A Good Day to Die Hard opens today to some of the worst reviews any film in this franchise has received and no doubt will create new box office records. But as I take the time to go back and enjoy the earlier films, one thing that strikes me is the stark difference between the look of the films.
The first two films enjoy a very similar colour palate, the first benefiting more from Jan De Bont's terrific cinematography. But there was an emphasis of contrasting natural skin tones against colourful backgrounds to make people pop out and create events that were larger than life. Even the night or cold snowy scenes that were washed in blue were always done so with a very vivid blue that was still bright and colourful.
The third film, directed by John McTiernan like the first, was treated very similarly with the most notable difference being less colourful overall. Perhaps it was because the film was set in New York, or that it was the 90s and filmmakers like David Fincher were playing with colour effects like bleach bypass, but there's no doubt that this film looks much grittier. Still though, it always lives in a very natural colour spectrum. Flesh tones are flesh tones, and the concrete jungle of New York, while very grey, is never crushed to the point of bleakness.
Then we come to Live Free or Die Hard. I've since decided that one of my least favourite things about this film is the colour. Len Wiseman loves to do what so many filmmakers these days like to do in an attempt to bring style to a film. They saturate the hell out of the backgrounds and shove everything into a monochromatic cyan range while bringing up the oranges in the actor's faces. There is quite literally no life in the frame that lives outside of the actor's faces. It's a nice contrasting effect, but it becomes extremely wearing with the added detriment of making the entire film feel artificial. (and therefore inconsequential)
A Good Day to Die Hard appears to be taking this colour palate even further. Bruce looks absolutely orange and the backgrounds are complete devoid of anything other than teal and little flourishes of yellow. I know they're trying to portray post-communist Russia, but this is beyond bleak... and far from uncommon.
Every action filmmaker is utilizing this colour range and has been for the last 8 years. As a professional colourist, I understand the reasons why... it adds an extra layer of style (read production value) to a film and makes it feel edgy. The biggest problem I have with it, is the aforementioned artificiality. Pushing everything into these blue-green backgrounds and throwing a power mask over your actor to bring them out and pump up the yellow-orange to contrast them is very, very far from natural. It doesn't look like any world that I live in. Take a look at the realistic everyday colours in the Die Hard With a Vengeance shot again. Sure Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis are literally popping out of the frame, but then again it feels like they're inhabiting a world that they interact with. It has a real weight and sense of sincerity while still being cinematic.
I for one am tired of this style and consider it outplayed. If you want us to care about the plight of characters in your film, then don't force us as an audience to fall back on suspension of disbelief just to buy the world the characters live in.