Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 1 release of Die Hard SE. The DVD is all that the film deserves, and sets a new standard for special editions in the future.
The easiest thing to say about ‘Die Hard’ is that it is easily the most influential single action film of the last 20 years. In terms of imitation, only John Woo’s films are as plagiarised, and then for stylistic rather than narrative reasons. However, the basic premise of Die Hard has been used in films as diverse as Speed, Under Siege, and even such rubbish as Sudden Death. It’s easy to see why; the film is a masterpiece, combining breathtaking action scenes, a witty script and a constantly surprising plot into an immensely satisfying whole.
The plot is practically iconic. John McClane (Willis, as if it could be anyone else) travels to LA for an attempted reconciliation with his wife Holly (Bedelia) at her office party, but the building is taken over by European terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Rickman), intent on raiding the vault for the $600 million dollars inside. McClane is therefore compelled to wage a solitary campaign against the intruders, as the stakes become higher and higher.
In a sense, it’s pointless trying to analyse Die Hard. Like The Exorcist or Casablanca, it’s a film so imitated, so parodied and so quoted that to look at it from a completely detached viewpoint is impossible. However, every viewing reveals a new aspect, some new twist of character. A good example of this is the villain, Hans. Rickman plays him as a man who is completely in control, murdering as and when he has to, but without passion. On the other hand, he is disinterested in gratuitous harm to his hostages, at one point allowing Holly to assist a pregnant woman to sit more comfortably. The paradox here is that the villains are recognisably human, but even more loathsome as a result of it, unlike the cartoon characters of the two sequels.
The other stroke of genius is in the structure of the film. Over and over again, seemingly unimportant details will acquire resonance and importance. A good example is McClane’s feet. In the opening scene, he is advised by a fellow airline passenger to take off his shoes to relax his feet, which he later does. When the terrorists attack, he is compelled to flee shoeless, and is unable to find another pair, even after killing terrorists. The pay-off is that eventually this will cause him immense agony, as the terrorists smash the glass in an office that he will be compelled to walk across, in one of the most toe-curlingly horrible scenes in an action film ever. Yet other moments will pay off in less horrific ways, and will eventually cause McClane to triumph. (And that’s hardly a spoiler, as the existence of the sequels rather indicates that McClane’s death is not imminent!) It is this intelligence, as well as McTiernan’s bravura direction, that elevates the film to the level that it is at in action film lore, and one that is thoroughly deserved.
An excellent transfer, and an exceptionally clear picture. For an example, check out the early scenes of the LA evening skies; the colours are brilliantly represented, and the contrast levels are perfectly balanced. It’s a stunningly good transfer for a film that’s nearly 15 years old, literally better than most transfers for films that were made a few months ago, and far better than any version of this film I’ve seen before, including the anamorphic R2 version that was recently released. Even later in the film, in scenes of almost total darkness, colours are still strong, and the action never becomes black. A sterling effort, and one of the best transfers I’ve seen for a DVD.
Well, it’s not the sort of film where a mono track would really do the job adequately, and the DTS and Dolby tracks provided are excellent. Every bullet sound is rendered wonderfully, Michael Kamen’s score is presented better than it’s ever been (for instance, try and spot the musical references to ‘Singing in the Rain’), and, when it comes to the infamous explosion in chapter 48…well, let’s just say that it’s rather intense. It’s almost embarrassing to review this DVD technically, as there literally isn’t a thing wrong with it, and there’s only so much gushing praise a reviewer can write!
And then, as if to prove me wrong, the extras turn out to be the worst load of…just kidding. The extras are some of the best I’ve ever seen on a DVD, with one rather surprising omission, which I’ll come to in a minute. There are three commentary tracks provided, all of which have rather different approaches. The first is with McTiernan and the film’s production designer, and is very technical, very detailed and really rather dry. However, there’s a lot of useful information imparted. The second commentary is a scene-specific (i.e only in a dozen scenes or so) one by the SFX supervisor Richard Edlund; again, this is take it or leave it stuff. The best of the three commentaries is a subtitle commentary, which sounds dubious on paper, but works brilliantly well. Essentially a collection of interviews with just about everyone involved in the film, both contemporary and new, there’s an immense amount of insight into the films themes and production, as well as some incredible claims being made for the film as a work of art, rather than commerce (for instance, had you ever noticed the triangular camera movements, or the fact that the villains are based on the characters from A Clockwork Orange?) Fascinating stuff.
The rest of the extras are up to the high standard presented here. There’s a nice collection of short deleted lines, outtakes and gags, my favourite being some amusing banter between Willis and the stewardess in the film’s opening scene, although there’s a strange outtake of some rather camp SWAT men. There’s also some extended coverage of the newscasts in the film, complete with splendidly moronic comments from the ‘news anchors’. The section ends with some interactive magazine articles, which are vaguely interesting but very technical in nature.
The best extras come in the ‘Cutting Room floor’ section. Here, you have three ways of playing director. The first is the scene editing workshop, which is similar to the one on the Men In Black DVD, where you can construct a scene based on using different takes provided, with different camera angles etc. As one of the scenes is Mr Takagi’s execution, you can also play censor if you so desire, cutting between ‘more violent’ and ‘less violent’ versions of his head being blown off. Next up is a short multi-angle feature, where you can watch a couple of short scenes from multiple angles. It’s nice to see this feature being properly implemented at last, even if the actual scenes are not especially interesting. Next is an audio mixing demonstration, which isn’t all that exciting, as all it involves doing is switching between ‘High’ and ‘Low’ sound for dialogue, music and sound effects. The section ends with an interesting demonstration of what ‘pan and scan’ actually does to a film (clue: it’s bad), and a glossary of technical terms.
And it’s not over yet. There’s also the film’s entire script presented on disc, an interesting addition if rather lengthy to read in one go, an interesting interactive still gallery where you can jump to further stills, deleted scenes, outtakes etc if you press an icon that appears by certain stills, and the usual round of trailers, TV spots and a 1988 featurette that does the usual job of telling you precisely nothing about the film. The one thing that the disc does lack is a decent retrospective documentary about the film and its success, as well as its legacy; however, most of the information is covered in the commentaries. All the same, it does lose the extras a mark.
Fox have done it again. It’s a rare package of exceptional film, exceptional extras and exceptional transfer, and it’s about the best treatment that a film of this stature deserves. My only minor concerns are firstly that it might have been nice for the disc to have had a proper documentary, but also that the vast majority of so-called ‘special edition’ releases simply won’t live up to this one (put it like this, the Die Hard sequel releases aren’t anything like the standard here!). However, this is one of the key releases for DVD so far, and something of a must-buy.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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