Judge Gordon Sullivan learned the hard way that what happens in Vegas only stays if you do.
"I don't know if my wife left me because of my drinking or I started drinking 'cause my wife left me."—Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage)
Nicholas Cage seems to have two speeds as an actor: slow and intense, or totally insane. Sadly, totally-insane Nicholas Cage seems to gross more than slow-intense Nicholas Cage, so most of his films involve a little too much of the Nicholas Cage freak out for my taste. Luckily, every time I'm disgusted by his performance in the likes of The Sorcerer's Apprentice or mildly disappointed in something like his turn in Bad Lieutenant, I can turn to Leaving Las Vegas, one of the handful of films that establish Nicholas Cage as a truly great actor. Although not the most sparkling hi-def upgrade ever, this disc is a decent way to have Leaving Las Vegas in your collection.
In Leaving Las Vegas, pathetic alcoholic Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) decides to salvage what little dignity he has left by burning all his bridges and going out for one last bender in the city of sin. With his figurative and literal chips cashed in, Ben secures a motel room in which to drink himself to death. Before he can do that, he meets a prostitute, Sera (Elisabeth Shue, The Karate Kid). Looking for companionship, Ben offers Sera $500 dollars for an hour of her time, but instead of sex he just wants to talk. The pair strikes a deal: if Sera won't try to stop Ben's drinking, he won't say anything about her prostitution. Although their pact seems solid, the dangers of Ben's drinking and Sera's job slowly start to eat at their growing friendship.
Leaving Las Vegas is a dark, almost stygian film, which is what you should expect from a relationship between a man trying to drink himself to death and a prostitute trying to make a living. No one is surprised when it doesn't really end well. What is surprising is how enjoyable the journey is. Director Mike Figgis (adapting a semi-autobiographical novel by John O'Brien) wrings every bit of tragic, human pathos he can from Ben's final days. Even though this is a depressing, difficult film, it is also ultimately life-affirming. Not in a cheap greeting-card sentiment way, but by reminding us that life is struggle and beauty can be salvaged despite any difficulties. The film also shows that human connections are the most significant.
Nicholas Cage rightfully gets a lot of credit for his portrayal of Ben in Leaving Las Vegas. There's no doubt he earned that little golden statue because his Ben straddles the line between sympathy and disgust. He could have made Ben a cartoon drunk, either ugly and violent or goofy and carefree. Instead, he does the much more difficult job of making Ben both. He's obviously not always a nice guy (as his pushing away of everyone close to him shows) but he can be charming (as his relationship with Sera shows). Even if no one is going to argue with Cage's Oscar, Elisabeth Shue earned her nomination as well. If it hadn't been an almost-literal Madonna versus whore battle between Shue and Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking, Shue would have almost certainly gone home with a statue of her own. As it is, her performance has aged well, and her Sera also straddles some of the same lines as Ben. She's not quite the bitter, cynical streetwalker, nor is she a wide-eyed innocent. The pair together make for an interesting drama.
Mike Figgis was nominated for his own Academy Award, and he directs Leaving Las Vegas in an intentionally gritty style. The film was shot on 16mm, on the cheap, so the transfer was never going to look stunning on Blu-ray. However, this AVC encoded transfer does as well as we could expect with the material. Everything is a bit dark, colors a bit drab (except for some shots of neon), and there is a bit of print damage. Detail isn't as strong as I'd like, but there aren't any compression artifacts to speak of. The 5.1 DTS-HD track is total overkill for this dialogue-driven film, but everything is clear and balanced well.
This is a budget release, so the only extra is the film's trailer.
Leaving Las Vegas is unapologetically a film about a guy drinking himself to death with a prostitute. Obviously that's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, especially since the film rarely takes a moment to release some of its tension. As befits a melodramatic subject (I mean how many people really set out to drink themselves to death like this?), Leaving Las Vegas can be a bit over the top.
Leaving Las Vegas is an interesting entry in Mike Figgis filmography, and showed that both Elisabeth Shue and Nicholas Cage were ready for prime time. It's not a happy film, but it can be a rewarding one. This Blu-ray release is aimed at the budget crowd and provides a decent audiovisual presentation with only a trailer for extras. It's certainly worth a rental for fans of those involved.
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