Deliverance meets the Mod Squad.
A surprisingly good direct to video action flick, from little known director Louis Morneau (Bats, Retroactive, Soldier Boyz). Jim Belushi is strong; Michael Beach, Steve Railsback, and Timothy Dalton add interesting performances to a fun yet intense screenplay, backed by two of the biggest producers of action movies today.
As I said above, I was surprised. When I think of a direct-to-video action movie, I think of cheesy explosions, full frame aspect, and actors nobody has ever heard of, or wish they hadn't. But then I saw the producer credits for Richard Donner, who produced and directed Ladyhawke (one of my personal favorite fantasy genre flicks), Conspiracy Theory, and the Lethal Weapon series. Co-producing is Joel Silver, also of Conspiracy Theory and the Lethal Weapon films, and producer of Die Hard and The Matrix to boot. I figured greats like these wouldn't let their name be attached to a crappy action movie, and I was right. Add in James Belushi, who I really liked in Red Heat, The Principal, and the under-rated Mr. Destiny. For spice, let's see, my second favorite James Bond Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights, Licence To Kill) as a corrupt southern sheriff, and an actor better known on television, Steve Railsback (Barb Wire, Disturbing Behavior, Torchlight). I like all these guys, so why are they involved in this straight-to-HBO type flick? Because it was good. The other main character in this twisty story is Michael Beach, from TV's Third Watch, along with Soul Food and Waiting To Exhale. I wasn't very familiar with his work, but he shows all the makings of an action star.
Alright, so I was impressed by the names on the Amaray Keep Case. So what's inside? A quirky, funny, yet intense plot with great dialogue, twists and turns, and one liners that actually fit in the story rather than making you cringe. One of my favorites is when Belushi is in a fight inside his house and brains his opponent with a car battery. He looks at it, and says "I was looking for that battery!." Low-key, but funny; and it fit with anyone who's been looking for something in their house.
I'll give you a broad-stroke brush painting of the story now. Belushi plays Bill Manucci, a slimy, shifty con man who would lie when the truth would serve him better. He's now in the Witness Protection Program after testifying unsuccessfully against his boss, called the Skipper. Worse yet, he's stolen 12 million dollars from his boss. Things go awry when the Skipper finds out where he is hidden, in the backwoods south (out where the hoot-owls are screwin' the chickens, a quote) and sends four urbanite henchmen to kill him, after getting the money back of course. Manucci's mouth is loaded for bear, and he manages to keep insulting and lying to them even under torture or threat of death. He manages to escape, and leads them to a barn housing a drug lab, ran by head-redneck Steve Railsback.
The confrontation between the mob henchmen and the rednecks is where the line "Deliverance meets the Mod Squad" comes from. Worse yet, for Manucci at least, he's been scamming the drug producers too, and now everybody wants him and his money. Running away, amid some very well done explosions, we find that one of the henchmen is his friend and had warned him of their coming. Belushi responded by sending his wife (Vanessa Angel, Kingpin, King of New York) away with a wad of cash but staying behind to enact his plan, which doesn't seem so well planned in retrospect. Enter Timothy Dalton, who sees Belushi and his henchman friend at the side of the road. Belushi drops a dime on his friend in a heartbeat, since he still wanted the money. The sheriff doesn't know who to believe, or so we think, and puts them both in his squad car. Meanwhile the others have gotten away, with the rednecks giving chase, and kill the local deputy along the way.
The surviving henchmen appropriate the deputy's car, and end up passing the sheriff in the town's other squad car, with their target inside. A great chase and car crashing follows, with Manucci again getting away and under chase. I'm going to stop here, because I don't want to give away too much.
An interesting departure from formula in this film is that none of the characters are good guys. All of them are varying shades of bad. Despite this, Belushi's character comes off likable and funny. Sure he is a liar, a cheat, and a thief, but he hasn't really hurt anybody, except other bad guys. You never know who to trust in the movie, except him, and I liked that.
Well, how about the disc itself? I'm extremely impressed. Video is a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and looks great. No color bleeding even during the bright reds and yellows of the numerous fireballs, blacks and shadows are right on, and no evidence of artifacts, pixelation, or other compression problems. This is a '99 release, so you would expect that there would be no nicks, mars, or blips in the film, and there isn't. Color saturation is as good as you could ask for, without being garish.
Audio is just as good as the video, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that gives a wide and deep front soundstage, great imaging to the rear when appropriate, and plenty for your subwoofer to do. Gunfire and explosions will set you back in your seat. Dialogue remains clear, and the musical score doesn't overwhelm it. There is also a Dolby 2.0 track, but I found the soundstage narrowed to the center considerably with it. Still very adequate, but this is one of those discs that will make you want to upgrade to that Dolby Digital capable receiver.
If you're wondering about extras, quit worrying now. This isn't a Special Edition, but it sure looks like one. The best of the supplements is the commentary by director Louis Morneau and James Belushi. Obviously these two had a great time making this film, and we find out where a fair number of lines were ad-libbed by Belushi but were kept. The extras continue on with an outtake reel, trailer and TV spots, both full frame, and extensive bios and filmographies for the cast and crew. This is a nice change for Columbia TriStar, whose Talent Files have been a bit underwhelming of late. Kudos to the studio for listening and making this change here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't have much to complain about here at all. The movie isn't Lawrence of Arabia, or even Lethal Weapon, but it's pretty darn good. It surpasses what you would expect for the cost, the 24-day shooting schedule, and its direct-to-cable and video venue. Perhaps the movie could have used a bit more setting up of the characters and plot, but I suppose it was thought that fast pacing was more important.
If you have cable or satellite, you can probably catch this on HBO. But you'll catch it in full frame, and without the Dolby Digital track. It's available for under $20 online, and I think it's well worth adding this to your collection for the extras, widescreen presentation, and great audio.
James Belushi is urged to do more of the funny action movies like this one. Louis Morneau is forgiven in advance for Bats. Columbia is acquitted of any and all charges, since they have redeemed my one small gripe by expanding on their Talent Files.
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