Last year, Chris Rock hit the road with new material for Kill the Messenger, his latest comedy tour. HBO captured three of the performances – in London, Johannesburg and New York – and edited them together into one big comedy special. Now on DVD in this three-disc set, Rock fans can see the HBO special and the full-length shows at each of the locations above. If you love his stuff, that might be great news. But after more than a decade at the top, does Rock still have it? Read on.
The way HBO assembled the original comedy special is pretty unique. Running around 80 minutes, Kill the Messenger cuts mostly seamlessly between Rock’s performances in three different cities. So he might set up a joke in London, deliver the punch-line in Johannesburg and follow up in New York. This might sound really disjointed on paper, but in practice it works well because Rock is so consistent with his delivery. In fact, the precision with which he executes his material is downright impressive.
Unfortunately, the material itself isn’t up to his old standard. Rock made his name with outrageous, insightful humor about race relations and other controversial topics. There’s still some of that here, but now it’s beginning to sound like echoes of better jokes from his past shows. In Kill the Messenger, Rock spends a lot of time on the then-upcoming U.S. presidential election, cracking jokes about John McCain being so old he used to own Sydney Poitier, or Dubya having screwed the country so royally it’s tough for a white man to get elected. He also goes off about how much black men love big white women, with a comparison between Keira Knightley and Rosie O’Donnell. Then there’s plenty of stuff about the Iraq war, relating gas prices and flowing into some material about performing sexual favours for fuel. Like the Rock of old, he’s crass, loud and pulling no punches, but this time it’s off the mark as often as not, inducing far fewer moments of hysterical laughter – at least for this audience member. Watching the original special, it’s tough to tell whether all three audiences felt the same, because HBO would obviously have edited the show to present the best reactions. Seeing each show separately tells a more accurate story, in which the crowds react differently to certain topics, as one might expect, but they all seem to be having a good time of it overall.
Kill the Messenger’s biggest flaw is that its best material is about the 2008 election, and is now out of date. Other, more timeless, topics like social interaction don’t produce the same level of humor, so we’re left with an expertly delivered set of decent stand-up. There’s no question Rock’s skills have been honed over the past decade or so, and his stage presence is something to see, but I’m left wishing I’d just watched Never Scared or Bigger and Blacker instead.
Chris Rock – Kill the Messenger is presented on three discs, with the original HBO special and each of the full-length source performances in 1.78:1 widescreen format. Since the HBO special was broadcast in HD, there’s no reason this presentation shouldn’t look great – and it does. Blacks are nice and deep, colours look vivid and details are sharp as Rock works the stage like the old pro he is. The transfer is also clean of any compression issues. Top marks.
The audio presentation is just 2.0 Stereo, but it works. Rock is always clear, and the sometimes-boisterous audience reactions don’t sound muffled and don’t ever overpower the star. Watching stand-up without the benefit of a surrounding audience is never the best situation, but it might have helped to have a full surround mix to make viewers feel a little more immersed in the audience.
Kill the Messenger, the three-disc set, comes packed with repetitive material. After all, the three performances in London, New York and Johannesburg are basically the same, especially since Rock is so precise in his delivery, and the original HBO special was slapped together from these three sources. But Rock fans will likely appreciate the nuances in each of the shows, and there’s also a short featurette, Conversations with Chris Rock, assembled from interview clips of Rock and a bit of behind-the-scenes footage. At under five minutes, though, the featurette leaves a lot to be desired.
I’m not a big fan of Chris Rock, but I’ve certainly enjoyed some of his past performances over the years. The man deserves his status as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time, but years from now, Kill the Messenger won’t be held in nearly as high regard as some of his previous work. That said, Rock fans couldn’t ask for a better presentation of his latest world tour – this DVD set looks great, sounds fine and packs in hours of viewing material.