In the late ’90s, the illustrious format of Digital Versatile Discs took off with movie lovers near and far — and the folks at Warner Home Video were one of the first major studios to really capitalize on the craze, releasing many snapcase DVDs of new and old titles alike. Sadly, many of these titles were presented in the dreaded Full Frame format (when the movies were originally in widescreen) with extremely generic menus, and, since DVD was still a new niche, the overall quality of these discs simply didn’t measure up to the Standard-Definition criterions we have today.
Here we are, fifteen years later — wherein HD has taken over the world of home video entertainment — and Warner has seen it fit to re-release many of their catalogue titles to Blu-ray. Among the latest of their High-Def contributions are the Patrick Swayze cheesefest, Next of Kin (1989); the Christian Slater/Kevin Bacon courtroom drama, Murder in the First; and the Hitchcock remake, A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. And yes, those are the ones we’re going to look at here today, so stop your squabbling right her and now.
Now, really, folks: how can we not love the corny b-movie charms of the late ’80s action movie genre? Why, we can sit back and watch early Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles until the sun comes up, laughing ourselves silly the whole dame time. But there was another rising star back then determined to leave his mark on the society of guilty pleasure celluloid: Patrick Swayze. And Next of Kin is a serious challenger for those Seagal/Van Damme offerings of yesteryear — giving the late Mr. Swayze a chance to prove he could do more than just dance dirtily and write sappy songs.
Here, Swayze is cast as Truman Gates: a Chicago detective from the Appalachian mountains, and whose hillbilly heritage has a special effect on all the other yokels who have moved into the city — especially the scumbags. They respect him, you see. But there are those who have no respect for anyone, such as Joey Rosselini: the Number One henchman of a local mobster (Andreas Katsulas), who murders Truman’s dumb kid brother (Bill Paxton, who is basically playing himself) in cold blood during a vending machine truck heist (seriously) — thus igniting a war with Gates’ redneck family from over yonder.
The great Liam Neeson also stars here as Swayze’s elder brother, giving him a chance to work on that American accent he would use later in his career. Helen Hunt (before she grew into her face) is cast as Patrick’s romantic interest, Ben Stiller (before he grew into his ears) plays Katsulas’ son, while Ted Levine and Del Close turn in bit performances in this film that is so full of now-familiar faces (living and deceased), it could very well be re-titled Before They Were Stars: The Motion Picture. And then there’s the next title in this article — Murder in the First — which they could easily re-name Before They Fell from Grace: The Movie.
What’s so bad about Murder in the First? Quite a lot, really. During the mid ’90s, it seemed that there were many Hollywood filmmakers hell-bent on adding Oscars to their mantles. As such, there were about umpteen kajillion adaptations of John Grisham thrillers. There were also some plain ol’ ordinary courtroom dramas whipped up by studios looking to grab anyone they could with pretentious, overly-dramatized performances. And Murder in the First is guilty of the latter, kids; pesenting one of the most wildly inaccurate historical yarns ever.
Kevin Bacon cranks up the method acting meter to 11 as Henri Young, an Alcatraz inmate — unjustly placed in prison by a dishonest government to begin with, since his only crime was to steal $5 (!) — who is unfairly tortured by a corrupt system and a sadistic assistant warden (Gary Oldman, who also hams it up). Meanwhile, top-billed Christian Slater (who was something of a respectable A-list actor at the time, believe it or not) practically phones it in as the eager attorney hoping to both free a wrongly accused man and bring down the crooked prison at the same time.
Presented as fact (about 1% of what you see is truth), the overlong bleeding heart drama that failed to make its money back at the box office showcases Bacon’s ability to both scream and mumble in the same scene, while the supporting talents of Embeth Davidtz, Brad Dourif, and William H. Macy (et al) go largely unnoticed. A new interview with Mr. Bacon in included here, wherein Kevin recounts how he could feel the real Henri Young speak to him as he made the film: a claim which becomes laughable if bother to note the real Young was, in fact, not an innocent man.
And there are plenty of more people who aren’t innocent, too — especially when we move on to our third and final flick in this Warner wine flight: A Perfect Murder. While the film purposes to be based on the play Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott, it is — as far as anyone is really, reasonably concerned — a remake of the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Only it’s nowhere near as good (just like every Hitchcock remake out there). In fact, it’s quite awful. But then, what else do you expect from a movie that failed to be as popular as The Truman Show in theaters?
In 1998, Michael Douglas was a fairly hot item, Gwyneth Paltrow was that chick from Seven, and the only people who had ever heard of Viggo Mortensen were the ones who actually saw Albino Alligator or Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Seeing them altogether now, of course, might be a big deal for fans — though the end result is hardly all that interesting. Here, Douglas plays a hotshot Wall Street feller (shade of that Oliver Stone film) with a hot younger wife (Paltrow), who just happens to be sleeping with a young artist guy (Viggo).
Although he knows the truth behind the affair, Douglas instead investigates the artist — discovering he’s nothing more than a con artist. And so, he does what any good husband would do: he hires the artist to kill his wife. Naturally, things don’t go at all as planned in this modernized, bastardized butchering of an otherwise great mystery. The true highlight here is the great David Suchet (Agatha Christie’s Poirot) as a police detective who has more brains than the rest of the story’s characters altogether. Personally, I’d stick to the original flick — or go see the play if it’s on stage in your area.
As I had mentioned in the beginning of this piece, the original SD-DVD releases of these titles bore plain, basic menus. Interestingly enough, after all the years of evolution regarding disc menus (full-motion, music, etc.) in the SD as well as HD markets, Warner has once again opted that less is more here: all three of these catalogue titles contain the most simple of menus, with the selection of special features being somewhat simplistic themselves in many cases.
Sure, there’s that interview with Kevin Bacon I mentioned earlier. There’s also an alternate ending and two audio commentaries for A Perfect Murder that have been ported over from the old DVD. Other than that, all we get here in this bundle is an HD trailer on Murder in the First. Quality-wise, each film is a huge improvement over the old Standard-Def versions, presenting the feature presentations in glorious widescreen with DTS-HD audio (A Perfect Murder is brought to us in 5.1, the other two titles are DTS HD 2.0). Additional audio tracks in Spanish and/or French in 5.1 or 2.0 (depending on the age of the title) are also on-hand, as are subtitles.
Like I said, the transfers here are fantastic when compared to what we saw on early DVD releases. Sadly, though, none of the three titles boast truly A+ presentations overall. They’re mostly just improvements, and all carry their own various imperfections. Is it nice to be able to add these to your Blu-ray collection? Sure — providing you enjoy these movies to begin with, that is (I would only add the Swayze film to my library on account of its sheer ludicrousness alone) — as long as you remember that these discs aren’t meant to blow us away: they’re only here so we can upgrade.
Kudos to getting these older movies released on Blu-ray nonetheless, though. Now if we can just get HD issues of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours or Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan – Lord of the Apes as well, I’d be happy.