Four mob movies for the price of one…something's got to give.
Trimark Studios has produced a set of four movies with a common theme: organized crime. Since none of these particular films are available on DVD except from within this set, I will give a review for the films and the set as a whole here. These aren't the first string of gangster movies such as GoodFellas or The Godfather trilogy. Instead these are a collection of indie films and one made for TV job. I wouldn't call this a set for the serious film collector, but more of a gift set to the DVD newbie who still thinks something is wrong with his TV set when he sees those black bars on top and bottom of his screen. At a retail price of $34.95 for four movies, it makes for a stocking stuffer type gift for the widescreen challenged on a budget.
I already brought up what is probably the best thing about the boxed set: the price. I was surprised to find an online price of only $25 for the four-disc set. Taken in that context, it makes the contents more palatable. The films themselves range from decent to horrid. All are full frame as you could tell, and all have Dolby 2.0 soundtracks and a trailer, though some have a few bonus trailers advertising films in Trimark's other box sets. Two of the discs even have a featurette.
The video is pretty good across the board. While hardly reference quality, the pictures are generally clear, with good colors and detail. Shadow detail is a bit lacking; making some of the many, many dark scenes too hard to see.
I've never reviewed more than one movie on the same page before so I'll take a few liberties. I'll discuss the stories of the films in the set here in this section, despite the fact that the films' qualities range from decent to utter tripe. The best of the lot is 1994's The Last Word, starring Timothy Hutton (The General's Daughter) and Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix), with a strong supporting cast, including Michelle Burke, Chazz Palminteri, Tony Goldwyn, and an even stronger assortment of cameos from Richard Dreyfuss and Cybill Shepherd. Like the other films, it has many noir-ish influences; femme fatales, betrayals, dark secrets and all. This one had the most engaging and complete story, along with the most believable characters. Hutton plays a Detroit newspaper columnist who writes on the gritty underside of life, drawing on stories from mobsters and strippers. Pantoliano plays an ex-mob enforcer who is Hutton's friend from childhood and introduces him to all the people whose stories are grist for his mill. Michelle Burke plays the femme fatale, a stripper calling herself Caprice, who Hutton falls deeply for. Things change abruptly when a Hollywood studio takes an interest in Hutton writing a screenplay based on his columns; mobsters, now-girlfriend strippers, and all. Goldwyn, Dreyfuss and Shepherd play the Hollywood types interested in the film.
I really liked the overall story, with it's ambiance, Hollywood realism, and twists and turns. Unlike some of the other films, the twists actually made sense, more or less. If I had any complaints about the film it was that again Joe Pantoliano plays a low-life, who is often put upon by others. He seems to perpetually be a patsy or bad guy in everything he plays, which I suppose he can't complain about since he's made a living at it. Few actors play them better, which explains why he's both typecast and a busy actor. This disc has the theatrical trailer and four bonus trailers for the discs in their Best of Sci-Fi collection (decidedly not the best of sci-fi): Cyborg 2, Evolver, Solar Crisis, and Death Machine.
I'm not saying that The Last Word was a great picture, merely pretty good. It was better than our next best entry, the 1993 version of Deadfall. This tale of con men involved in the big cons (and cons within cons within cons…you get the drift) was directed by Christopher Coppola, nephew to Francis Ford Coppola and brother to actor Nicolas Cage. Nicolas Cage, as you might remember, still used the name Coppola in his debut film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The casting of this film was especially strong, even though Michael Biehn (The Terminator, Aliens) was the lead. Not knocking Michael Biehn, I have always liked him, but he can't quite compare to his co-stars James Coburn (Affliction) and Nicolas Cage. Other supporting characters include the likes of Peter Fonda (Ulee's Gold), Charlie Sheen (Major League, Platoon), and Talia Shire (Rocky), but they are such small parts as to be almost considered cameos. Sarah Trigger (Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead) plays this films femme fatale, and was the most memorable of the lot. Cage plays one of his least attractive roles as the popper-sniffing, near hysterical henchmen.
Only the last few minutes of the film kept this from being the best of the lot. I was very engrossed in the story, and the performances were very good all around. Cage was the worst of the lot, if you can imagine that, while Charlie Sheen really made the most of his few minutes as the gaudily dressed billiards master. This one was done in real noir style with Biehn narrating over the beginnings of many of the scenes. Again, twists and turns, betrayals, dark secrets lead to a surprising ending, but unfortunately the ending just left me cold. I could handle the surprise all right, it was Biehn's reaction to it all that was lacking. The story quit being believable in the last few minutes. This disc contains the theatrical trailer, a 6 minute featurette with cast interviews and clips, and bonus trailers from their Best of TriMark DVD box set for Flash Fire and Blood and Sand. This was still a very watchable film, except for the ending that turned my smiles into exclamations of "No way."
