Miramax // 1996 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // September 20th, 1999
Deliberate sacrifice for deliberate gain.
A remarkable directorial debut by exceptional actor Kevin Spacey, Albino Alligator is an actor's movie, where a weak story about a botched burglary is overshadowed by a stellar cast. Surprisingly, we finally get some genuine extra content in a DVD from the folks at Buena Vista!
Every movie has a hook or a draw to get you to notice it amidst the endless stream of films that come out of Hollywood, overseas, and all sorts of places. I had never heard of Albino Alligator before I received this review copy, but when I saw that one of my most favorite actors was the director, and that the cast was full of other well-loved actors and actresses, I knew that this would be worth my time. I was not disappointed! (Well, that and I wanted to know what the heck the title meant! You do learn the answer, and it is actually a significant plot element.)
So, what happens?
Brothers Dova (Matt Dillon) and Milo (Gary Sinise), along with the slightly psychotic Law (William Fichtner) have bungled a burglary of the New Orleans Copper Works Co., and now they are on the run. To make matters worse, they stumble into some undercover BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) agents and kill two of them before escaping on foot with an injured Milo. Knowing that they are in deep, deep trouble, the criminal trio hole up in Dino's Last Chance Bar, taking the owner, Dino (M. Emmet Walsh), barmaid Janet Boudreaux (Faye Dunaway), her son Danny (Skeet Ulrich), and a couple customers, Jack (John Spencer) and Guy Foucard (Viggo Mortensen). hostage.
Intending only to catch their breath and tend to Milo for a short time, Dova and Law are taken aback when a horde of New Orleans police set up shop outside, trapping them. In charge of the police is perpetually annoyed BATF Agent G.D. Browning (Joe Mantegna) and his tolerant partner Agent Marv Rose (Frankie Faison). As the law enforcement minions scurry about and set up their equipment and men, the criminals inside the bar are a little rattled. Dino seizes the opportunity to retrieve a hidden shotgun but his attempt to turn the tables goes tragically wrong, and now the tone of the movie shifts. Law is blase, but Dova has entered into a situation that threatens to spin out of his control.
While Dova and Law explore a potential escape tunnel, they reach an understanding that they will do whatever is necessary to escape alive, including killing hostages. Milo, on the other hand, is vehemently opposed to being so cold blooded as to kill hostages. Matters remain as unsettled outside the bar as inside, where the cops are wondering exactly who is inside and the criminals are wondering if they will ever get out with their own skins intact. The arrival of the press, in the eager persona of Jenny Ferguson (Melinda McGraw), shakes things up further. Agent Browning gives her an interview, but it is so obscenity laden (and hilarious) that it is useless for broadcast. Undeterred, she goes on the air with an unconfirmed story that tells the criminals that the police do not know that they are actually the hostage takers! In fact, it is one of their hostages that the police have been looking for, a known arms dealer.
Knowing that their hostage is the key to their own escape, Dova and Law plan to kill the gunrunner and spin the story to the cops that they killed their hostage-taker in order to escape. This is more than Milo can take, and he realizes that he simply has to remove himself from the situation before he is responsible for another death. This dramatic decision has consequences, as the choices that have been made among the characters have narrowed the options for a clean getaway considerably. The end sequence is a chilling depiction of how a person can make a deliberate choice to sacrifice their soul for an ultimate gain.
Acting is what should rightfully draw you to this movie, particularly when they are under the direction of an actor (Kevin Spacey) who knows his craft so well. Albino Alligator is very much a character drama, and I would strongly recommend that this be on the viewing list of aspiring actors. As remarked on the commentary track, the actors avoid playing archetypal characters (particularly the trio of criminals). Each of them, even the homicidal minded Law, has a humanity and personality that makes them real. My highest praise has to be reserved for Gary Sinise, who in one scene conveys an amazing sense of deep betrayal and pain without any dialogue, only the simplest of facial expression and body language. He always does a first rate job (see Apollo 13) and this movie is no exception, which is one of the reasons I am drooling over the impending release of The Green Mile. Nearly as good in her performance is Faye Dunaway, whose subtle, psychological manipulations of each of the criminals is fascinating to behold. Joe Mantegna, who was called into the film on two days notice, does not have a lot to do except hang around with Frankie Faison (remember him as Barney in Silence of the Lambs?), but it is a treat to see him sourly chewing the scenery and pacing about.
