Sterling // 1998 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // March 13th, 2000
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned...
Race Darnell (Patrick Swayze) is an innocent man who was convicted of murdering his wife. He now sits on Utah's Death Row waiting for his day in the chair. To pass the time Darnell has done two things, write a best selling book about his experiences on death row and maintain four relationships with four different women via letter and audiocassettes. Of course none of the women know about the others so it is a big surprise when a prison guard who hates Darnell one day decides to switch a couple of the tapes. This action so infuriates one of the women that she sends a cassette back that tells Darnell that one way or another, he will fry.
Being in prison and set to die she does not pose that great a threat. Enter Darnell's new public defender. She manages to locate some evidence that was held back by the prosecution in Darnell's first trial and in the course of a retrial, Darnell is proven innocent and set free. All well and good except now Darnell is engaged in a game of cat and mouse with a completely unhinged woman whose brutal murders are aimed at framing the man who wronged her. On the run he turns to a prison guard friend of his Horace (Roger E. Mosley) and along the way meets up with one of "his" women, Lita (Gia Carides). She says she believes he is innocent, but is she?
To my great surprise, Letters from a Killer is a very effective action thriller in the Hitchcock mold. Directed with a lot of style by David Carson (Star Trek: Generations), the film follows the structure of the genre to the letter: The falsely accused man on the run from the law...the attractive female who may or may not be what she seems...the wise policeman leading up the hunt who does not completely believe the hunted man is guilty...suspects who are not proven innocent until they turn up dead. It's all formula, but in Carson and screenwriters, Nicholas Hicks-Beach and Shelley Miller's hands the film zings by at a breakneck pace. The Master of suspense would be proud.
I have to admit that, besides The Outsiders, I had never sat through an entire film that starred Patrick Swayze. While he will never be confused with some of the great actors of our generation, but in the right material he is pretty good. That being said, in Letters from a Killer he has the right material. He manages to convey a sense of isolation in Darnell, as well an inner strength that borderlines on heroic. He is very shocked by the murders that are being committed in his name, and truly remorseful for his actions that began them. It is a very effective performance, again very much in the Hitchcock "wrong man" mode.
Swayze is given strong support by Gia Carides (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) as Lita, the ex-policewoman with a history of violence. As his prison guard buddy Horace, Roger E. Mosley ("Magnum P.I."'s T.C.) is wonderful. Horace is a lover of western novels and movies and he sees this quest to clear Darnell's name as his way to break out of the system and be one of the heroes he admires so much.
Special mention must be made of one of my favorite character actors, Bruce McGill (D-day of Animal House). As the Zen-like FBI agent in charge of the manhunt for Darnell, McGill is a joy in every scene that has him in it. He is truly an actor I wish I saw more of.
On the other side of the camera, Academy Award-winning Director of Photography John A. Alonzo gives the film a beautiful look that helps the mood and pace of the movie. Another Star Trek: Generations veteran, composer Dennis McCarthy, helps the film a great deal with his smoky, bluesy score.
As for the disc itself...well, I had never seen anything from Sterling Entertainment before, but if Letters from a Killer is indicative of the product they put out, I'll have to look for some more stuff from them. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and it is enhanced with an anamorphic transfer. While it's not perfect, it is pretty damn good. While for the most part I found the overall image fairly sharp and with good detail, I thought in some places the picture was a little soft and some of the colors, especially in the beginning of the movie, were a little overly bright (more on the color later). The picture isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination; it just isn't as strong as one would expect it to be from a high-def transfer.
The sound on the other hand is great. The 5.1 mix just pops with detail, especially in the discrete surrounds. Bass is present but nothing that will have your neighbors pounding on the walls. A really nice job.
For a film I had never heard of, Sterling gives Letters from a Killer a pretty good special edition treatment. The number one feature is a very good scene-specific commentary track by director David Carson. He talks about all the technical aspects of the film in a charming and informative waygewransferred to pure color for the finished product -- hence the very bright, almost garish colors in the beginning of the film that I mentioned in the previous section. It really is a shame that studios have this aversion to black and white. The way Carson and Alonzo wanted it makes a great deal of sense in relation to the film and its mood. Just another case of suits dumbing-down a product so we, the idiot masses, will understand it. And after all of Carson's talk of this being cut and that being cut it would have been nice to see some of those deleted scenes, but they are not there. Also included as features are a behind the scenes montage, a trivia game, trailers, and bios of the cast and crew. They're good extras but nothing to write home about.[Editor's Note -- I have a feeling that pun was intentional...]
If you like movies such aces viewing habits short and to trust its creative personal. That's it. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary Track with Director David Carson
* Interactive Motion Menus
* Biographies and Filmographies of Cast, Director, Writers, and Producers
* Behind-the-Scenes Montage
* Interviews with Cast, Director, and Producer
* Photo Gallery
* Trivia Game
* Theatrical Trailer
* Millennium Trailer Gallery
* Read or Print the Entire Screenplay (DVD-ROM)
* Access Scenes in the Movie Directly From the Screenplay (DVD-ROM)
* Internet Connection to Websites (DVD-ROM)
* Screensaver (DVD-ROM)