Debuting on Blu-ray, Last Exit to Brooklyn is an adaptation of a novel by Hubert Selby Jr. The film was released to largely positive critical reaction in 1989. Set in a rough and tumble Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1950s, the film tracks the lives of a number of downtrodden characters. The ensemble cast, including Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Stephen Baldwin, Burt Young, and Ricki Lake, is uniformly excellent. The film is highly stylized, with an atmosphere pushed to explosive extremes.
The most compelling stories concern Harry Black (Stephen Lang) as a closeted homosexual union leader overseeing a strike and Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as a self-destructive prostitute. Both these characters make ill-informed decisions that bring their respective story arcs to a tragic climax. Unfortunately, because of the many plot lines, the film bites off a bit more than it can chew. Alexis Arquette’s troubled Georgette is among the characters who receive short-shrift, disposed of too conveniently. Burt Young is funny and surprisingly warm as the uncouth father of a pregnant, unwed teen (Ricki Lake). But the story thread doesn’t resolve in any satisfying kind of way, which leaves it feeling like deadweight.
Much has been said about the film’s dark, unpleasant tone. While true, I think what seemed shockingly bleak in 1989 is much less so in 2011. That’s not to say the film has aged poorly, as it remains emotionally involving even if it doesn’t add up to a truly affecting experience. But I think more than twenty years of increasingly seedy, grim mainstream films has potentially made the film more accessible. It’s an interesting film with strong acting. But in the end it feels less like a complete story and more like an introduction to world full of characters we want to know on a deeper level.
Last Exit to Brooklyn looks startlingly contemporary for a ‘50s era period piece shot in 1989. Summit Entertainment’s 1080p Blu-ray offers as much sharpness as can be expected from Stefan Czapsky’s glowing, soft-focus cinematography. That’s not a criticism, as the movie has a unique look that I feel is well represented by the high definition transfer. Fine detail is somewhat lacking, but that is inherent in the original cinematography. The movie has an intentionally drab look, with a relatively muted color scheme. But items that are colorful are vivid. The darker scenes (of which there are many) lose a bit too much in detail, with black crush becoming a minor issue at times. But overall this is an exceptional presentation of a very stylishly photographed film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also surprisingly robust for a twenty-two year old film. Dialogue is free of distortion and always mixed at an appropriate level. Mark Knopfler’s moody, atmospheric score is well incorporated. Although most of the audio is concentrated upfront, the rear channels are utilized for mostly subtle effect. Large crowd scenes, such as the violent confrontation with the striking workers, feature a satisfying amount of effects from the rear channels. The LFE channel is not overly prominent, but bass presence is felt when necessary.
Special features are not exhaustive by any means. Not everything available on previous DVD releases has been ported over to the Blu-ray. There is an audio commentary by director Uli Edel and a forty-five minute vintage “making of” presented in standard definition. It would have been interesting to hear reflections from some of the primary cast and crew all these years later. But if you’re interested in Last Exit to Brooklyn, don’t let a weak supplemental package deter you. The film looks and sounds great on this Blu-ray reissue.