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Latest ‘Die Hard’ runs out of gas but still delivers action

Bruce Willis as John McClane and Jai Courtney as his son Jack in a scene from "A Good Day to Die Hard."

Early on in “A Good Day to Die Hard” comes a prolonged car/ truck chase through the clogged streets of Moscow that contains some of the most impressive stunt driving I’ve ever seen in a movie.

As far as I could tell, director John Moore (“Max Payne,” “The Omen”) used little to no CGI in the entire sequence. Those are real 18-wheelers and tankers and dump trucks smashing into each other, and the tactile feel of the scene, which goes on for at least 15 minutes, gets the movie off to a super-fun start. It’s an orgy of Hollywood bombast and destruction at its most wanton.

There’s just one problem: With the exception of Bruce Willis, reprising his signature role of NYPD officer John McClane, you don’t know who any of the people in the vehicles are, why they’re chasing each other or what’s so important that pulverizing half of Moscow is worthwhile.

With the exception of McClane’s son Jack (Jai Courtney), a CIA agent who has inherited all of his father’s crime-fighting smarts, every character in the movie is a double-crossing Russian, performed by actors who seem to be impersonating Boris and Natasha from “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show.” There are MacGuffins and double-MacGuffins, trips to Chernobyl during which the actors take off their radiation suits so you can see their faces to tell them apart, and everyone carries magical guns that never run out of bullets.

Director Moore has the visual chops for this sort of material – there’s a beautiful shot, done in slow-motion, of two men falling to the ground alongside a mortally damaged helicopter – but he seems to think of people primarily as things you shoot at or blow up. The incoherent script by Skip Woods (“Swordfish,” “Hitman,” “The A-Team”) doesn’t help.

The heart of “A Good Day to Die Hard” is supposed to be John’s relationship with his estranged son Jack, who resents him for always having put his work before family. But whenever the movie pauses to let the characters work out their differences, you start hoping someone will throw a grenade into the room.

Willis can be a terrific actor when he’s engaged by the material (“Looper”), but he’s so bored and distant here, even his trademark smirk comes off as condescending. In the original “Die Hard,” McClane was constantly scrambling and using his brain to ferret his way out of impossible situations. In “A Good Day to Die Hard,” Willis can’t be bothered to look even slightly worried when surrounded by chatty bad guys who love to make long speeches before pulling the trigger, because he knows he’ll figure a way out of his predicament while they’re blabbing away.

Unlike “Live Free or Die Hard,” which took heat for its wussy PG-13 rating, “A Good Day to Die Hard” returns the series to its R-rated roots, primarily so Willis can spout his famed “Yippee-ki-yay” line in its vulgar entirety. Is anyone supposed to still be excited by this?

This is the first “Die Hard” movie to run well under 2 hours. This is also the first “Die Hard” not to be released during the blockbuster summer season. Instead, the picture arrives in icy, lonely February instead, following recent winter flops by Willis’ fellow ‘80s action icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

Time to give the shoot-‘em-up thing a rest, guys: It’s tired and played out, and so are you.

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