Sony // 1999 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Rogers (Retired) // May 24th, 2000
"Before we go through with this, I just want to make your aware of the damage we're about to cause."
A film with a lineage traceable to the eighteenth century, Cruel Intentions is, at its core, a story of control. The latest in a long line of various adaptations, the film is an "updated version" of the classic novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." Where the original text concerned itself with matters of members' maneuverings of French nobility, the updated version casts the film around the idle amusements of rich private school students in New York.
Already, I know some have written the film off. Yes, many "adaptations," especially remakes of previous cinematic stories, can veer into new territories that change the magic and appeal of the original. Cruel Intentions, however, showcases one of the better adaptive writing efforts Hollywood has seen in recent memory. Further, it combines a quite talented young cast to bring the roles to life, and creates the world of Kathryn and Sebastian.
Written and directed by a fresh face on the director's circuit, Roger Kimble's (writer's credits on Kingpin, Dumb and Dumber, Senior Trip) previous films really never ventured into the type of story Cruel Intentions features. Further, it was his first time at the helm. He was handed a cast that appears to be a collection of the same vapid hot bodies often trotted out in the "teen market" films. From a first glance, Cruel Intentions seems to have more than a few obstacles stacked against it. Despite these seeming difficulties, the finished product uses fine acting to tell a story with more subtlety than many original works.
Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar -- TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2) and Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe, White Squall, I Know What You Did Last Summer, 54) are step-siblings both possessed of the same inclinations. They lazily, but with intense, concentrated cunning, manipulate the lives of those around them for their own ends. For amusement, for idle pleasure. Though "siblings," they're remarkably similar in their skills and abilities.
Enter Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon, Fear, Pleasantville, Election), a naïve young student transferring in from middle America with her father, who's assuming the Headmaster's position at their school. She's been published with a "manifesto" of how she's going to "wait" until marriage, which draws derision from the very cynical Kathryn and Sebastian.
A proposition is made, where Sebastian will successfully pursue the innocent Annette, while Kathryn diddles with matters on the side and watches Sebastian's progress. His efforts, however, begin to falter when he realizes Annette is affecting him in ways he's never felt before.
The strength of the story is in the three lead characters, and each stepped up with surprisingly strong performances, based on expectations from previous work. Gellar and Phillippe in particular shined in as the deliciously dastardly siblings. Each embraces their role with an inner gleam of avarice as they revel in their control over those around them. As Kathryn and Sebastian dangle lures and reel in lines, their gleeful zeal really shines through. Further, as Sebastian's character evolves along his growth curve, facing his growing love for Annette despite his intellectual reactions that tell him she's merely someone to manipulate, Phillippe's work strengthens.
Of course, the story is adapted, but the updated nature plays well. Some audience members might question whether or not "children" (teenagers nearing high school graduation) would act as Kathryn and Sebastian do, others find no unreality in such attitudes in people, children or no. New York's upper class society aptly replaces eighteenth century French nobility, and makes the story more accessible. Further, the story shows human nature, throughout the centuries, has not changed as much as we might think. If anything, we've had more time to perfect old tricks.
But, enough about the story, what about the disc? Columbia TriStar delivered the all-star treatment to this special edition with a very on-topic assembly of extra material for film fans to enjoy.
First up is a filmmaker's commentary, incorporating the director and most of the principle crew members. Recorded with a very jovial, "talking over drinks" manner, the group works through the film discussing the usual subjects. Trivia of the film, scene problems and stories, casting choices and comments, that sort of thing. While not one of the best commentary tracks available in the format, Cruel Intentions' is nevertheless an entertaining one, and certainly does meet the standard.
Additionally, there are featurettes on the making of the film, including an in depth discussion of the updating and overall "style" of the production. A collection of six deleted scenes from various points in the film are introduced individually by director Kimble, with comments concerning their deletion and how it all worked out. The theatrical trailer, a pair of music videos, biographical material on the cast and crew, and you've got enough material to keep you busy for a few hours.
Finishing things out, the video and audio transfers. Both are good. The video is very natural, very vibrant in appearance. The color palette for the film was very striking, and this comes through nicely on disc. Flesh tones, color values, everything looks wonderful in the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Artifacting, moiré patterns, edge enhancements, none of these problems intrude on the film's presentation.
The audio is crisp and clear, with dialogue always forward and discernable. As a drama, the surrounds don't get much work, there are a few key sequences with thematic soundtrack music that help provide some fun.
There's hardly anything to really object to on Cruel Intentions. The audio could have been more expansive, more enfolding, but nothing really jumps out as "bad" when listening to it. Perhaps additional language tracks and subtitles could have been included, but the film was aimed squarely at the North American movie market, so perhaps this is understandable.
Not all remakes or adaptations do a good job. Cruel Intentions does. Good work by the cast and a nice touch by first time director Kimble make for a guilty pleasure film of intrigue and style. The disc is an absolutely top grade effort by Columbia TriStar, especially with the inclusion of deleted material and non-fluff "making of the film" featurettes material.
High marks across the board. A raised eyebrow at the missing foreign language tracks, but a "good job" for squeezing all the supplemental material and both anamorphic and full screen versions of the film onto a single sided disc. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2000 David Rogers; 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)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary With Director and Key Cast
* Six Deleted Scenes, With Director's Introduction
* Two Featurettes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Two Soundtrack Music Videos
* Biographical Material on Film Crew