Some thirty years after seeing his father killed by a car bomb, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) is a dealer in explosives. When he is imprisoned in Yemen along with members of a militant group he was about to make a sale to, he is drawn in and becomes an integral part of the group’s terrorist activities. But wait – is he in fact an intelligence agent who has infiltrated the group in order to bring down their leader? Meanwhile, FBI agent Guy Pearce is hot on Samir’s trail, but if he catches up, will that be a good thing or a bad one?
Given that we are, after all, talking about the lead in a mainstream Hollywood release, it should come as no surprise that the answer to the question of Samir’s ultimate loyalty comes as no surprise. Fortunately, the question mark is dispensed with about an hour into the film, and the real suspense shifts to more urgent concerns, such as whether a ghastly bombing plot can be averted. Without venturing into spoiler territory, I must say that the climax leads to as clever a bit of cinematic prestidigitation as I have seen in quite some time, so kudos. Though the film is, first and last, a suspense thriller, and quite the effective one at that, it also makes a few telling points. Though the villains are suitably dastardly, a number of the characters on that side are also humanized – Sarmir’s best friend (Saïd Taghmaoui) may be a terrorist, but he is also a man whose motivations are entirely understandable, and he is clearly acting out of genuine conviction. By contrast, intelligence operative Jeff Daniels is willing to go to such lengths to stop the terrorists that he becomes morally indistinguishable from them. And when was the last time that Hollywood had a devout Muslim as the protagonist of an action film? Rank this, then, with The International and The Kingdom as another satisfying exercise in suspense that leaves its audience with plenty to talk about after the closing credits roll.
Stunning. Absolutely stunning. And upsetting. Let me explain. First the good news: the image couldn’t be any sharper, the colours are blinding (I felt parched in the desert scenes), and the contrasts and the blacks couldn’t be any stronger. Edge enhancement? Grain? Not a trace to be seen. From the perspective of the reproduction of the image, this is five-star transfer. BUT, as the film begins, that dreaded screen that should have been relegated to the dark ages of VHS appears: “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen.” That’s right, even though the picture’s aspect ratio is widescreen, it has still been cropped from 2.35:1 to 1.78:1 – still a significant loss of visual information. Now, I know that this can’t possibly be the first widescreen DVD to cheat in this way – certainly I’ve seen plenty in the past that made me suspicious – so perhaps I should be applauding its honesty, but still, why do this in the first place. Are people still that upset about black bars? So if you don’t care about the aspect ratio, fine. But I’m docking this video 1 ½ discs for insensitive treatment of cinematography.
It’s okay. I’m fine. Feeling much better now. And the audio certainly helps. No complaints here. The dialogue is crisp, the music is dramatic and blessed with a powerful mix, and the environmental effects are strong. The experience of falling into the world of the film is damn near complete, so well done.
Commentary Track: Writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff and Cheadle do the honours here, and they are engaging co-hosts. Their conversation leans heavily towards the nuts-and-bolts, production side of things, rather than the thematic.
“Action”: (4:40) Run-of-the-mill featurette focusing on the fight choreography.
“Intenational Espionnage”: (5:13) More of the same, only this time the focus is on the globe-spanning location shooting.
Don’t let my grumbling about the aspect ratio get in the way of checking out the film. The visuals are still pretty stupendous, and the film itself is intelligent and exciting.