As far as action movie franchises go, the Die Hard films hold up pretty damned well. The first one is obviously a classic: Grierson summed up its enduring charms quite well over at IFC. But the way the movies worked never seemed a proper fit for a franchise. The greatness of Die Hard lies in large part in its randomness. This guy really isn't supposed to be here today; it's just John McClane's bad luck that he happens to be in this building during a massive heist. Then it turns out to be Hans Gruber's bad luck, too.
It was telling that what was new and fun about Die Hard—that it had an unlikely hero trying to escape an enclosed space—became movie-pitch shorthand: Die Hard on a bus, Die Hard on a train, Die Hard inside a cow. Die Hard was so different and smart that it could only copy itself, and become something worse.
But that something worse was still pretty good. Die Hard 2 was more bloated and more vain than the first film— at this point, Bruce Willis realized he was a pretty big movie star—but it was still probably the definitive sequel: The same story but different, bigger. Die Hard on a plane! The movie keeps the spirit of the original but still brings more to the game, including a shocking plane crash sequence that is still pretty jaw-dropping, 23 years later:
The third movie, Die Hard With a Vengeance, is aggressively stupid and served to essentially end the franchise until we all rediscovered that we liked big old movie stars in our action movies sometime in the last five years. It basically existed so that Samuel L. Jackson could get some buddy-movie heat from Pulp Fiction, thought it is responsible for one of my favorite poster quotes of all time. ("Fun with a vengeance!") It piled on stunt after stunt but lost a ton of the charm of the McClane character and included the most ludicrous scene in the whole franchise, when Willis is ejected from a New York City manhole at exactly the same time Jackson happens to be driving by, saving them both. At this point, the McClane-as-American-James-Bond comparisons stopped; the character and the franchise had run out of gas.
Which was what made 2007's Life Free or Die Hard so fun. Willis, comfortable in his most recognizable role, just has a cheerful good time going insanely over the top, with every possible lunatic action-movie cliché inflated to the goofiest degree. Your favorite might be when a fighter plane chases a truck down an interstate, but for me, it's tough to beat the moment when McClane crashes a cop car into a helicopter.
That movie also had the good sense to have a terrific villain, key for any Die Hard movie: Timothy Olyphant, the best since Gruber himself. Of all the old-action-stars-returning-for-another-lap movies of the last decade, Live Free or Die Hard is my favorite, and it got me excited for one more.
I was wrong to be excited. A Good Day to Die Hard is shockingly lackadaisical, a Die Hard movie that barely notices it has John McClane in it. Here, McClane heads to Moscow to try to save his son from Russian prison, but he's such a bad dad he doesn't even know his kid is a CIA agent. They end up having to shoot themselves out of various predicaments that never feel inventive, well-thought-out or even noteworthy. Willis has been known to sleepwalk through roles he doesn't care about before—which has made his great performances in movies like Moonrise Kingdom and Looper all the more special—but he's never done it as McClane. He seems to know this is junk, though, and his performance is basically him saying, "I'm supposed to be on vacation!" three or four too many times. The movie is basically indistinguishable from those old junk action Willis movies like Striking Distance or Hostage or Mercury Rising, all the ones that devalued his career in the first place. John McClane is supposed to be better than that. Also, Willis is a talented enough performer than you don't ask him to have banter with a stiff like Jai Courtney, who plays his son; Courtney is basically a poor man's version of Sam Worthington, and just typing that I realized that's one of the meanest things I've ever said about a person.
This is clearly the worst entry in the franchise, a movie so lazy and dull that if you simply took the Die Hard out of the name, it might as well BE Mercury Rising. This is a Die Hard movie where no one is trying and nobody cares, which is depressing; even Die Hard With a Vengeance gave a shit. The goodwill accrued with the last installments will probably bring people to the theater on opening weekend, but it wouldn't surprise me if this dreck kills the whole enterprise entirely. It's probably for the best: John McClane is running out of family members we'd never heard about before that he must travel to some far-away location to save. I'll still remember the whole series fondly, but mainly because I've already forgotten about this one.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.