Sony // 1996 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gary Militzer (Retired) // September 15th, 2000
They're not really criminals. But everybody's got to have a dream.
As it passed off the radar rather rapidly, I missed Bottle Rocket during its original theatrical release. Furthermore, since it was originally released on home video at a time when Tarantino-esque crime caper copycats were literally lining the new-release rental shelves, I avoided it based almost solely on its packaging. To me, this was just one more trendy box featuring hip young dudes with guns drawn amidst row after seeming row of knock-off cover shots showing dark-suited lads holding pistols, often accompanied by scantily clad women also packing heat. Then I saw a special little film called Rushmore that made me re-evaluate the prior work of is young director, Wes Anderson.
Bottle Rocket is a genuine example of aspiring filmmakers realizing their dream. The film literally grew out of the friendship between director Wes Anderson and co-writer and co-star Owen Wilson, who met in a playwriting course at the University of Texas. They submitted a black and white 13-minute short film, based upon the idea that their generation had the energy to achieve something great if they could just figure out what it was, at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. Their short caught the eye of veteran producer Polly Platt (Broadcast News, The War of the Roses), which led to backing from filmmaker James L. Brooks (As Good as it Gets, Terms of Endearment). Two years later, the feature-length film version was released on the big screen, where it made a small dent on the indie scene.
As the film begins, Anthony (Luke Wilson -- Home Fries, Blue Streak) is planning his "escape" from a voluntary mental institution that he'd checked himself into to deal with exhaustion, although he has seemingly not worked a day in his life. Aided by his blond, buzzcut buddy, Dignan (real-life brother Owen Wilson -- Shanghai Noon, Armageddon), Anthony climbs out his second-story window and down the knotted bed-linen rope to freedom. Dignan, armed with a spiral notebook containing color-coded criminal goals, informs Anthony that he has designed a life plan for them, going so far as to organize and outline the next 75 years of their lives. Thus begins their humorous descent into a bumbling life of crime.
To carry out their minor heists, they recruit another friend, Bob (Robert Musgrave), the rich kid with low esteem who just wants love and acceptance from his bullying older brother Jack (played hilariously by yet another Wilson brother, Andrew Wilson -- Rushmore, Never Been Kissed). Bob is designated as the getaway driver solely based upon the fact that he is the only one with a car. With the team in place, they rob the local bookstore in an inspired sequence and hit the road on the "lam," eventually hiding out in a cheap motel. As they plan their next move, Anthony meets and falls in love with Inez (Lumi Cavazos -- Like Water for Chocolate), an almost non-English speaking Paraguayan maid who works at the motel, and this makes him question whether a lifetime adherence to Dignan's criminal goals is truly his calling.
To take the operation to that next level, Dignan enlists the aid of a local crimelord/landscaping service owner named Mr. Henry (the always great James Caan -- The Godfather, Thief, Way of the Gun). With Mr. Henry's help, they recruit two more members, Kumar (Kumar Pallana) and Applejack (Jim Ponds) to fully realize their dream of that elusive big score and modicum of respect, which, in this case, means ripping off a cold food storage warehouse! Will this bizarre heist sizzle like a bottle rocket or fizzle like a defective firecracker?
It came as no small surprise to me to learn that distinguished filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who himself has directed numerous character-driven crime classics, found enough memorable originality in Bottle Rocket to name it as one of his ten best films of the 1990s on a recent episode of Roger Ebert and the Movies. From the upbeat, catchy Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame) score, to the offbeat performances and tight direction, it is obvious right from the beginning that this is a quirky minor classic.
Every single actor in this film is cast perfectly, perhaps because the characters were written especially for them. While the characters were surely written to play for laughs, each is portrayed with such honesty and sense of 'realness' that the audience comes to almost respect them for how they approach their lives on such a base level. The smart screenplay lends itself to the character quirks that make them seem more human.
Bottle Rocket is filled with numerous inspired sequences, particularly the heist near the conclusion. Filmed with a pseudo-Heat gritty visual style that literally puts you right there, it is equal parts tense, chaotic, and fantastically comedic. Think Heat done by way of Abbott and Costello and directed by the Coen Brothers and you'll have an idea what I mean. It is truly a marvelous sequence of animated lunacy with funny dialogue delivered with just the right tone. The scene literally must be replayed several times just to properly take it all in.
The DVD includes both a full screen pan and scan version and an anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The video quality is mostly good, utilizing a nice source print, which is not surprising since this is a relatively recent film. The colors are crisp and vibrant (note particularly the signature yellow jumpsuits or Anthony's bright red jacket in the first act), giving nice detail to the rich depth of the cinematography. Indeed, the entire film was shot with 27mm lens which enabled this greater depth of field, highlighting the high energy of the performers in relation to their backgrounds at all times.
The sound contains a clean Dolby Digital 5.1 mix or a functional Dolby 2.0 Surround track, and includes both English and Spanish subtitles. The audio is nice, especially in the 5.1 mix. The expansive score is a diverse blend of catchy instrumental tunes that stick in your head long after the film is over. Note too the perfect placement of the Rolling Stones' classic 2000 Man during the climactic heist; it fits perfectly, adding emotional resonance to the scene, and sounds fabulous on the DVD.
Did I mention the only noted extra feature on this DVD is that the menus are "interactive," meaning you can push up or down on your remote control and move the little on-screen dot correspondingly, all in front of a rather plain, non-animated menu? That's it folks...not even the theatrical trailer or production notes are included, although the enclosed booklet does contain a whole three paragraphs of information. Oh, and it does come in a keepcase that'll fit nicely on your shelf, for all you anal-retentive collectors out there who make your purchasing decisions based upon the packaging.
Also, one can argue that the somewhat strained, clichéd relationship between Anthony and Ines doesn't really belong in this picture. While it is still somewhat entertaining, the standard 'love sequence' kind of bogs down the middle portion of the film, but not enough to detract from the overall experience.
Really, my biggest gripe is the lack of extras on this DVD, especially a commentary track. The players have such a natural chemistry on film that would certainly have carried over well to an audio track full of their anecdotes in making their feature film debut and having their cinematic dream brought to fruition. It's just sad when the best "extra" this DVD contains is 28 chapter stops.
As you can tell, I am definitely a fan of Bottle Rocket. It's one of those small, well-made movies that you can just watch on a repeat basis and consistently pick up extra details or nuances to the proceedings. The performances are energetic and universally good. The direction is surprisingly mature and studied for a young, first-time director. It's just a fun, complete flick, and well worth a place in anyone's movie library, period.
"Ka-kaw, ka-kaw," Bottle Rocket is acquitted of all charges as it is a true little jewel of a film just waiting to be discovered by larger audiences. Now if only Columbia TriStar Home Video would license the rights to Criterion so this gem could get the same loving treatment that Rushmore was lavished with, all would be good. As it is though, it would be criminal not to have this film in your DVD collection.
Review content copyright © 2000 Gary Militzer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Bottle Rocket Ring