The “Ode to Joy.” Since 1988, when John McClane (Bruce Willis) first encountered the terrorists who weren’t terrorists in Die Hard, Beethoven’s final symphony has held a special place in action-movie fans’ hearts. Splendid on its own, and amenable to some mildly surprising permutations, the “Ode to Joy” provides a musical and emotional theme throughout the uneven sequels, sometimes subtle, sometimes gaudy, always linked to the triumph of John McClane.
This despite the initial premise, that the “Ode” was a favorite of Hans (Alan Rickman), marking the occasion of his Christmas present to himself. For what the “Ode” ends up meaning in the Die Hards is not the joy of holidays or brotherhood, family reunions or choral exultations, but instead, the delights of action-movie excesses, explosions and shootouts, car flips and helicopter crashes, and villains’ spectacular FX-ed falls from great heights. Since Die Hard, the “Ode to Joy” has signaled all this and one more thing too, namely, the ever-rightness of John McClane.
Being an ’80s action hero, John’s rightness is pretty much assumed, of course, but Die Hard underscores it in all kinds of ways, from his good instincts in fighting Hans as well as the LAPD and the FBI, to his super-good shooting at Alexander Godunov, to his recovery of his estranged wife at film’s end, so transformed by his exploits that she sees her own previous error, having moved herself and their kids to LA, when John is and always will be, as he puts it more than once, a New York Cop. More than a career, John’s identity frames his rightness in all the sequels too, no matter where he goes and which “scumbags” he kills.
All this rightness is associated with the “Ode to Joy,” barely discernable at the start of A Good Day to Die Hard, which introduces not John but Russian entrepreneur Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), a seeming Russian dissident seemingly on trial for the murder of midlevel Russian official. Amid the noise of international TV reports, courtroom shufflings, and other expository nonsense, the low-range strains of the “Ode” indicate John’s imminent arrival. Supported by his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, returning from Live Free or Die Hard), John heads to Russia to save her brother/his son Jack — that cute kid in pajamas watching dad on TV in 1988 and now grown up to be played by Jai Courtney — who is involved in Yuri’s case. That is, he’s working for the CIA to bust him out of the Russian legal system.
Apart from the CIA mucking around in Russian conspiracies, the plot reprises a number of other clichés, most emphatically, explosions and shootouts and car crashes. John’s participation seems incidental: he says again and again, that he’s come to Russia “on fucking vacation,” a mantra that indicates his lack of investment in the entire affair. That affair, as always in John’s oeuvre, looks like one thing but is something else. Another mantra here is more familiar, and bound up in John’s identity as a New York Cop, that he has a special gift for killing “all the scumbags.” Here, he and Jack, long estranged, apparently, because John spent too much time on the job when his children were young, now bond over exactly that job, founded on that gift. (And yes, the other mantra, “Yippee Ki-Yay,” pops up as well.)
Thus: John and Jack and Yuri escape the trial and Russian security, then confront a whole lot of other Russian weaponry, while also picking up Yuri’s daughter Irina (Yuliya Snigir) and a ticket to Chernobyl too, yet again serving as ground zero for all Russian malfeasance. A Good Day to Die Hard includes the requisite references to terrorism and weapons-grade uranium, global finance schemes and even “Solzhenitsyn,” apparently to note generic Russian dissidence rather than suggest John has read a book. But the rationale for getting John to Russia or even back together with his son is of less interest here than ensuring that John — for all he’s done wrong regarding his children or the cities whose blocks he decimates or the governments whose laws he breaks — is right, again. What makes him right is less his might, per se, than his cowboyish joy in exercising his various rights, to do damage, to smite Eurotrashy villains, to explode everything in sight. Along the way, his own injuries, his bloody cuts, his bruised eyes, confirm again what Susan Jeffords characterizes as the “hard bodies” of ’80s action pictures.
And so, if the father-son bonding makes for creaky sentiment by this point, it also reaffirms the franchise in this sense, in recalling and ce-celebrating the Reagan ’80s. The movie is not entirely unaware of the creakiness, and even enlists one of the thugs to articulate it: “It’s not 1986 anymore,” announces Alik (Rasha Bukvic), standing over Jack and John, trussed up, on their knees, and beaten to matching bloody pulps. “Reagan is dead.” It’s John’s cue to start trouble, of course, and the scene devolves immediately into violent excess, John and now Jack too demonstrating that the daunting cowboy model is not even close to dead… and still right.