At the risk of sounding ungrateful for a fresh “Die Hard” sequel, Russia needs its own John McClane movie the way Uncle Sam needs a bright red babushka. On the flimsiest of pretexts, Bruce Willis’ obstinate hero travels all the way to Moscow to find trouble in “A Good Day to Die Hard,” teaming up with his long-lost son to stop a generic terrorist from stealing weapons-grade uranium from Chernobyl — a subpar plot that feels suspiciously like someone tried to plug McClane into a preexisting screenplay. Fox’s shaky bid to boost this installment’s international appeal could backfire domestically.
Between this and 2007’s PG-13-rated “Live Free or Die Hard,” the studio seems determined to test audiences’ definition of a “Die Hard” movie. Is it enough to air-drop a bruised and bloody Bruce Willis into any old action movie and hope fans follow? Can the series keep trotting out half-forgotten family members — a daughter played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the last one, and now Jai Courtney as McClane’s estranged son Jack — to draw him into the fray?
Enticed by either the attractive Russian market or the even more appealing incentives Hungary dangled for shooting in Budapest, someone decided to send McClane abroad, where the NYPD detective has no jurisdiction — and no qualms about using his usual brute-force tactics to stay alive. Considering the original “Die Hard” pitted its modern-day cowboy against a squad of arch Nazi stereotypes four decades after World War II ended, perhaps it follows that the series should dredge up an old Cold War adversary this time out, conveniently ignoring the fact Chernobyl is as far from Moscow as Three Mile Island is from Detroit.
And so the pic, which runs a full reel shorter than its predecessors, sends McClane to the former Soviet Union with a ridiculous plan to spring Jack from jail. (McClane literally saunters up to the courthouse at precisely the moment huge armored vehicles arrive to blow the place apart.) Little does he realize that Jack has things under control, having been arrested as part of an elaborate CIA mission to arrange the defection of a well-connected political prisoner, Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who claims to have a file with incriminating details on high-ranking government officials.
Though not much of a MacGuffin, it’s more than enough to get things rolling, and director John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines”) delivers an elaborate, logistically daunting car chase around the capital, featuring Jack and Komarov in a van, a squad of heavily armed assassins in pursuit, and third-wheel John bringing up the rear — a surly papa bear determined to protect his endangered cub, whether Jack wants his help or not.
The entire sequence works like gangbusters, giving the new Dolby Atmos super-surround system (debuted on “Brave”) a real workout, though it borrows a bit too heavily from other films in which Westerners have laid waste to rival cities. Generally speaking, the action elements aren’t the problem here. They’re certainly loud enough. It’s the obligatory intra-family squabbling and preposterous plotting that threaten to derail this nonsensical sequel, especially a series of swapped allegiances between Komarov and his daughter Irina (Yulia Snigir), a lethal stunner with her own share of daddy issues.
Things go bang, the McClanes get their share of battle scars and the trauma of it all proves the perfect bonding experience to heal old wounds. “Need a hug?” dad sarcastically asks his stand-offish son, who seems to have inherited his sense of humor from the other side of the family. Willis still packs that rapscallion charm, balancing his wisecracking, reluctant-hero shtick with the unstoppable, all-American quality that earned the original film its title. But the chemistry between him and Courtney is nonexistent, with the younger thesp, who makes co-star Cole Hauser look expressive, adding so little to the equation, one can only hope the studio doesn’t plan to pass the franchise on to him.
Watching this expendable, action-packed sequel, it’s impossible not to think in such cynical terms. To Fox’s credit, the series is permitted to return to its original R rating, which means McClane can once again cuss freely. (Oddly, cutting back on language, rather than violence, earned the previous pic a PG-13.) Still, the closest thing to a new catch-phrase screenwriter Skip Woods can muster is the exasperated, “Some fuckin’ vacation!” — a line that openly contradicts the reason the film sent him to Russia to begin with. What vacation? If this is McClane’s idea of time away from the office, they’d better send him back to work before he hits retirement age.