Buena Vista finally rights the wrong of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) and He Got Game (1998) not being available on Blu-ray with the release of The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 1. The star here is the emotionally charged, father-son drama He Got Game, one of the great sports movies (and specifically basketball) movies ever made. NBA superstar Ray Allen delivers what is possibly the single most effective performance by a professional athlete. He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Denzel Washington, who delivers the most often overlooked performance of his own career. 25th Hour seems more seasoned and mature over a decade later; an almost-painfully introspective character study in which, as stated by star Edward Norton on the new commentary, “almost nothing happens.” Yet the stellar cast compels us to keep watching.
He Got Game is understandably iconic amongst basketball fans, not only due to the presence of Allen but also for the poetry-in-motion court sequences so expertly staged by Lee. But there’s so much more here, one need not be a hoops fan to become mesmerized. Allen is top-rated prospect Jesus Shuttlesworth, barely coping with the intense pressure of choosing which college to attend (he’s being relentless tempted by all the top universities). His father Jake (Washington), incarcerated for the accidental (but aggravated) death of Jesus’ mother, has been let out on a brief furlough to convince Jesus to attend Big State (the governor’s alma mater). It’s sort of an urban fairy tale, not unlike the million-to-one shot offered to Rocky Balboa in the original Rocky. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of Game is the fine line Lee walks between realism and surreal symbolism (the unconventional ending, which proved highly polarizing amongst moviegoers and critics alike, is as daring a move as Lee has ever made—just go with it, it packs an emotional wallop if you can accept it).
An entirely different kind of movie, 25th Hour is based on David Benioff’s novel of the same name (Benioff adapted the screenplay himself). It depicts the last 24 hours of freedom before convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) goes off to prison. Famous for being the first production to film right at the Ground Zero construction site not long after 9/11, the ghost of the Twin Towers casts a deeply melancholic mood over the proceedings. The then-recent terrorist attack isn’t directly referenced, doesn’t have anything to do with the story, and in fact had not yet occurred when Benioff’s original novel was published. Yet it becomes part of the fabric of the film as Monty interacts with friends and mulls his future (or lack thereof). Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays an ethically compromised college teacher with the hots for an underage student (Anna Paquin). Brian Cox turns in a great supporting turn as Monty’s father, who imagines a possible alternative life for his son during the film’s ambiguous climactic conclusion.
Spike Lee’s movies are as visually distinctive as any director out there, so it’s great to see they’ve been given such sparkling high definition transfers. Both feature highly stylized cinematography, shot during the pre-digital era that has washed a lot of the character out of movies. Rodrigo Prieto’s work on 25th Hour is accurately cold and steely, with sharp focus even in the grittiest, grainiest scenes. By contrast, Malik Hassan Sayeed’s cinematography for He Got Game is warm, with a nearly retro, ‘70s look. While both are technically superb, for my money Game is one of the most visually beautiful films in Lee’s filmography and it’s awesome to see Buena Vista take care of it. Look at Jake’s bright red jersey just pop against the muted background of the neighborhood court.
Both films have DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtracks and both are very front-centric. That’s just how they were mixed, roughly from the same era and each very dominated by long, dialogue-driven scenes. That said, just try not to crank the volume for the bass-heavy Public Enemy soundtrack tunes (or for the Aaron Copland classical pieces for that matter, which of course won’t tax the subwoofer but do show off the crispness of the high end). As is typical of Lee’s movies, these soundtracks are very creative and active in subtle ways, which these new lossless surround mixes show off well.
As for special features, each film has a brand new audio commentary and they are among the most entertaining and insightful I’ve heard. Spike Lee fans will find these easily worth the time. 25th finds Lee joined by actor Edward Norton while Game partners Lee with actor and basketball great Ray Allen. Good humored and always conversational, both tracks are killer. The most jarring moment on 25th occurs during Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first appearance, as we realize with a start that the track was recorded prior to the actor’s tragic passing. Lee asks Norton how Hoffman is doing, adding that he hopes he’s taking care of himself.
Later we hear about a cast and crew softball game that included Robert De Niro (not involved with the movie), who Lee pissed off by teasing him with quotes from Raging Bull. Norton and Lee marvel at the number of people who have cited 25th as their favorite movie, despite its poor box office reception. Norton talks at length about problems with the original marketing campaign. It’s an honest, straightforward commentary. Norton often remembers things Lee has forgotten, such as visits to the set from screenwriter Benioff and co-producer Tobey Maguire.
Meanwhile on He Got Game, Allen has a lot to say about the accuracy of the corruption amongst college recruiters as depicted in the film. Both commentaries find Lee quite openly admiring the beauty of Rosario Dawson, who co-stars in both films. What’s fun is how enthusiastic Lee is throughout, especially on Game, which he immodestly points out many have proclaimed the greatest basketball movie of all time. He’s rightfully proud of his work, but also very gracious with his praise of all the actors and crew members involved. Though Ray Allen has only acted in one film since Game, he contributes a lot of interesting points on the filmmaking process, holding his own with Lee. Funniest moment: when Allen speculates about the specifics of Jake’s sex scene with Dakota (reminds me about a moment on Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct commentary during a similar scene between Michael Douglas and Jeanne Tripplehorn). Lee’s laugh is infectious—just try not to crack up along with him.
As has been reported, at the end of the commentary, Lee and Allen tease the possibility of a He Got Game sequel. Hopefully they can make it happen.
Good move on Buena Vista’s part to team up these movies, making The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 1 a great value. Also available separately is Vol. 2, which pairs Summer of Sam with Miracle at St. Anna.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00J2VUJ86,B00J2VUJ6S]