I'm trying something slightly different over three weeks for my film classes. They get to (have to) watch three different films of the same story, two from the 1960s and one from the 1990s, all three of which, not quite so coincidentally, came out on Blu-ray earlier this year. We'll watch them in chronological order, starting with the best, Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece YOJIMBO (1961)
, a clever Samurai variation on American westerns and film noir which never gets old or goes out of date. Next week is the pretty good Italian western version, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964)
, followed by the much later American noir version, LAST MAN STANDING (1996)
I had a couple people over to watch all three in a row one entertaining afternoon a couple of months ago, and here's a review of each disc.
http://www.und.edu/instruct/cjacobs/Old ... BluRay.htm
Today’s modern action-hero movie genre typically features a lonely, cynical, and almost super-human protagonist who is out for himself but has a streak of decency and strong personal code of honor. There have always been movies about heroes fighting bad guys. But the type of antihero, the level of violence, and the darkly comic wisecracks so prevalent in the current formula largely came into being almost a half-century ago with Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” starring Toshiro Mifune.
This new style of movie really took off, however, several years later when its first remake, Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” made Clint Eastwood a star. The story’s staying power and adaptability were reinforced after another three decades, when action star Bruce Willis made it again as “Last Man Standing.”
All three versions can now be seen at home in high definition. Last spring the Criterion Collection released to BluRay the classic samurai action adventure and dark comedy “Yojimbo” (1961), both individually and packaged with its sequel, “Sanjuro” (1962). This summer Warner Home Video released BluRay editions of “Yojimbo’s” two very effective but cross-genre remakes, the spaghetti western “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) and the film noir gangster picture “Last Man Standing” (1996), packaged not together but with other films by the same stars.
“Yojimbo” (whose title means “The Bodyguard”) follows a wandering, out-of-work samurai warrior in the late 1800s who stumbles into a village torn by violence between two competing families of racketeers. Naturally, with his cocky self-confidence, personal code of honor, and supreme skill with his weapon of choice, he decides he’s just the person to clean up the town. He plays the two gangs against each other, with plenty of intrigue, action, and violence before the climactic showdown and satisfying conclusion.
The film remains one of Kurosawa’s best, with still timely social commentary, still funny one-liners, and still exciting action sequences. Criterion’s BluRay really does the film justice with a fine HD video transfer of the beautifully composed black and white widescreen image and a good reproduction of its original Perspecta Stereo soundtrack, along with a generous selection of bonus features.
Italian director Sergio Leone had directed only one film, the pseudo-historical adventure “The Colossus of Rhodes” (1960), but loved American westerns. When he saw “Yojimbo” he was struck with how perfectly it fit the western formula, and decided to turn it into “The Mysterious Stranger” for his second directorial effort, much of copied it almost word by word and scene by scene, with a few variations, now set in northern Mexico near the American border during the mid-1800s.
The low-budget widescreen process called Techniscope required shorter focal-length lenses than standard 35mm anamorphic widescreen, which as any photographer knows produces a byproduct of a greater depth of field. This resulted in almost everything being in focus and led to Leone’s now-famous style of extreme close-ups and extreme long shots, sometimes at the same time. The international cast, all speaking their own languages and later dubbed for each country, inspired Leone to concentrate on sound effects more than dialogue, along with a now-iconic music score by Ennio Morricone.
TV actor Clint Eastwood wound up playing the lead, “Joe” (he really did have a name, despite the advertising campaign), after several other Hollywood actors turned it down. After the film finally made it to the U.S. under the title “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1967, the rest is history, with Eastwood playing mainly variations on that character ever since. Kurosawa successfully sued Leone for stealing his plot without permission, and part of the settlement was that Kurosawa’s studio obtained Japanese distribution rights for “A Fistful of Dollars,” which they promptly renamed “The Return of Yojimbo.”
So far Warner’s BluRay edition is only available in a box set with its two followup films (each a bit better than its predecessor), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (1966), all of them with fine video transfers, audio remixed to stereo, and very good bonus features including informative audio commentaries and background documentaries.
In 1996, writer-director Walter Hill, better known for “48HRS,” “Crossroads,” and “Red Heat,” decided to do an official remake of “Yojimbo,” but updating it into a pulp crime thriller set in a dusty Texas border town during the early 1930s. Hill’s script borrows from both Leone and Kurosawa while adding his own take in the style of both classic gangster melodramas and film noir – right down to the voiceover narration by its cynical antihero.
Bruce Willis, like Eastwood, was ideal for this type of character and plot. He also brings back more of the darkly comic attitude that Mifune gave to the original “Yojimbo,” whereas Eastwood’s humor was much dryer in “A Fistful of Dollars” than it became in later, similar roles. Bruce Dern and Christopher Walken add to the fun.
“Last Man Standing” is only available as a double-feature, very well-paired with another Willis action-crime picture, Tony Scott’s “The Last Boy Scout” (1991), which is almost as good. Both have great transfers of the picture and the outstanding digital stereo soundtrack of “Last Man Standing” will really show off a home theatre sound system. Unfortunately, having both movies on a single disc allows no room for any bonus material whatsoever, but they can at least be bought at a bargain price, under $20 for the pair.
Watching “Yojimbo” and its two sequels back to back in high-definition makes for a very entertaining five-and-a-half hours as well as an instructive example on how effectively the same story can be adapted to different times and places and actors.
YOJIMBO on BluRay –
Movie: A+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A-
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS on BluRay –
Movie: B / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A
LAST MAN STANDING on BluRay –
Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A+ / Extras: F
Quick Update (Oct. 28, 2010):
I ran FISTFUL OF DOLLARS for my class this week, but discovered that the classroom Samsung Blu-ray player would only load the MGM Blu-ray, play the title menu, and then reload the disc, and keep doing that, so I had to use the standard DVD as a backup (lucky I brought it along!!). I checked the disc on my main two-and-a-half-year-old Magnavox (Funai) Blu-ray player wired into my home theatre, and the feature and all HD bonus items played fine, but all SD bonus features were little tiny pictures in the upper left-hand corner. The same disc on a slightly newer Magnavox played everything the way it was supposed to be, filling the screen for either HD or SD material. Oddly, that newer Magnavox has issues with Criterion's WALKABOUT Blu-ray, while the older one plays it fine!