Die Hard and Hansel & Gretel: surprisingly good and unsurprisingly bad
By Jim Bray
Yet another entry to an overall good series proves you can go to the well once too often – and yet a seemingly silly concept that twists a classic fairy tale on its ear proves you can make a pretty good flick if the ideas are there.
Yep, it's the ideas that count, and that's why A Good Day to Die Hard fails, whereas Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters works in its own offbeat way.
And just in case the theatrical versions – both of which are refreshingly short – aren't enough for you, both Blu-rays come with slightly extended versions.
Winner and loser…
It's been about a quarter century since Bruce Willis smashed onto screens in the first Die Hard film, an excellent action adventure flick that first brought us NYPD cop John McLane as an out gunned fish out of water who still manages to bring numerous bad guys to justice. That film arguably cemented Willis' movie star credentials, and he's never really looked back since.
The second Die Hard was pretty good, too, while the third showed that they had run out of steam. Yet a fourth was ordered and it actually turned out to be pretty satisfying as well, bringing new life to the franchise. Alas, they should have left well enough alone and let the series die, er, soft.
What made Die Hard work, aside from Willis himself, was that the movies (most, anyway) were fun, popcorn-type flicks where you could just relax and let the story, no matter how silly, wash over you. But this fifth, er, element isn't like that. It's as if the studio just wanted to cash in (what a surprise!) and rather than give us the, er, elements that made the other good Die Hard films work, here we get a generic action flick with stunts so big they're ridiculous, popping you out of your suspension of disbelief and making you shake your head that they actually went that far.
So we have a kind of Jason Bourne meets James Bond international spy "thriller" with few thrills but lots of explosions, gunfire and stunts. It's like a cheap knockoff that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
It's also a kind of "family" film in that, rather than McLane being a lone wolf out of his – here's that word again – element, here he's teamed up with his estranged son (maybe Bonnie Bedelia wasn't available to play his wife), Jack (Jai Courtney), who's a CIA agent on a mission to Russia. Naturally, they start off as adversaries (Jack even calls his Dad "John" to show his disdain), but over the course of the adventure they bond, to the point where, at the end, Jack even calls John "Dad" – and who could have seen that coming?
Jack's actually the reason why McLane, senior, is in Russia: he'd heard he was in some kind of trouble, so hightailed it over on the next plane to help bail him out. Next thing he knows, in true Die Hard, tradition, he finds himself in the middle of international intrigue involving corrupt officials, nuclear technology and much more stuff you probably won't really care about.
The concept is okay, if hackneyed, and there's a decent MacGuffin in a mysterious computer file they chase all over the place – but it all feels so contrived, so put together to make a quick buck for the studio (whether true or not). Give Willis kudos for bringing his typical A game, but he's given a lifeless corpse to shoot and quip his way through and everything seems as if it's made of cardboard cutouts. The villains are cartoons (okay, the whole thing's a cartoon, but not a good one) and the plot manages to be complex and dumb at the same time. Maybe the writer (Skip Woods) is to blame; maybe he was told what to write.
The Blu-ray is better than the film, with a dark and moody – but very crisp and clean – 1080p transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Black levels are nice and deep.
The audio, in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. surround, is the best thing about "A Good Day to Die Hard," which tells you a lot about what's going on. It's loud – so loud our reference system had to be turned down so it didn't make us run, screaming from the home theater (instead, the story did that!) – and it fills the room extremely well. Low frequencies boom in your chest, ordnance goes off all round the room – and yet dialogue is always understandable (unfortunately).
The review copy also contained a DVD and digital copy. And the Blu-ray comes with extras such as an audio commentary, seven deleted scenes, an hour-long "making of" feature, a look at the outrageous opening car chase sequence (the first place where the suspension of disbelief is suspended), and a few shorter featurettes on various aspects of the production.
One thing working in A Good Day to Die Hard's favor is that its violence is realistic, but not over the top graphic. That, strangely enough, was saved for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
A new take on an old fairy tale…
Look at it as a superhero movie, with a brother and sister team substituting for Superman, Spider-man or whomever. And though the violence is extreme and in places awfully graphic, the film never takes itself seriously and though the concept is actually kind of silly, the film works. Think "Army of Darkness" meets "The Wild Bunch."
Hansel (Marvel's The Avengers' Jeremy Renner ) and Gretel (Quantum of Solace's Gemma Arterton) are the same characters you read – or had read to you – as a kid. In fact, the movie starts with that tale brought to life via a beautifully made sequence where the kids get lost (well, abandoned in this case) in the woods, find the house made of candy and get taken prisoner by the evil, ugly witch. Of course, they manage to get the better of her eventually and burn her to death, thereby gaining their freedom.
Flash forward an unknown number of years and the now-adult bro/sis team are now using their witch-offing experience as a marketable skill, and they travel around offering their services as the witch hunters of the title. Only now they're as high tech as the era (which is never really made very clear) allows – so they use fancy crossbows, high powered shotguns, even gatling gun-compatible weapons to bring down witches.
These evil women are ugly and powerful, but they're also smart and very tough to kill. In fact, it takes all the skill, smarts and strength H&G can muster to wrassle, kick, chop, stab and blow away the villains. This gives us lots of opportunity for violent scenes more intense than one might think warranted in what's really a "modern" take on a classic fairy tale situation.
So H&G get hired by the mayor of one particular village under threat – much to the chagrin of the local sheriff, who organizes his own posse to go after the coven of witches that's been scooping up their children with apparent abandon.
Alas, a "Blood Moon" is approaching in a few days, which is apparently just an eclipse of the moon but not one that works like it does in real life: it's far more rare here and indicates a big night for the black witches. H&G, while the sheriff's posse is being destroyed by said witches, discover they're hunting a team led by a particularly powerful black witch (Famke Janssen, who gets a nice chance to chew some scenery here) who plans to use the blood moon and the missing kids to cast a spell that'll make her and her little friends, er, fiends, invincible.
It's a bit of a roller coaster ride, full of clichéd one liners the actors emote pretty straight – and they and writer/director Tommy Wirkola make it work by making it clear that the whole shebang is obviously tongue in cheek and therefore the silly stuff comes off as parody more than merely sucking out loud.
There's very graphic violence, with blood spattering all over the place, a guy's head getting stomped by a troll, and assorted beheadings and other gross things, but unlike such travesties as Dredd 3D that focus lovingly on the gore and carnage, in slow motion and close-up, here it just happens matter-of-factly and the story moves on. 'Twould have been nice if it weren't so graphic, but it's also done kind of in a tongue in cheek manner that takes a lot of the grossness out of it.
The review copy of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters came with a 2D Blu-ray but a 3D version is available and it might be kind of cool because there are many shots in this flick that have been set up obviously to exploit the third dimension.
There's also an extended cut and a DVD in the package, though only a code for a digital copy is included.
The video quality is splendid. The 1080p/24 transfer is bright and, unlike the witches at the end, alive and has that pop off the screen depth that's so great on Blu-rays that aren't in 3D.
Ditto for the audio track, in this case a 5.1Dolby TrueHD lossless one that isn't as loud as the Die Hard one, but is just as clean and crisp and involving.
Extras are more sparse than with Die Hard, but they include a few short features on the film's genesis.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is definitely not for young kids, but if you're the type who loves Army of Darkness-type films, this one might be good for a look.
Copyright 2013 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.