A beloved franchise dies hard

Movie: A Good Day to Die Hard; Director: John Moore; Studio: 20th Century Fox; Rating: R; My finding: 1 1/2 stars out of five.

Mad magazine once ran a spoof, years ago, on how the biggest action stars were getting old and yet they continued to be used in the same ways as before. If I remember correctly, the spot they ran for Bruce Willis and the Die Hard Franchise was called “Die Hard: Natural Causes.” It was hilarious – but also turned out not to be too far from the truth.

In this most recent Die Hard film, the fifth in a franchise that will celebrate its 25th birthday in July, everything that made the franchise great has been thrown out the window in favor of action-movie cliches and pandering to spy movies like James Bond and the Bourne series. The only thing that can be read into the film is that Die Hard can’t hack it anymore and will appease general filmgoers with a watered-down product – instead of pleasing the fans that helped to make Willis a star.

This is the first in the series to be set outside of the U.S. In fact, if you couldn’t care less about Russia or Soviet history, then you might be able to knock my rating off by the additional half-star I gave the film. The very fact that it’s based there with only an obvious sound-stage set up, as a NYPD shooting range and a quick trip to the airport are the only places seen in America may have broken my critical thinking skills a little bit and made me a tad giddy.

Yes, while my bookshelves are lined with Russian literature and Russian history texts, this film didn’t even have the heart to adequately please this very niche market. We have Russian baddies who had Soviet cronyism and corruption instilled in their blood, and they want nothing more than to profiteer on the miseries of Soviet failure. The particular “failure” here was, of course, the Chernobyl disaster. There are still, apparently, massive stores of weapons-grade plutonium rods sought by two men, Yuri Komarov (played by an excellent Sebastian Koch) and Viktor Chagarin (played by Sergei Kolesnikov, a Russian actor appearing in only his second American film after the 2009 Paul Giamatti vehicle “Cold Souls” about the staging of a Chekov play). Komarov and Chagarin became rich and powerful over illegal nuclear plays that lead up to the meltdown.

If that stilted and obvious conspiracy plotline doesn’t whet your interest, then perhaps the phoned-in performance by Bruce Willis (as John McClane, maverick cop) will. McClane is trying to save his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), from Russian prison. The senior McClane has fortunately learned of Jack’s whereabouts in Moscow and the assassination charges Jack is facing through a convenient fellow cop at the NYPD who disappears from the plot forever after the update.

“Our family isn’t really the hugging type,” Jack says to his father, thus completely defining their relationship for we dumb viewers.

For a long time, we are to identify with Komarov as a good man who “found a conscious” after his

old evil ways and is now at risk of assassination unless he hands over a file containing evidence that Chagarin also was involved. You see, as Chagrin played politics, Komarov became the fall-man for the entire conspiracy. He now sits in prison as a martyr while Chagrin walks free.

“We were friends once,” Chagrin tells Komarov as he plays chess behind bars on the day before he goes to trial, “and we can be again.”

All Chagrin asks is for the file, and then all can be forgiven and, through his immense Moscow-influence, Kamarov could walk. Komarov will have none of it, though – he doesn’t care about his life.

So, we have the martyr, the villain, a conspiracy, an estranged son – and Bruce Willis.

We also have a stunning chase sequence early on, following Chagarin’s head-henchman exploding the walls of the courthouse where Komarov and Jack are held in prison boxes. Jack falsely tells a prosecutor that he will testify against Komarov in order to reduce his sentence, but that never happens, because after the explosion in which Jack was to be killed and Kamarov was to hand over the file of evidence they make their escape, only to encounter the elder McClane, who wants to know what his son is doing.

So, off Jack goes with Kamarov, the henchmen in hot pursuit in a huge military vehicle. McClane follows with a large truck to save his son. All in all, the majority of the budget had to have been spent here, as countless cars and roads are absolutely destroyed in full action glory.

This is an absolute failure because the whole reason the Die Hard franchise was beloved by me, my family, friends, and the majority of people who had seen the original and the third film (the second film is an absolute travesty and is even worse than this film), was that McClane’s personality was put at the forefront in all its sardonic glory, and Willis was paramount to that.

Here, Willis plays second (or maybe third) fiddle to explosions and moronic plotlines. He got paid millions just to show his face and say a few wisecracks, but the character is essentially neutered in order to produce a typical Hollywood blockbuster.

If that was the intention, then choosing John Moore, who has produced little more than trash during his career, was a fine choice. They literally refer to Jack who turns out not to be a failure as his father was lead to believe, but, instead, a CIA operative all along as “the 007 of New Jersey,” and the handheld cameras, a trope of the Bourne films, are seen here in abundance.

Do yourself a favor and pretend this film was never made. Yes, the second Die Hard film, colloquially but unofficially refered to as “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” was the worst film in the franchise, but this film fails for all the same reasons. McClane’s personality is taken away in favor of explosions and stupid plotlines that become a garbled, boring mess, devoid of character.

For all the talent floating around in the film world, and millions of dollars being bandied about like nothing, you’d think they could create something new, or at least something that appears new. Perhaps having the film set in Russia with a former Soviet tragedy taking center stage has a deeper, unintended meaning: Hollywood has developed their five-year economic plans and they will stick to them, loyally and illogically, no matter how badly they fail and how much they waste.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. “Flicks with Flint” movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)