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A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD

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Nobody goes to a movie in this franchise expecting an exercise in intelligence, but even the most die-hard fans will have a difficult time swallowing the fifth entry in the series, which falls into the depths of dumbness at the very start and goes downhill from there. “A Good Day to Die Hard” would be an excellent place to put a period to the whole business. That might not be possible, however, since the movie appears to be a set-up for John McClane to pass the torch to the next generation.

Skip Woods’ script starts without much ado, reintroducing John (Bruce Willis) at a police gun range, looker older but as dour as ever. He’s got reason to be depressed, though, because his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) has been arrested in Moscow for shooting a bigwig in a nightclub, and is scheduled for trial along with imprisoned billionaire Komarov (Sebastian Koch), in whose name he claims to have killed the man. Under prodding from his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he decides to travel to Russia to reconnect with the boy and see if he can help.

That’s when the action kicks in and the picture becomes an almost non-stop cascade of car chases, gun battles, explosions and other CGI-dominated action sequences. (It does pause at one point for an obligatory heart-to-heart between father and son, but that’s brief and perfunctory. It’s their common physical exertions that bring them together again.) First up is the bombing of the Moscow court house, followed by a pursuit through the streets of Moscow that appears to leave a good portion of the city in rubble and—if the massive crashes are any indication—lots of innocent bystanders dead or seriously injured.

There follows a gun battle at a CIA not-so-safe house presided over by Collins (Cole Hauser, an actor whose very presence indicates a disaster in the making), because it turns out that Jack’s actually an Agency operative tasked with liberating Komarov, who’s believed to have damning information against one Chagarin (Sergey Kolesnikov), a corrupt guy who’s in line to become Russian’s Defense Chief. (How exactly Jack intended to spring Komarov is left unclear.) Then comes a foot chase and a confrontation with Chagarin’s nasty henchman Alik (Rasha Bukvic) in a plush penthouse dining-room, which involves not only multitudinous assault weapons but a helicopter gun-ship—as well as the first of several double-crosses (oh, those awful Russkies!).

John and Jack somehow survive the mayhem and find their way to Chernobyl, no less, where they must again face apparently insurmountable odds to foil a dastardly plot to steal great gobs of weapons-grade uranium. Again, many guns as well as that helicopter are part of the mix, and residual radiation as well. Guess who survives.

It’s not easy to keep track of the plot’s supposedly surprising turns when all the noise—bolstered still further by the near-constant strains of Marco Beltrami’s bombastic score—is pulverizing your brain. Suffice it to say that it isn’t the level of excitement that increases along the way as much as the overall ridiculousness. By starting out at so high a pitch and then trying to outdo itself at every step, “A Good Day to Die Hard” becomes more and more absurd, and in the process increasingly dull. It barely lasts ninety minutes but feels at least twice that.

By now Willis’ demeanor of bored nonchalance has become a tired cliché, and Woods hasn’t provided him with any clever repartee, being satisfied to offer recycled bits from previous installments and repetitive complaints about his ruined “vacation” (even though the trip has hardly been portrayed as such). Courtney, who’s apparently been picked to take up the McClane mantle, makes a colorless debut as Jack, looking a bit like a young Dwayne Johnson and exhibiting about as much thespian ability. The villains are all standard-issue Russian caricatures, and Winstead is completely wasted in a throwaway part—this is macho stuff, pure and simple, and even the single female member among the Russkies turns out to be a Natasha Fatale type.

The movie is competently enough made for the most part, though the massive amounts of computer-generated material means that visual realism is in short supply, and in the few intimate scenes cinematographer Jonathan Sela, presumably acting under instruction from director John Moore, indulges in the sort of jittery hand-held camerawork that’s intended to keep the viewer on edge but will more likely invite nausea. The result is not an attractive package, though some of the location exteriors of Moscow early on are at least interesting.

“A Good Day to Die Hard” is being released on Valentine’s Day. If that’s intended as a commentary on the holiday, it’s the best joke the movie has to offer.