Now we have to step down, way down in quality to our next best, or next-to-worst as you choose to say it. The 1997 indie version of the film Underworld was underwhelming. Denis Leary, the comedian known for his angry diatribes, was a natural for the lead role, but not a role I would be putting on my resume if I were him. He plays a mobster who has gotten out of prison and is intent on killing everyone involved with killing his father on Father's Day. More bodies get shot, blown up, punctured, pierced, and maimed than Hitler could do on a bad day. He has gotten himself a degree and a license as a psychotherapist while in prison, and names himself "the only working psychopathic psychotherapist in all of psychopathology." He takes time out from his busy schedule (kill, kill, kill, talk, kill, kill, kill) to do some therapy on his old buddy (played by Joe Mantegna, Hoods, Conundrum) by helping him get in touch with his past relationships and his father. The cast spout their knowledge of psychobabble and Broadway musicals at each other the whole picture, when Leary isn't off machine gunning a few people or having long talks with someone before shooting them. The supporting cast consisted of Annabella Sciorra (Mr. Jealousy) in a throw away role that frankly should have been cut, and Abe "I thought he was dead" Vigoda (Barney Miller) who does his usual stoic mobster with his usual…err…stoicism. Vigoda plays Mantegna's father, who is estranged from his son, needing Leary's special brand of therapy. Several other supporting cast members are mean looking mobster actors who don't live long enough to care much about.
I hated this movie. I thought of words to describe the film, and "sucked" and "stunk" just didn't do it justice. It was worse than that. Quentin Tarantino would be spinning around in his grave at how badly this film tried and failed to imitate his style (if he were dead, that is). The dialogue was insipid, and was perhaps amusing for one out of the 95 minutes. I could have done a whole review on this film's stupid quotes alone. The only reason I didn't is that you can't get this film on DVD without buying the whole box set so reviewing it by itself wouldn't serve you, the reader. I like Denis Leary, but not in this film. I liked virtually nothing about the movie at all. The disc contains a theatrical trailer, featurette, and bonus trailers from Trimark's Best of Action (again, not nearly the best of action films) box set, including Night of the Warrior, An Occasional Hell, Family of Cops, and Extreme Justice.
Right up until the last film I thought Underworld would be the worst of the lot, but I was wrong. There is a film worse than that. The 1989 made-for-TV movie Capone (originally titled The Revenge of Al Capone) was a depressing, poorly made mess. Ray Sharkey, whose best role was as a mobster in TV's Wiseguy series, makes a horrible Capone. The entire film takes place after Capone's conviction for tax evasion, and most of that in flashback. Capone is talking to his old nemesis FBI agent Michael Rourke (in this version of history Eliot Ness is a fawning sycophant who stole all Rourke's credit) played by Keith Carradine (The Long Riders, Pretty Baby). He is near the end of his life and sanity from the ravages of untreated syphilis. The film touches on mob issues, as Capone remembers running his empire from behind bars in Cook County Jail, but is as much about FBI politics under J. Edgar Hoover as it is a mob picture. Nothing good happens for anyone in this film except for the biggest jerks. Extreme liberties with history are taken throughout and the big mobsters of the day come off like the Joker's gang on the Batman TV series. The only hatred I had for the film was in that I was forced to spend time continuing to watch it. Even the hatred for Underworld means that it evoked more emotion than this one, and so this one gets my "biggest piece of tripe" award. This disc includes the trailer, and four bonus trailers from their Best of Horror box set (ad nauseum, not the best of) of The Landlady, Leprechaun, The Dentist, and Sometimes They Come Back.
Whether you consider this good or bad, all the films have something in common: gratuitous nudity. Even the made-for-TV Capone had one quick scene obviously filmed for the cable version in a strip club. All the movies had a scene in a strip club so they could have some handy nudity. There wasn't much of it in any of the movies, and it wasn't very revealing; it seemed to be there merely for titillation value and to fulfill the sex requirement of the filmmakers. Personally I didn't mind.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This was not a box set for a DVD critic to evaluate. It was too easy to dislike it. Four full-frame movies, some pan-and-scan, do not impress a home theater buff. This is a box set for someone who doesn't know or doesn't care what he is buying to grab off the shelf at Wal-Mart.
At least this box set doesn't claim to be "Best of" because it isn't. There are many better mob movies than these. Two of them were pretty decent, and I'd watch The Last Word again sometime, but the other two were awful.
The worst thing of all is a combination of poor soundtracks and no subtitles. While the score and effects such as gunshots were all done well, dialogue remained muffled on every single disc. In every single movie I had to back up a few times trying to understand what was said and failed. No subtitles meant I had no way to understand the line, since even repeated listenings at high volume would not yield understanding the words. Dialogue was intelligible most of the time, though indistinct. On certain lines it went past that point into the realm of mumbled mess. Sometimes the score and effects overrode the dialogue as well, contributing to the difficulty in understanding.
The only thing pointing to purchase of this set is the price. If having four movies for about the same price as one and getting full frame, poor sound, and not-very-good movie selection appeals to you, here you go. I'd rent it just for the better two movies except that I think it will count as four films to rent, and might cost too much. So buyer beware.
Trimark should have made sure the dialogue was clear at least on the soundtracks, and original theatrical aspect ratio would have made this a winner for the price. After their fine work on Natural Born Killers I was ill preper. You shoud be able to understand all the words on ven cheap discs. The ctors are generally acquitted, except for the cats of Undrworld and Capone, who should be ashamed. The Ratings are an aggregate of all four discs, though in the video and audio there is no real differencs between them.
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