Artisan // 1999 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 10th, 2000
A vicious killer. A brilliant lawyer. A case with no rules.
Restraining Order is an independent film from director Lee H. Katzin, a prolific television director over the last 30 years. It stays seemingly true to its roots and comes off very like a made-for-TV movie, but not in the best sense of the word. A formulaic plot, predictable storyline, and a slow beginning hurt what in some places is a nice suspense thriller. Eric Roberts and Dean Stockwell try to help it along, as well as a couple actors well known in Europe, but the film is ultimately a forgettable television drama. Artisan gives a fairly average effort for this fairly average film, with a full frame transfer and still no subtitles. Still, for what it is, the disc is adequate, with a decent soundtrack and directors' commentary.
It's not all bad. The story had some promise, and I have little to complain about with the main actors and their performances. I keep finding adjectives like "average," "fair," and "adequate" when I try to describe the various aspects of the film. Cinematography is very much like a television drama; the script seems made like an hour long drama that got extended to 90 minutes by adding more violence and nudity to prove it's not just a prime time adventure series.
As I said, the story had promise. Robert Woodfield (Eric Roberts) is a hip, long-haired lawyer who wins an acquittal for a murder defendant, and in a fateful move, asks for and gets a restraining order against the police to keep them from further harassing or using surveillance against him. Hence the name of the film, and of course the order becomes instrumental later when it turns out he really is a killer after all. When Woodfield witnesses yet another murder being committed by his client, intimidation, kidnapping, and a vicious frame-up conspire to try to keep him from telling what he knows. Fortunately our lawyer hero is also quite the boxer, which was introduced early in the film, and he gets the chance to punch the lights out on a lot of bad guys.
The formula for a thriller, or most genres for that matter, is this: The first act you get your hero up a tree. In the second he tries to get down from the tree but ends up in a much worse situation than he started in. In the third act you get him down from the tree. The formula is followed like an old family recipe here, and I found I already knew everything I needed to know about the film after the first hour, or perhaps less.
Here is also the classic tale of "sins of the father." Dean Stockwell plays a union leader who helped raise Robert and put him through law school, and of course he is buried up to his nose in all the nasty business. He puts in a decent if very familiar performance as the sleazy businessman with deep underworld ties.
Perhaps because a German film company helped produce the film, two popular German actors also play key roles. At least they are popular in Germany. Hannes Jaenicke is one of Germany's most popular film stars, and I admit he gives a fine performance without a trace of accent as the main villain. Runway model and cover girl Tatjana Patitz co-stars as Eric Robert's wife, but she is more known for the magazine covers she has graced than any film role. She is pleasant to look at, and doesn't really hurt nor help the film. I'm quite a fan of both Eric Roberts and Dean Stockwell, and while neither is bad, again "adequate" seems to be the best word to describe their work here.
Well, at times they get above "adequate" and actually manage to entertain. A couple earlier scenes have some dramatic impact, and the stunts and action scenes in the third act are actually quite good. Well-choreographed fight scenes and a few thrilling stunts do manage to entertain. As a guy I thought the obligatory strip club scene was pretty good too, with some gorgeous women strutting their stuff.
Well, that was the hard part, trying to talk about the positives in the film. This part gets easier. The worst part was the predictability. Every twist in the plot was telegraphed well in advance, and I knew exactly how the film would end even before the action sequences got going. For a suspense thriller, that isn't a good thing. It is a fine line between cheating with a twist that no one could see coming and still finding a way to give the twists some surprise and impact, and Katzin missed it by just a bit. Actually, there was one little part I wasn't certain about, but it turned out I was right. So maybe I am being just a bit harsh here.
This may be a bit of a cheap shot, but my first gasp of the film was when I saw Eric Robert's hair. I thought, "Oh my god, is this set in 1978?" No, it was modern day, his hair just looked like the late '70s. It turns out that Roberts had a western film to do next and needed to keep his hair long so they just went with it. I don't suppose it was really wrong, but it didn't feel right in the film.
Perhaps this was just meant to be a made-for-TV time filler. In that regard, it succeeds. It feels just like a hundred other television adventure shows I've seen many times before. The acting is decent; nothing really wrong, but uninspired and uninspiring.
I'm never happy when I get a disc done in full frame, unless it was filmed that way for television. In this case, it may have been. There isn't any obvious cropping so I won't give it the dreaded "pan and scan" label. The picture quality is decent enough; shadow detail is fine, blacks are black, and fleshtones are fleshy. The colors don't bleed and there aren't any nicks or scratches to distract. Detail is a bit on the soft side, and there are some motion artifacts and jagged edges, but it's not that bad. Sort of like the film itself.
The soundtrack is actually pretty good. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track has plenty of punch, and everything is crystal clear. Surround use is fairly sparse, but ambient sounds do come from any angle and you can hear every little click or footstep. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible. In this regard the disc and the sound rise above the level of quality I found in every other aspect.
The extras are, you guessed it, adequate. There is a director's commentary, but I found Katzin's halting speech a bit dry. He gave enough information, but a little chunk at a time. Worse though was that he seemed to think you were watching the film for the first time when listening to the commentary, as he would explain the film and what was happening, and what was about to happen. I don't know about you, but I never watch the commentary track before seeing the film itself. The cast and crew bios and filmographies were thorough, and I have no complaints there. The trailer completes the extra content.
Once more, I have to mention the lack of subtitles or captions on this Artisan disc. They are just beginning to join the rest of the DVD world by including them, but they need to get on board and include them with every disc.
There is a short letter from the director in the leaflet inside the case, where he calls it a "little film." I think if that is all you are expecting or looking for, you probably won't be too disappointed. It's worth a rental if nothing else is on and there's nothing better to do with your evening. I can't be any more positive about the film than that.
Artisan and the film are acquitted, and I'll just shuffle this one through our legal system to get to the next case.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Cast and Crew Info