Summit Entertainment // 1989 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // October 10th, 2011
"To deny your vision is to sell your soul"Hubert Selby, Jr.
For viewers looking for a lighthearted, breezy movie watching experience, adaptations of Hubert Selby, Jr. stories are not the way to go. The films made from his work, Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream, are two of the most depressing films you're likely to see. Selby told stories aout the hard life of New York City in an ultra-realistic, coldly gritty style that may not have been easy, but were brilliant books. While Requiem for a Dream was a phenomenal film, director Darren Aronofsky included a visual flair not in line with the original work. Director Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex), on the other hand, captures Selby's language and grit brilliantly in Last Exit to Brooklyn, a crushing story of the bottom-dwellers about New York City.
Centering on a factory workers strike in 1952, we find characters struggling to survive and find happiness in Red Hook, one of the most dangerous sectors of Brooklyn. Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hudsucker Proxy) is a prostitute who seduces sailors and takes them to a dock for her dirtbag friends to beat and rob. Harry Black (Stephen Lang, Avatar), the head of the strike office, rips off union funds and finds himself infatuated with a transvestite (Alexis Arquette, Of Mice and Men) who works the block. A factory worker (Burt Young, Rocky) tries to keep his family's heads above water during the strike while his daughter (Ricki Lake, Hairspray) is about to give birth out of wedlock.
While the film is grounded by the factory strike thread and a fairly linear timeline, there isn't a distinct narrative in Last Exit to Brooklyn. That falls in line with the book, which was a series of short stories that take place over a number of years, but screenwriter Desmond Nakano (White Man's Burden), who adapted the book, has done a really good job of combining and condensing these stories into a cohesive piece that takes place over a few weeks and a couple of blocks. The language is rendered well from the strange and difficult diction in the book, and the actors perform it perfectly.
Jennifer Jason Leigh was the biggest revelation in the film, as her sad and sympathetic rendition of Tralala catapulted her into the public eye, making her young career, even if many of her roles were more versions of the same. I hate the term "brave" for actresses who face difficult roles, but there are a lot of emotions she has to carry and a lot of disgusting acts she was forced to endure for the part. While her continued success has made her the focus of discussion about the film, it's Stephen Lang's performance of Harry Black that makes the film. He's a force of nature as the strike leader who cares about his men on the lines, but can't keep his own corruption at bay to the complete detriment of his cause. When his eyes finally open to his conflicted sexuality, the performance becomes even more nuanced and powerful. With early work from Alexis Arquette, Ricki Lake, Sam Rockwell (Frost/Nixon), and Stephen Baldwin (Bio-Dome), a sadly comedic performance from Burt Young, and a great, though small, appearance by Jerry Orbach (Law and Order) as the head of the union make Last Exit to Brooklyn a truly fantastic acting piece that is totally compelling to watch.
Uli Edel shifts smoothly between characters in much the same way John Sayles did in City of Hope, with the camera following one character until they cross paths with another and the focus switches to them. It moves the film effectively and keeps the relationships between the characters very clear. There is a tiny bit of comedy within the story of Burt Young's family, but other than that, Edel makes no attempt to sugarcoat the grim world where these characters live, where poverty and crime get in the way of finding happiness. The performances are fantastic and the story is well put together, but Last Exit to Brooklyn is an absolutely crushing film that isn't very much fun to watch, but is essential viewing for those who love character pieces.
The Blu-ray disc from Summit gives Last Exit to Brooklyn the best presentation it has ever had. The 1080p image transfer is superb. The detail is fantastic, the colors pop off the screen, and the black and white levels are nearly perfect. Previous editions of the film have been fairly shoddy and this is quite an upgrade. The surround mix is an upgrade, as well, but not nearly as big as the image. Still, there is some action in the rear channels, especially during the confrontation between the police and the strikers, and the music is dynamic in the mix. For extras, we have an audio commentary from 2006 with director Edel and screenwriter Nakano, which gives some pretty good insight into the production sixteen years after it was filmed, and a 45-minute documentary on the production from just after the time the film was released, which is excellent.
Last Exit to Brooklyn does exactly what it has set out to do. It captures the spirit of Selby's novel, both in language and in mood, and features outstanding performances from the whole cast. If you've never seen the film, certainly watch it, but don't expect to feel good afterward. If you already own the film, you owe it to yourself to pick up the Blu-ray; it's well worth the upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R