Judge Clark Douglas has often been accused of lacking game.
Two top-notch Spike Lee joints.
"When making a business decision, the only color that matters is green."
Facts of the Case
In He Got Game, we follow the story of a man named Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington, Man on Fire), who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for accidentally killing his wife. One day, Jake is told that he is being given one week of supervised release. The reason: Jake's son Jesus (real-life NBA star Ray Allen) is the top high school basketball player in the nation, and the governor wants Jesus to play at his alma mater. If Jake can succeed in convincing Jesus to attend Big State, then his prison sentence will be reduced considerably. The only problem: Jesus despises Jake and wants nothing to do with him.
In 25th Hour, convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton, The Incredible Hulk) attempts to get his affairs in order before beginning a seven-year prison sentence. He hangs out with his old friends Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote) and Frank (Barry Pepper, Saving Private Ryan), resolves a few things with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, Sin City) and engages in some serious conversation with his father (Brian Cox, Deadwood). Will Monty accept his fate, or will he attempt to make a last-minute escape?
I've been disappointed in much of Spike Lee's output in recent years, as the bulk of his 21st century work has either been formulaic studio material (Inside Man, Oldboy) or ungainly independent stuff (She Hate Me, Red Hook Summer). However, I keep hoping that someday he'll make a return to form, because he's a force to be reckoned with when he's on his game. Thankfully, this Blu-ray release gives viewers an opportunity to revisit two of Lee's strongest and most ambitious efforts.
He Got Game is easily the more divisive of the two titles included in this set, but I've always found it an incredibly ambitious and compelling viewing experience. In many ways, it's a classic Hollywood melodrama, a fact underscored by the sweeping Aaron Copland music Lee tosses all over the soundtrack. He's not just giving us an intimate relationship drama, he's giving us a Great American Story that aims to provide commentary on countless aspects of American life. The pressures of fame have been examined on countless occasions by the movies, but rarely with as much cutting insight and dynamic style as Lee offers here. Ray Allen delivers an exceptional performance as a young man who finds people pushing and pulling at him on every step of his journey to stardom, with countless coaches, agents, buddies, girls and relatives eager to get a piece of whatever he's going to receive. It's rare to find a professional athlete capable of achieving considerable nuance as an actor, but Allen pulls it off.
Not everything works—the film runs at least twenty minutes longer than it really needs to, and that's partially due to the needless subplot involving a prostitute (Milla Jovovich, The Fifth Element) who gets involved with Washington—but Lee delivers a large handful of extraordinary dramatic moments. The father/son relationship the film explores always feel authentic; Lee refuses to soften any of the hard edges that exist between the two characters. Washington does an superb job of defining the difference between the man he was (the film contains several prominent flashback scenes) and the man he's becomes—it's amazing how much a little regret and self-loathing can alter a human being. The scene in which Washington visits his wife's grave is a particularly striking moment of raw emotion—it might have felt silly if Washington and Lee didn't play it with such heartbreaking sincerity.
There's considerably less critical debate about 25th Hour, a film which has only grown in stature over the years and which easily stands tall as one of the high points of Lee's career (I'd argue it's second only to Do the Right Thing). Working from a screenplay by David Benioff (adapting his own novel), Lee delivers an extraordinary portrait of a man's last day of freedom. Sure, Monty's technically supposed to get out in seven years, reconnect with his friends, marry his girlfriend and return to real life, but deep down everybody seems to know that these happy reunions aren't likely to come to fruition. This is the end of an era, and nobody knows how to deal with it (it's telling that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 play a prominent background role in the film—one of Monty's friends lives in an apartment overlooking ground zero, but refuses to move).
Lee has always had a gift for creating distinctive characters, and so many of the players here are so well-drawn. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper are ideally cast as Monty's vastly different friends: Hoffman is the reserved, clumsy, buttoned-down school teacher who grows distressed with himself for nursing a crush on one of his 17-year-old students (Anna Paquin, The Piano). There's an intimate encounter between the two late in the film that digs into so many complex emotions with very little dialogue, and the shot of Hoffman walking in a daze in the scene's aftermath is a masterful directorial touch on Lee's part. Pepper, on the other hand, is a slick, confident stock broker and ladies' man who seems like he'd love nothing more than to be the next Gordon Gekko. Even so, there's some real humanity lurking beneath his oily surface. Both men seem to have more distinctive public personalities than Monty, who tends to hold his feelings close to his chest. His most emotional outburst takes place in the privacy of a restaurant bathroom, as Norton lashes out angrily at every demographic in New York City before finally turning his tirade on himself.
The high point of the film is the climax, built around a lengthy monologue from Brian Cox which imagines the life Monty might live if he decides to run. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking piece of filmmaking, enhanced considerably by Terence Blanchard's anguished underscore, Lee's dreamy visuals and Cox's sturdy-yet-tender delivery. Then, when it's all done, there's a quick cut back to the present that might just be the most devastatingly effective moment in the whole movie. Lee's boldness can be exasperating when it's misused, but it's also a crucial component of his best work.
The Spike Lee Joint Collection: Volume 1 (Blu-ray) delivers a pair of stellar transfers. He Got Game gets a 1080p/1.85:1 transfer which represents a huge improvement from the previous standard-def release. Colors can be a little wobbly at times, but detail is strong and depth is stellar throughout. 25th Hour has always had an intentionally gritty, grainy look, and the fine 1080p/2.40:1 transfer it receives does a fine job of preserving the film's rough look. Detail is exceptional throughout, and the natural grain present throughout is beautifully preserved. Both films receive DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks, and it's hard to pick a clear winner between them. The music sounds stronger and more robust in He Got Game, but 25th Hour features considerably more immersive sound design (particularly a nightclub sequence which makes brilliant use of the rear speakers).
Supplements are highlighted by a pair of brand-new audio commentaries: Lee and Ray Allen on He Got Game, and Lee and Edward Norton on 25th Hour. The commentary is the only bonus feature He Got Game receives, but 25th Hour also recycles some older extras: two additional audio commentaries (one with Lee, one with David Benioff), a making-of featurette, some deleted scenes and a brief featurette examining the early clean-up efforts at ground zero.
It's hardly a definitive set, but these two Spike Lee joints are absolutely worthy additions to any movie lover's collection. Solid transfers, new audio commentaries and an attractive price make the package that much easier to recommend.
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Scales of Justice, He Got Game
Perp Profile, He Got Game
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, He Got Game
Scales of Justice, 25th Hour
Perp Profile, 25th Hour
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, 25th Hour
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