About 45 minutes into A Good Day To Die Hard, the newest installation of Bruce Willis’s average-cop-in-a-bad-situation opus, I wondered why post-millennium action heroes have to be played by taut, humorless badasses affecting an imitation of who they’re made out to be in tabloids and the Twitterverse, only with a more richly contrived backstory. (This summer: Jason Statham is Jason Statham… with daddy issues.) Not that Willis’s John McClane was ever a particularly nuanced protagonist, but earlier installments in the Die Hard series gave him pep and spunk, edges not quite sanded off by focus groups and rewrites. This time, though, any kind of nuance had been kashered out, transforming the hero of Plainfield, New Jersey, into a thin-lipped, emotionless automaton who doesn’t do much but spray bullets and wax gruffly about how much he doesn’t understand Russia. In the first four Die Hards, McClane couldn’t figure out how he’d ended up in such a mess; in the fifth, Willis himself seems to be the incredulous one. It’s almost the same thing, but not really.
Willis proved himself a willing and able actor in last year’s Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, digging up enough emotion from those craggly depths to make his appearances in films like this summer’s GI Joe: Retaliation seem truly regressive. But it’s what Willis has learned about staying bankable that peers Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone appear to be resisting. A Good Day To Die Hard performed admirably over its Valentine’s Day weekend opening (no doubt aided by booze-soaked man-children like my friend and me, who packed into a sold-out, late-night screening). Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand and Stallone’s Bullet to the Head, each out for about two months, have cumulatively taken in as much as a so-so week for last summer’s The Avengers. [...]