The video is what we have come to expect from recent releases under the Buena Vista family -- an excellent looking transfer but a sadly non-anamorphic one. The picture is clean and very nearly free of dirt or defects, the flesh tones are good, and the colors moderately saturated (though I think this last is a conscious choice so that a muted palette does not distract from the acting). The picture tends to be softer than ideal, but not to any distracting degree. Blacks are solid and contrast in the darker scenes is quite good as well. Thankfully, I failed to detect any noticeable degree of shimmering from digital enhancement.
For a actor-centric movie such as this one, you don't expect a rock em sock em audio mix, but this one surprised me. Of critical importance, the dialogue is clearly understood, including the low voiced and soft vocals in some scenes. Excellent use is made of channel effects, getting me to look right and left on a number of occasions. However, what was most pleasantly surprising to me was the slow, rhythmic beat that pops up in a couple of scenes. It is such a deep bass beat that it generates a spooky tension on its own, and turns your subwoofer into a beat box.
For a movie from any other studio, I would seriously consider discussing the extra content in the rebuttal section, but for a Buena Vista disc, this is something to be praised! The "Behind the Scenes" feature is not even a featurette, as it is only about two minutes in length, but it does have some very brief interviews edited into essentially a long promotional spot. Buena Vista has again insisted on giving us the utterly useless Film Recommendations section of static titles and box art. Hey, Buena Vista, how about giving us the TRAILERS of the recommended films? That would actually be a nice touch. As usual, Buena Vista sensibly uses the preferred Amaray keepcase.
However, the jewel of the extras is an actual, real life full length commentary by Oscar-caliber actor Kevin Spacey in his directorial baptism by fire and film editor Jay Lash Cassidy. You get a wealth of details about how shots were put together, why certain decisions were made, how the casting came together, and the whole process of filmmaking, all from the perspective of a director who is just learning his craft. Certain directors (Paul Verhoeven and Richard Donner come to mind) would do well to emulate Kevin Spacey, and give us a down-to-earth commentary that informs us without being full of ramblings about the director's ego or politics.
Though it does not neatly fall into any of the review categories, the camera work employed by Kevin Spacey is quite nifty, from unusual angles on shots (notably the car crash early on) to the deliberate avoidance of showing on-screen violence except when it is most effective. He has good instincts, and with his skill in handling actors, I look forward to his next directorial effort.
Of all the elements of Albino Alligator, the story is the weakest link. The first third of the movie gets the job done in setting the background of the situation and the characters, as well as the predicament that has trapped them. However, in the middle of the movie we seem to lose that sense of urgent tension that we started with, which is odd given that we are deep in the middle of a hostage situation. The cops and agents outside are a passive force, waiting on events to occur without being a force in shaping the resolution of the crisis. Inside, the long periods of waiting for some external event to spur the story along wears a little thin, and the quiet desperation of the trapped criminals is too quiet and understated. Finally, I simply do not buy into the ending of the movie. It certainly is shocking, but it felt unconvincing and incomplete to me, which is a pity.
If you are looking for a quiet character drama, then this is the film for you. It is certainly worth a rental, though if you want to make a purchase, at least this pricey ($30) Buena Vista disc comes with some actual extra content.
The film is acquitted, and Buena Vista is (yet again) admonished to give us anamorphic transfers with a decent set of extra content for all of its movies, and how about a $25 (or lower) price for these basic discs?
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by Kevin Spacey
* Behind the Scenes Footage