the grenade launchers and giant helicopters, A Good Day to Die Hard not only fails to top its predecessors, it also forgets the basic Die Hard rules. This time around, Willis, smooth-pated and smirky, has but a meager handful of his trademark bon mots, and they're more cliches than anything else.

"Whoa, Nijinsky!" is the best he can muster. (And, yes, there are lots of subtitles - villainous exposition in authentic Russian!)

And not for a minute, despite the troop of malevolent Muscovites on John and John Jr.'s tail, despite a visit to the eerie ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and despite the presence of a curvy Russian henchgirl (Yuliya Snigir), do we even begin to believe that our heroes may be in actual jeopardy.

A Good Day to Die Hard wants to be a movie about family values - a father and son, bonding over bullets and bombs - but it's really just about the value of a box-office franchise, and its value is on the wane.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.


A Good Day to Die Hard

Directed by John Moore. With Anne Vyalitsyna, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Patrick Stewart, Jai Courtney, Bruce Willis, Sebastian Koch, Cole Hauser, Yuliya Snigir, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Amaury Nolasco. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hours, 37 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for violence and language).