IDENTITY THIEF

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The ghost of John Hughes hovers over “Identity Thief,” and must be bemoaning how the winning combination of heart and humor he brought to “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” has itself been pilfered and perverted into the dismal concoction served up by director Seth Gordon.

The supposedly hilarious premise is that the life of Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), a account executive at a Denver firm, is turned upside down when he stupidly gives out over the phone the personal information that allows a conniving woman named Diana (Melissa McCarthy) calling from Florida to print up phony credit cards in his name and use them to destroy his finances. Picked up on warrant by a Denver detective (Morris Chestnut) over trouble the woman’s gotten into at a Florida bar, Sandy quickly convinces the cop that his identity’s been ripped off, but learns that the only way he can fix the situation quickly is to go down to the Sunshine State and bring the actual malefactor back to Colorado himself.

So Sandy’s off to Florida, where after some nasty knockabout slapstick he persuades the crook, a vulgar loud-mouth, to drive to Denver with him, promising her he won’t press charges if only she’ll clear him and save his job—and his happy married life with an adoring wife (Amanda Peet) and two darling daughters. Unfortunately, Diana’s in trouble both with the law and with an imprisoned mob boss (Jonathan Banks), which results in the pursuit of the unlikely pair by both a red-neck skip-tracker (Robert Patrick) and a couple of hit-persons (Tip “T.I.” Harris and Genesis Rodriguez).

Of course the cross-country trip is not without incident. There are numerous comically violent encounters with their pursuers—all of them tonally off-kilter and vaguely unpleasant. But since you can’t fill a feature with those alone, the script simply tosses in digressions to fill up space—a walk in the woods that leads to an encounter with a snake (again, so ineptly done that it’s more repulsive than funny), a sex scene between Diana and a horny cowboy-type, played by Eric Stonestreet, at a crummy motel (more gross than anything else). There are car chases and car wrecks, as well as scads of rough language designed to be naughtily amusing and, of course, the obligatory projectile-vomiting sequence (which at least occurs early on, so we don’t have to wait for it too long).

And needless to say, an important plot element is the gradual bonding that occurs between Sandy and Diana, which leads to them to be self-sacrificing, supportive buddies by the close. That necessarily involves inventing a schmaltzy sob back-story for the woman that ultimately wins Sandy’s sympathy, and supposedly ours. Certainly by the final scene Sandy’s adorable kids are treating her like Aunt Diana, whatever her real name might be.

In this case, though, that’s a hard row to hoe, because in McCarthy’s hands Diana is such an abrasive, obnoxious person, an attitude that persists despite occasional asides meant to show her as a long-mistreated old softie. The actress has been touted since “Bridesmaids” as one of the most promising screen comediennes, but she remains very much an acquired taste that’s easy to resist acquiring. Her shtick is obvious—a sequence in which she predictably screams along with pop tunes on the car radio (by now the cliché of cliches) is simply irritating, and her early bar-party sequence is truly embarrassing. In those cases (as in her recent turn in “This Is 40”) she (and her directors) certainly don’t seem to realize that in many comic bits less is more. Of course, she’s also expected to extract laughs from her considerable girth, which gets extremely tired after awhile (as in a gag when she gets exhausted running just a few feet, although later we’re told that she’s carried an unconscious Bateman to safety—consistency is of no matter here). Fat jokes, frankly, are no longer the guaranteed winners they once were.

As to Bateman, he basically plays straight man to his co-star, and mostly looks benumbed throughout. But one shouldn’t feel sorry for a guy who’s helped produce the vehicle that embarrasses him. Everyone else in the cast is either wasted (Chestnut, Peel, and Jon Favreau, in a cameo as Sandy’s nasty boss, and John Cho, in a slightly longer role, as his new one) or humiliated (Patrick, Harris, Rodriguez and especially Stonestreet). Behind-the-camera contributions aren’t much better, though they are better than the material deserves.

Lots of things get stolen in “Identity Thief,” but the biggest heist is of the hundred minutes you’ll forever lose watching it.