One of the most durable genres in the history of film is the so-called “gangster” flick. They have been with us since (at least) D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and will probably be around forever. Although all of the major studios have produced these types of pictures, one has been particularly associated with the form. That studio is Warner Bros., and as a bit of a reminder of their rich history in this regard, they have just released two Ultimate Gangsters Collection box sets.
Each set contains five Blu-Ray discs, plus a fascinating hardback book. The sets are divided into “Classic,” and “Contemporary.” The Classic collection includes Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), White Heat (1949), and a documentary titled Public Enemies: The Rise of the Gangster Drama. The Contemporary set is the one I chose, which features Mean Streets (1973), The Untouchables (1987), GoodFellas (1990), Heat (1995), and The Departed (2006).
I will probably go back and get the Classic Collection at some point, but the initial choice of the Contemporary one was relatively easy for me. Two words: Scorsese and DeNiro. Mean Streets, GoodFellas, and The Departed were directed by Martin Scorsese, and Robert DeNiro stars in all but The Departed. It was pretty much a no-brainer for me in this regard, and I did not already own any of these on Blu-Ray before.
Of the five, GoodFellas has taken its place in the pantheon as one of the greatest crime films ever made. My “favorite movie” designation changes all the time, depending on my mood I guess, but I have listed GoodFellas as numero uno many times. Everything about it is just top notch, the story, the dazzling shots, the way the music is used, and the performances of Ray Liotta, DeNiro, and Joe Pesci. Nearly 25 years later, it still stands as one of the most daring, and fantastically realized movies I have ever seen.
Mean Streets was the first film that Scorsese and DeNiro worked together on, and it was the beginning of one of the greatest actor/director partnerships of all time. I was too young to see this in the theatres in 1973, but I can only imagine the impact it had. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) had been released a year earlier, but it was a very different movie from Mean Streets.
The Godfather is another one of my favorites, but it is really more of a romanticized vision of a Mafia family of the ‘50s more than anything else. There was nothing romantic about Mean Streets. It was the story of a two-bit punk, played by DeNiro, on the mean streets of New York in the early ‘70s. This is a film I am very happy to own, because I have discovered a lot of things in it that I did not really notice before. One very important aspect of it is the way that music is used, as it most definitely presages what Scorsese would achieve later with GoodFellas.
Al Pacino and DeNiro starred in one of the greatest sequel films ever made, The Godfather Part II (1974). Unfortunately, the two never appeared together though. When casting was announced for Michael Mann’s Heat, it marked the first time that Pacino and DeNiro would have scenes together onscreen. It was a big deal, I was certainly excited to finally get the chance to see these two working together. Heat is a very good crime feature, and actually quite a bit better than I remembered it. That is one of the nice plusses of buying a set like this. I probably would not have bought Heat, having already seen it years ago. But thanks to its inclusion in this collection, I now own it, and this has afforded me an opportunity to reassess it.
The situation with The Untouchables is very similar to that of Heat for me. I was easily pre-sold on this one back in 1987. Thanks to reruns, I was a big fan of the old TV show, and with Brian DePalma directing, and starring Robert DeNiro, Sean Connery, and Kevin Costner, the film showed a lot of promise. I remember seeing it in the theatre, and thought it was ok, but not really a masterpiece. I watched it again on video later on, and that opinion held. But in watching it for purposes of this review, I found things that I had not really paid attention to earlier. The bravura performance of DeNiro as crime boss Al Capone is the most obvious attraction, especially the baseball bat scene. And Costner is…well, Costner – the perferct “good guy” (Elliot Ness). But what really makes this movie work is Connery. His low-key portrayal of Costner’s conflicted partner is marvelous, and adds a tremendous element to the whole. The Untouchables was the biggest surprise of the collection for me.
The fifth and final entry is The Departed, directed by Scorsese, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This is yet another reason to get the set in my opinion. Now maybe this is just me, but it is another film in which I have discovered a great deal more about through repeated viewings. I will never be surprised again at the ending, but by watching it again, I have noticed many more elements to it that I simply overlooked previously. In discussing the work of Scorsese, everyone has their own take. For this fan, The Departed is his last truly great movie. I believe that he has more in him, and even if he does not, his position as one of the greatest directors of all time is assured.
Each disc is rounded out with bonus features, and while none are particularly ground-breaking, all are worthwhile additions to the package. Mean Streets includes a “Vintage Featurette,” titled Back on the Block, The Untouchables offers the original script, and biographies of the cast; GoodFellas includes commentaries; Heat features 11 additional scenes; and The Departed is introduced by Scorsese, and includes nine additional scenes.
Besides the films themselves, I really enjoyed the 32-page hardback book that is included. The book discusses each movie in detail, including sections on the background, the story, and the production. There are some great photographs in it as well.
Whenever I look at a collection like this, my biggest question is “Do I really need to own all of these movies?” That question would be relevant if the set were priced as if one were buying each Blu-Ray individually, but it is substantially less. In essence, the cost of the Ultimate Gangsters Collection is about that of two Blu-Ray movies. So I look at it as getting three for free, plus a very cool book. In that light, there is no question that this is a huge bargain. And as I said, I probably would not have bought Heat or The Untouchables otherwise, so I would have missed the enjoyment of discovering new things about each movie that I had not previously noticed.
I had been waiting on building up my Blu-Ray collection until I got my home theatre system up to snuff, and with my new HD television set installed, it is finally there. I must say, that the wait was worth it too, as these films look spectacular on it. I had seen all of them previously of course, multiple times as a matter of fact, but not since seeing them in the theatre have they looked and sounded so good. In this process, I also learned quite a bit about the specs involved. To be honest, I used to look at those numbers on the back covers of Blu-Rays as so much gibberish, but now they make sense.
For the package, the specs are as follows: 1080p High Definition 16×9 2.4:1 (Goodfellas & Mean Streets 1.85:1). Mean Streets – DTS-HD MA; English 1.0; Dolby Digital; Espanol 1.0. The Untouchables – DTS Digital Surround; English 6.1; Dolby Digital: English 5.1 EX, Francais 5.1 EX. Goodfellas – Dolby Digital: English 5.1, Francais 2.0 & Espanol 2.0. Heat – Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1; Dolby Digital: English 5.1, Francais 5.1 & Espanol 5.1. The Departed – PCM: English 5.1; Dolby Digital: English 5.1, Francais 5.1 & Espanol 5.1.
A big advantage of getting this set was in giving my budding BR collection a quick boost. There is no question that the Collection is a great deal, and in writing this review, all I have really done has been to convince myself that I need to get the Classic one as well.