Judge Christopher Kulik salutes former fellow Seaman Fisher and first-time Director Denzel for a job well done.
Our review of Antwone Fisher, published May 20th, 2003, is also available.
Who will cry for the little boy?
"Do you hear me? This is my time! It don't matter…what you tried to do. You couldn't destroy me! I'm still standing. I'm still strong! And I will always be…"
Facts of the Case
Inspired by a true story, the film introduces the title character (Derek Luke, Miracle At St. Anna) as a quick-tempered Navy sailor who has been ordered to see Dr. Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington, John Q). At first, Fisher refuses to talk but eventually opens up to the committed Doctor and reveals a traumatic childhood without parents and abuse at the hands of a foster family. The treatment not only helps Fisher suppress his anger but also enable him to open up to fellow sailor Cheryl (Joy Bryant, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins), who he has a crush on. With the support of both Davenport and Cheryl, he goes on a mission to locate his real family.
I didn't know who Antwone Fisher was or anything about his life until I met the man himself. It was November of 2001, and I was completing my Sonar training in San Diego. When I attended the annual Navy Ball, Fisher appeared as the guest speaker and, for the first time, I heard his inspiring story. Afterward, I got to meet him, shake his hand, and get his autograph. I told him I was an amateur screenwriter and asked him what advice he had. All he said was, "Write. Just write!" Seven years later, I'm still re-writing my first screenplay.
How Fisher's story got the green light was interesting in that he was working as a security guard for Sony when his story became the talk of the lot. Fox approached him for the rights. Fisher resisted, stipulating he wanted to write the screenplay himself (smart move), and after much re-writing (41 drafts to be exact), he was finally satisfied. In the meantime, Denzel Washington (fresh off his Oscar-winning role in Training Day) was looking for a script to direct, and the result was Antwone Fisher. Richly rewarding and heart-wrenchingly personal, the film didn't exactly draw big box office dollars but touched a good portion of critics, who can be a cynical bunch. Case in point: Roger Ebert saw it twice and cried both times.
What I love about Fisher's story is it isn't exactly unique. It doesn't have to be, either. In fact, aside from being born in prison, it resembles many other individual's experiences of overcoming pain from the past through a caring catalyst (in this case, Dr. Davenport). Fisher's journey is one of self-reflection, esteem, and courage. He's a normal kid who only wants to receive an ounce of love from someone, anyone…and many scenes in the third act guarantee that your heart-strings will be yanked multiple times.
Having served in the Navy myself for eight years, I must point out how accurate this film was in capturing life in the service. Many military movies have the unfortunate distinction of being giant commercials (yes Top Gun, I'm glaring at you!) that do nothing but proclaim how good the military is, never showing the negative side. The Navy will never support a feature that shows sailors swearing, drinking, and whoring excessively because it will only cause embarrassment—the last thing the Navy wants. This is why they didn't support The Last Detail and An Officer and a Gentleman, even though they are the most realistic depictions of squids.
Antwone Fisher may be toned down in terms of language (hence the PG-13 rating), but not in the details. Wisely, Fox filmed on-location inside the San Diego Navy bases, including the USS Belleau Wood (LHA-3), where Fisher is stationed at. All of the utility uniforms and khakis are authentic down to the creases and shined-up boots, and many of the extras are actual sailors. The filmmakers also do a good job of not bombarding the film with too much salty jargon (i.e. Hollywood showers) which would fly over the heads of most audiences.
Much of the film's success goes to Denzel Washington, who not only co-produces but makes his directorial debut. Behind the camera, Denzel is very comfortable and is quite straightforward in his visual approach, utilizing some slow pans and overhead shots to fine dramatic effect. Some may write off his simplicity as the result of inexperience, but Washington is both professional and punctual for the most part. As for his performance as Davenport, many have cited his turn as "effortless and unchallenging," and I tend to agree. Still, he projects the required warmth, honor, and commitment to make the role believable.
Matching Washington is newcomer Derek Luke, who is incredibly effective as our hero. Luke embraces Fisher's anger, vexation, and determination with real aplomb. Malcolm David Kelly (You Got Served)—who plays 7-year-old Antwone—is equally potent in his fear and innocence. Last, but certainly not least, Joy Bryant is irresistible as Antwone's girlfriend, and the scenes between them are appropriately tender and romantic.
The standard DVD from 2002 provided an excellent transfer and decent extras, but the Blu debut seems to be only a slight upgrade. Colors are reasonably bright, but some of the dark levels are a bit too strong and fuzzy. Occasional spots and grain do pop up every now and then but are sparse for the most part. The 2.35:1 non-anamorphic, 1080p widescreen print (with AVC encode) is certainly clean and sharp, but the high-def transfer doesn't provide much of an improvement.
Sonically, the 5.1 DTS HD master lossless audio does its job and more. The dialogue coming through crystal clear and Mychael Danna's poignant score comes through gracefully in the bass and front speakers. Sound effects aren't overpowering, and background noises are delicately faint. Subtitles are in English and Spanish only. Fox doesn't exactly give Antwone Fisher a spectacular high-def treatment, but it's more than respectable, with no major complaints.
As with the majority of Fox's Blu-rays, the extras are ported over from the original DVD. First up is an audio commentary with Washington and producer Todd Black. Both provide ample information on casting, production and filming while also providing a nice sense of humor at times. Adequate, but Fisher's absence is a real mystery, and instead we have to meet him in a fourteen minute featurette, "Meeting Antwone Fisher." Rounding out the extras are two more featurettes: "The Making of Antwone Fisher" and "Hollywood and the Navy" which are both brief and self-explanatory. Considering the less than stellar audio/visual quality, this was a perfect opportunity for Fox to add some Blu-exclusives but there's nothing to be found. A second commentary by Fisher (or even Luke and Bryant) would have been satisfactory.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
True cynics will no doubt find Antwone Fisher too sentimental for their tastes. Need I say more?
While I cannot quite recommend a Blu-upgrade for Antwone Fisher, I still hail the film as a must-see. Great performances, highly inspirational story, and a triumphant directorial debut for Denzel Washington add up to an unforgettable film.
Not guilty, Mr. Fisher. Keep writing!
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