Fox // 1992 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 6th, 2012
He didn't want law. He wanted justice.
"Never let a stranger in your cab, in your house or in your heart...unless he is a friend of labor."
Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) used to be a hard-working truck driver, but lost his job after it was discovered that he allowed labor activist James R. Hoffa (Jack Nicholson, Chinatown) to ride with him for a couple of hours. Thankfully, Hoffa is more than willing to provide Bobby with some work. Before long, Bobby finds himself serving as Hoffa's right-hand man. Over the years, Hoffa leads the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to great prominence, gathering over a million members and demanding that the working man be treated with respect. Alas, his means of achieving power are sometimes a bit less than ethical. Eventually, Hoffa finds himself at the center of a number of criminal investigations.
The most fascinating thing about Danny DeVito's Hoffa is that it never makes an attempt to unravel the mystery of the enigmatic figure at its center. There aren't any scenes in which we see the man behind the public image, because Hoffa essentially was the public image. Every moment of his time is consumed with promoting the teamsters and fighting for the labor workers of America. The film makes no effort to hide the fact that Hoffa jumped into bed with the mob to achieve his goals, but it also suggests that every action he took was rooted in his desire to aid the little man. There's no cheap pop psychology to explain why Hoffa acted the way he did, just the perspective of those who observed him. The film regards him through the eyes of Bobby Ciaro: with a great deal of admiration and no small amount of concern.
The film tosses the usual biopic format out the window, disposing of any scenes from Hoffa's childhood and hokey personal confessions designed to give us a window into the man's private life. The movie simply paints a vivid portrait of this force of nature during the most significant periods of his long career. Even though it's 140 minutes long, there's very little fat on Hoffa, as the film jumps around in time and lands only where it absolutely needs to. We watch as Hoffa engages in some enthusiastic community organizing (in a handful of crowd scenes that demonstrate that DeVito is as comfortable with historical epics as he is with dark comedy), witness him making back room deals with mobsters (led by Armand Assante, American Gangster) and observe him engaging in bitter public battles with politicians like Robert Kennedy (Kevin Anderson, Rising Sun). It's riveting stuff, despite the fact that it takes some historical license on more than a few occasions (including a demonstration of where and how Hoffa mysteriously disappeared). That will undoubtedly be a dealbreaker for some, but the film is hardly a JFK-level distortion of the facts (besides, it's more important that a film function as a satisfying dramatic experience than as an accurate historical record -- though it's always nice when something hits the mark on both counts).
Jack Nicholson's screen presence is pretty unmistakable, and he's more or less played "Jack!" in roles as diverse as The Joker, a military leader, a mental patient, The President and Satan. However, Hoffa marks one of the few occasions where Nicholson truly disappears inside a role; there isn't a trace of the wolfish devil we know so well. Even more surprisingly, it seems a part that Nicholson was born to play: with just a little bit of makeup, the actor is a dead ringer for Hoffa. Nicholson flawlessly recreates the man's northeastern accent and monotone speech patterns, but the performance never comes across as mere imitation or mimicry. It's a genuinely great piece of work, far more satisfying than many of the showboating portraits of historical figures that have earned Oscar nominations in years past.
DeVito's character isn't nearly as well-developed, but he doesn't have to be: Bobby is merely an audience surrogate who regards Hoffa with the same sort of fascination, skepticism and bewildered admiration that we regard him with. DeVito's work behind the camera is considerably more impressive, offering a level of confidence that had been steadily building since he made his big-screen debut with Throw Momma From the Train. It's a shame that the film flopped at the box office, as Hoffa suggests that DeVito could have had a very different career. The script by David Mamet is also largely to credit for the film's success, as Mamet meshes his profane, unmistakable writing voice with the historical record with great success. A senate hearing showdown between Kennedy and Hoffa plays like a self-contained Mamet gem, but the scene is taken verbatim from recordings of the actual event.
Hoffa (Blu-ray) has received a very attractive 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that is a huge improvement over the DVD release. The level of detail is exceptional, the image is crisp and clean and there's a very warm, filmic look that gives the whole thing a '70s vibe. Blacks are deep while skin tones are natural. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track spotlights David Newman's stirring score (one of the composer's finest works) quite impressively, and the crowd scenes offer some rather immersive sound design. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout. Both the video and audio were remastered from the original elements for this Blu-ray release and the results are most impressive.
The supplemental package is filled with some consistently interesting odds and ends. For starters, when you pop the disc into your Blu-ray player, you'll be treated to an introduction from Danny DeVito (who tap-dances on top of the 20th Century Fox logo and gleefully describes the special features -- it's a hoot). Elsewhere, you've got an audio commentary with DeVito, a featurette with the director and David Newman on "The Music of Hoffa" (10 minutes), DeVito's speech from the 2011 Teamster's Convention (15 minutes), a piece entitled "Devito's 11 1/4" (11 minutes) that features some delightful outtakes, deleted scenes, historical footage of Hoffa, personal remembrances of Hoffa from several folks who knew him, a Siskel & Ebert segment on the film (two thumbs up, of course), a brief audio discussion with DeVito and the cast following the first script read-through, a look at some special effects shots, a trailer, a production gallery and a copy of the shooting script.
Hoffa is a fine film featuring a terrific central performance from Jack Nicholson, even-handed direction from Danny DeVito and a crackling script by David Mamet. The Blu-ray release is solid across the board, making this release an easy recommendation.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Convention Speech
* Deleted Scenes
* Personal Anecdotes
* Archival Footage
* Siskel & Ebert segment
* Audio Conversation
* Photo Gallery
* Shooting Script