Warner Catalog! Christopher Nolan is now the most beloved director of the fanboy set for realizing a dark and realistic take on the Dark Knight. For the critical community he was already championed for having directed one of the masterpieces of the 21st century with Memento, and now it seems both parties are coming together to celebrate Inception. Insomnia was Nolan’s transition film into the big leagues to show that he could handle a larger budget and big names. It’s more important as a transitioning film, than as an actual piece of art. Al Pacino stars as Will Dormer, a Los Angeles detective flown to Alaska to help hunt a possible serial killer (Robin Williams), only to accidentally shoot his partner (or perhaps not)?
This has little to do with Bruce Willis, who was at his peak with Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout, and biding time in Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing. The former has Willis’s Joe Hallenbeck paired with ex-football star Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) as they have to uncover the mystery of who killed Dix’s girlfriend (Halle Berry). Last Man Standing has Willis stepping into the role made famous by both Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood as the hired gunman who gains or displays his conscious and destroys two rival gangs by playing them against each other. My review of all these films on Blu-ray after jump.
Insomnia was a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film that made such an impression it ended up in the Criterion Collection. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth searching out. Dormer (Pacino) and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) are sent to Alaska to wait out their problems with internal affairs, who have Hap on something and want to use it to destroy both their careers. Hap tells Dormer as much, and then the next day they go out on assignment to see if a found backpack can snake out a young girl’s killer. But Alaska is going through the period of the year where it has no nighttime, and when looking for the killer, a fog bank descends over them, which leads Dormer – who didn’t sleep the night before – to shoot his partner. Of course, the Alaskan PD (headed up by Paul Dooley, with Hilary Swank playing the eager new recruit) take Dormer’s side, but Dormer has to distort the facts of the shooting to cover for himself, and this distortion becomes even worse when Dormer tracks down the killer (Robin Williams). The killer saw everything that happened and wants Dormer to cover both their tracks to get out of it.
Nolan was working with a top notch crew and cast, and it shows on screen. When they go Hollywood, the challenge for the independent director is to show scope in their big budget debut and Nolan shows that he had a sense for size, and gets good to great performances out of his actors. Especially noteworthy is Williams, who gives career-best work here. There’s a lot to appreciate, but less to love. Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of an American adaptation of material that sands down the rough edges and Hollywoodizes it. Though the film gets great mileage out of the lack of dark, and Pacino’s growing weariness that also doubles as his own regret/failure/inability to escape his own guilt, the film grows more and more conventional as it moves into its third act, which then simplifies the ending to an insulting level, and gives the film a much more palatable, but also much less interesting conclusion to material that had already been done better. That’s always the problem with remakes of good movies, direct comparison makes the remake suffer if there isn’t something new there. In terms of a big budget Hollywood thriller it’s okay, but it doesn’t stand anywhere near Se7en.
If Nolan had descended into hackwork after this, it would be easy to argue that Memento was a fluke, and that he had only one trick in his wheelhouse. Instead it looks like he used the film as an opportunity to flex his muscles in the mainstream and show Warner Brothers that he could play the game. As his streak since then has been much better, it was a worthy gambit.
Warner Brother’s Blu-ray replicates all the extras from the DVD release, while also upgrading the picture to a gorgeous 1080p, and the soundtrack is now in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The film comes with a commentary, but it’s one of the best as Nolan doesn’t do it as the film plays, but offers commentary over the flm in the order in which it was shot. There’s a ton to learn about the process here. There’s also selected scenes commentaries by Hillary Swank (3 min.) screenwriter Hilary Seitz (11 min.), cinematographer Wally Pfsiter (8 min.), production designer Nathan Crowley (5 min.), and editor Dody Dorn (15 min.) Since these tracks are short they get good bursts out of the participants, and it’s well worth listening to. Also, surprisingly excellent is a conversation between Nolan and Pacino (17 min.) that covers not only the movie but much of Pacino’s career. There’s a standard period making of (8 min.), two brief additional scenes (3 min.) with commentary by Nolan, a fog based behind the scenes (6 min.) with commentary by Pfister and and Crowley, an insomniac piece (7 min.) and the film’s theatrical trailer. If you’re a Nolan completist, at least it’s worth it for the extras.
For the double feature of The Last Boy Scout and Last Man Standing, there are no extras. Only the films in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. Since Standing is the newer film, it looks slightly better, even if the Scott film is the better shot of the two. Boy Scout doesn’t look terrible, they just didn’t put a lot of effort into these transfers. The main benefit appears to be that they are 1080p. They aren’t old enough to require restoration, so this is basically a slightly upgraded version of the DVD release.
Sadly, Boy Scout should have gotten a special edition. Joe Hallenbeck (Willis) is a man fallen on hard times – his marriage is dissolving and his buddy (Bruce McGill) and fellow detective is fucking his wife. His buddy blows up shortly after giving Hallenbeck a job following Cory (Halle Berry), a stripper dating ex-star quarterback Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayons). She thinks she can get Dix back in the league with some blackmail, and that’s enough to get her killed, and both Joe and Jimmy in the crosshairs of killers (headed up by Taylor Negron). Though Hallenbeck has no use for Dix, the two are forced to work together to uncover a conspiracy plot that involves killing a senator that Hallenbeck had as past with, which puts Joe in an uncomfortable position.
Arguably a rough draft for Shane Black’s masterpiece Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Boy Scout is the bridge between his more serious Lethal Weapon, and the much more stylized Bang Bang. There’s still an attempt at some realism here, but with Scott’s sense of heightened reality, so it’s a very stylish would-be neo-noir, and that works for the film. Scott at this point was on his way to a career renaissance, with True Romance on the horizon, which was emphasizes by his brother Ridley spending much of the 90’s making terrible films. Tony’s competent auctioneers like Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State suggested that he had been underestimated, and his work since has shown him moving into auteur territory, even if Domino is pure Tony Scott, and mostly terrible. What marks The Last Boy Scout is that it manages to work as both a Tony Scott film, and a Shane Black film, as a violent action movie and a black comedy – even if some of the jokes are a wee bit dated.
The Last Man Standing, however, is just a big pile of nothing. Willis stars as a gunman who ends up in a town torn to hell by the warring factions of two gangs. Like Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo, the man plays both against the middle, with a sheriff (Bruce Dern) unwilling to do anything about any of it. A period gangster film, Willis is a great shot, but Hill does little with dynamic, and his sense of action here is shoddy. There’s no precision, and much of it feels generic. Which is unfortunate as the cast is solid, including David Patrick Kelly and Christopher Walken chewing up scenery, William Sanderson playing a mousy guy, Karina Lombard as the love interest, and Leslie Mann playing a talkative prostitute. Hill seems asleep at the wheel, and it never becomes more than a weak redress of the original and remake. The set pieces lack any spark, and the film seems set-bound (perhaps because it’s a period picture). Hill was off his game at this point, and this is definitely one of his lowest ebbs.