Live Free or Hairspray Hard by Ric Meyers
When I was attempting to explain the joys to be found in a good kung-fu film in my Martial Arts Movie books, I suggested that the exhilaration of a great wushu battle is only really comparable to the delights of a good movie musical. Both feature operatic emotions with balletic energy. I was reminded of that comparison when watching Hairspray, one of my three favorite summer o’07 films (Ratatouille and Superbad were the others). I admired it so much I even included it in my Inside Kung-Fu magazine media column (after all, the word “kung-fu” actually means “hard work”).
Now the DVD is out, and in a two-disc “Shimmy and Shake Edition,” too. After the too-few extras on the Ratatouille and Help! DVDs, it’s nice to find a release with the reams of special features about the kung-fu I so enjoy. There’s two audio commentaries – one with star Nikki Blonsky and director/choreographer Dan Shankman, and the other with two producers (Neil Meron and Craig Zadan). The latter is a little more informative but the former is a lot more fun.
Joining them on the first disc is a “Hairspray Extensions” featurette that lives up to its title – in that it shows six musical numbers as they were built, step by step, from rehearsal to filming. For Dancing With the Stars fans, there’s also a “Step by Step Dance Instructions” featurette that carefully and completely teaches you two of the film’s signature boogie-woogies. Finally, there’s a “Jump to a Song” feature which allows you to avoid all those pesky dialog scenes.
Then there’s the second disc, which balances extensive and exhaustive “making of” docs (on the music by Marc Shaiman, who also composed the South Park movie, dancing, design, costumes and cast) with historical context featurettes on the original non-musical John Waters film, the actual Baltimore TV dance show the film was inspired by, and the Broadway musical that was adapted from Waters film. But, as they say on TV, that’s not all. Rounding out the second disc are a bunch of deleted scenes, including an evocative song that was cut from the film (probably wisely – though effective, it clearly slowed the film’s pace).
Throughout the extras are the energy and enthusiasm which permeated the finished film as well, supplying the kung-fu exhilaration that puts this recent movie musical head-over-heels over the rest. And speaking of energy, we come to the second of this week’s blasts from the past: Live Free or Die Hard, an attempt, a dozen years too late, to recapture the joys of the first in the series.
Ironically, also in my Martial Arts Movie books, I pointed out the difference between the bulk of American action films and the original Die Hard. Most U.S. film heroes like to pretend that firing a gun and getting shot at is the easiest thing in the world. Curiously, it’s the films where the hero doesn’t act that way (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Raiders of the Lost Ark) which are the most effective and successful. But do Hollywood producers and stars learn? Nope. They still love to walk away from an explosion without ducking or flinching, and pretend that as long as the flame from a detonation doesn’t touch them, they’ll suffer no shock wave, shrapnel or internal bleeding.
But the first Die Hard didn’t do that. Bruce Willis’ John McLane showed effort and emotion, and he felt pain, which had an effect on his behavior. That welcome reality barely survived the second film, but was essentially replaced in Die Hard with a Vengeance with pseudo bruises and generic groans, despite the fact that his character survived falls that would powder the bones of the first film’s McLane. As I pointed out in a pre-release “psychic review” on this very site, Live Free or Die Hard is really a sequel to Willis’ Unbreakable, in which he plays a reluctant invulnerable superhero.
Turns out I was right. Live Free or Die Not at All is another of those incognito superhero movies that’s pretending to be an action film which adheres to the laws of gravity. Where, once upon a time, an action film would build, with increasingly exciting scenes, to a climax which challenged, but didn’t break, an audience’s suspension of disbelief, now they ladle on the gravity-free nonsense to the point where it all becomes empty movement and you sit there placidly knowing no bullet will really hurt and ten-ton vehicles can float, twist, and fall like balloon animals.
But enough of this whining. What about the special features on the “Unrated Two Disc Special Edition”? They’re good. There’s a spotty but worthy audio commentary with Willis, director Len Wiseman, and editor Nicholas De Toth which reveals that the unrated version is actually the original R-rated version, complete with profanity and extra blood, which was trimmed back to achieve the PG-13 rating the studio sought (both versions of the films – a mere few minutes apart in running length – are included).
The self-reverential “making of” doc is feature length (more than ninety minutes) and fairly exhaustive, if not exhausting. It naturally concentrates on the technical aspects, as opposed to the storytelling. Also of interest is an interview of Willis by co-star Kevin Smith (director of Clerks, et al), which is like eavesdropping on the two on set. Of not nearly as much interest is a music video by Guyz Nite, a superfluous behind-the-scenes piece on the music video, and a paltry featurette on the Die Hard series, which plays pretty much like what it is: an advert for the series’ DVDs.
Lots of kung-fu, yes. Kung-fu towards a goal of health and harmony? Not really.
But, when anything is possible, nothing is interesting. Or something like that…Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.