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The Trailer Test: Why the New 'Die Hard' Trailer Is Probably Better Than the Movie and 'Hansel and Gretel' Is Better Than Both

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 31, 2012 at 12:9PM

In the process of teasing the bigger picture, a trailer should also tell a story, whether or not that story correlates with the movie in question. For the excessive genre movie with strengths that relate more to movement, violent, attitude and sudden noises rather than pithy tools of the trade like character development, the trailer presents a tricky proposition. In a running time that can often represent roughly one percent the length of the feature, the trailer must sample a lot of physical details. Sometimes, a speedy montage will do the trick. In the case of "A Good Day to Die Hard," the trailer for the fifth installment of the increasingly creaky "Die Hard" franchise released late last week, the challenge results in a series of abrupt cuts with only the illusion of a narrative sustaining them.
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"Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters."

In the process of teasing the bigger picture, a trailer should also tell a story, whether or not that story correlates with the movie in question. For the excessive genre movie with strengths that relate more to movement, violent, attitude and sudden noises rather than pithy tools of the trade like character development, the trailer presents a tricky proposition. In a running time that can often represent roughly one percent the length of the feature, the trailer must sample a lot of physical details. Sometimes, a speedy montage will do the trick. In the case of "A Good Day to Die Hard," the trailer for the fifth installment of the increasingly creaky "Die Hard" franchise released late last week, the challenge results in a series of abrupt cuts with only the illusion of a narrative sustaining them.

At a minute-and-a-half, about a minute shorter than the standard trailer length, the trailer wastes no time establishing the world where the movie takes place. Bruce Willis, looking simultaneously suave and wizened in accordance with the aging action star mold, arrives at the airport with his grown daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, first introduced in 2007's "Live Free or Die Hard") while the first bars of Beethoven's ninth -- a "Die Hard" staple stretching back to the 1988 original -- immediately situate these events in the "Die Hard" universe.

Seconds later, another familiar reference point kicks in. "Dad, try…try not to make an even bigger mess of things," his daughter says, as McClane turns to her with a bemused look and then walks away. His response, whether spoken or imagined, takes form of a muttered three-word reply heard in voiceover: "Yippee ki-yay," he says, as we cross-fade to the 20th Century Fox logo and the Beethoven score returns. A rejoinder harkening back to McClane's first encounter with baddies in an office building, the response means nothing without the context of the franchise. These ingredients alone could make for a solid teaser of another "Die Hard" movie. Eighteen seconds have passed.

But there's a lot more ground for this trailer to cover.  A series of fades track McClane's trip to Moscow. Unsurprisingly, this all-American hero looks distinctly out of place in the Russian landscape. "First time in Moscow?" an overly friendly cabbie asks him. "First time," McClane answers. The follow-up question further sets up the precise definition of the McClane persona. "American?" the cabbie asks as we see a close-up of McClane holding "The Idiot's Travel Guide to Moscow." One more detail is needed to complete the picture: "Are you a cop?" An unrelated shot of men in riot gear drifts past before McClane quietly responds, "Yeah." Forty-five seconds have passed, and already the trailer has told a peculiar fish-out-of-water story that could be retitled "An American Cop in Russia."

But this quiet build-up mainly exists to emphasize the cacophony of explosions yet to come. "Welcome to Moscow!" the jubilant cabbie says, and his response is followed by an immediate cut to exploding cars. Relevant questions: Where? Why? However, the remainder of the trailer provides no specifics as to the threat or reason behind the abrupt acts of violence that follows. A fortified vehicle rams through the Moscow streets as "Ode to Joy" soars. McClane dashes through the streets and comes to rest in front of a speeding vehicle. Its driver looks up. "Jack!" McClane shouts. The young man looks back at him. "Dad?"

A minute has zipped past and we know the full kahuna. McClane and his grown son face down bad guys in Russia. With another 30-odd seconds to go, the rest of the trailer includes a melange of explosions and gunfire alongside a few passing glances that father and son share in the midst of the mayhem. Finally the movie erupts into absurdity as the two men dash away from some unknown threat and make an impossibly leap through the glass window of a skyscraper, plummeting to the ground with the aid of virtual camerawork. The title card rolls past and then McClane makes one final, specious guarantee: "Nobody's gonna die today," he grunts as they prepare for more shooting and then, believe or not, hurtle through yet another glass window. With seconds to go, the trailer crams in a final exchange: "Need a hug?" McClane asks. "We're not a hugging family," his son replies. "Damn straight," his dad replies.

Whether or not "A Good Day to Die Hard" truly succeeds -- its February 2013 release date is something of a bad sign -- the trailer contains plenty of entertainment value on its own terms. The essence of the Hollywood spectacle in a frenzied nutshell, it provides the bare outline of a plot offset by literally dozens of loud, distracting fragments. It doesn't validate the continuing existence of a franchise that reaches its due date in the Reagan years -- and it's ironic that only now have the bad guys become the Russians, considering that John McClane first hit screens in the waning days of the Cold War. However, by weeding out whatever greater storytelling ingredients will flesh out the final product, the fifth "Die Hard" has been reduced to little more than pure escapism. It's hard to imagine a feature-length version that could achieve the same goal with such precision.

That's not to say that the action genre leaves no room for innovation. The gloriously bloody red band trailer for "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" reveals an enjoyable hybrid of action and horror ingredients told with far more imagination than anything in the "Die Hard" tease. "Most people say witches aren't real, the stuff of fairy tales" says narrator Hansel (Jeremy Renner). "Then, one day, they show up at your door and eat your kids." Immediately entering absurd territory, the premise also includes flash cuts of said cannibalistic witches, tipping the comedic ingredients into the horror vein with ease.

The rest of the trailer follows Hansel and his no-nonsense sister Gretel (Gemma Arteton) going about their witch-hunting routine in full-on assassin mode. The movie, the U.S. studio debut of Norwegian genre director Tommy Wirkola (whose cult favorite "Dead Snow" pitted a few marooned vacationers against Nazi zombies), looks unconventionally gory for a commercial action vehicle. But it's mainly due to the art of the red band trailer that we can see it that way. While it's hard to discern any true filmmaking skill or even a sense of humor to match the trailer's giddy vibe, the comic implications of Hansel and Gretel hunting witches is marvelously overstated by the rampant gore. Whereas the violence in "A Good to Day to Die Hard" has been glossed over by smoke and fire, death is very much a character in the "Hansel and Gretel" trailer. This is entertainment that dares to shock and amuse you at the same time, a tricky balance a lot harder to pull off than anything in "Die Hard."

This article is related to: the trailer test, Die Hard 5, A Good Day To Die Hard, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Bruce Willis, Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton