Next to pornography and horror, is there any genre in cinema more abused than the teen film? Aside from the errant classic that comes along every decade or so to genuinely tackle the youth experience with intelligence and purpose ('Rebel Without a Cause,' 'The Graduate,' 'American Graffiti,' the films of John Hughes), it's rare that movies are made about teenagers rather than for a teenage mentality. As much as it's fun to watch trashy old '70s and '80s flicks like 'The Last American Virgin,' 'Little Darlings, 'Private Lessons' and 'My Tutor,' they're made largely with the prurient interest in mind. In the world view of movies like those, the only things kids seem to care about are boobs, drugs, cruising, and sex. What's actually in a teenager's head and heart is irrelevant.
Which is why 1983's 'Risky Business' is such an anomaly. Here's a teen flick that would, on the surface, seem to have all the hallmarks of your typical cheap sex farce. It stars a then relatively-unknown Tom Cruise as Joel Goodsen (good son? get it?), the straight-arrow if academically mediocre son of a pair of middle-class Chicago suburbanites. Joel's got big dreams of Harvard and MBAs but not the grades to back it up, and what's more, he's a virgin so uptight he makes Beaver Cleaver seem like a hedonist. Enter Lana (Rebecca DeMornay), a local prostitute Joel hires one night on a dare, just on the eve of his make-or-break senior exams. Lana will have a thing or two to teach this "pampered white boy from the suburbs," especially when her ex-pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano) shows up wanting to know why Joel is hiding her. What follows will be Joel's real passage into adulthood, and the consequences will be messy.
'Risky Business' elevates itself above its genre on all levels. Writer/Director Paul Brickman's literate script is matched by his stylish direction. 'Risky Business' moves with a fluidity that's paced like a piece of music, set to the pulsing rhythms of Tangerine Dream's now-classic score. The glittering yet gritty Chicago locations are almost a whole other character, with the contrast between the drab suburban exteriors and pulsating downtown cityscapes a strong thematic parallel for the dueling aspects of Joel's personality. Brickman also casts the film well. In addition to the terrific chemistry generated by Cruise and DeMornay, Curtis Armstrong remains one of the '80s most memorable sidekicks ("I'm being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp!"), while Joe Pantoliano as Guido, along with Nicolas Pryor and Richard Masur, show up in sharply-written supporting roles.
More than just being well-made, 'Risky Business' is one of the few teen films of its era that dares to be about something, rather than just exploit vulgar situations for cheap pubescent thrills. What's fascinating about the way Brickman develops his premise is that he creates a duality in our reaction to Joel's predicament. Here is a film that is essentially about a boy who becomes a man by becoming a pimp, yet by the time Brickman has Joel running a brothel out of his house with Lana (much to the delight of his well-to-do, suburban friends), we are not appalled by his behavior but rooting for Joel to succeed. 'Risky Business' allows us to so identify with Joel that at first we don't realize he hasn't so much matured as been corrupted. It's the perfect embodiment of the Reagan era, when greed was good no matter what moral lines were traversed and ambition became indistinguishable from self-indulgence. That the film and its iconography (particularly the movie poster, which features Cruise in sunglasses superimposed over DeMornay stretched seductively across the hood of a Porsche) became such a smash only underscores that Brickman -- who never had a hit movie again -- was one of the only filmmakers of his era to manage the amazing task of satirizing an entire era by seeming to exalt its misguided virtues. That the audience totally bought it at face value makes the joke even funnier.
Despite its many other strengths, 'Risky Business' will still likely be remembered most as the film that turned Tom Cruise into a superstar. Indeed, 'Risky Business' is entirely his film (there's not a single scene without him in it), and he's never been more charming and less affected. Though Cruise laments in the Blu-ray's supplements that he spent much of the film scared, only hoping to do a good enough job so as not to be fired, you'd never know it by a frame of his performance. Perfect as the repressed Joel of the film's beginning, he also blossoms into the cocky (but not cocksure) "little future enterpriser" by film's end without missing beat. As encapsulated by Cruise's performance, 'Risky Business' hit the zeitgeist like a bull's eye in every way -- the absolutely right movie for the right time. Well written, stylish, smart, probing, and with a star-making performance, 'Risky Business' isn't just the best teen flick of its era, it's the quintessential film of the '80s.
'Risky Business' was first released on standard DVD quite a few years ago as a bare bones release, and its transfer was lacking. Warner has remastered the film for its 25th anniversary, and is re-issuing the film on DVD concurrent with this first-ever Blu-ray version. Unfortunately, the upgrade is hardly substantial -- any video improvements are minimal at best.
The source still looks its age. The source, while generally clean, still looks a tad dirty and a thin veil of grain is ever-present. Color purity is relatively drab, with only a few splashes of red and deep purples enlivening the dull photography. Fleshtones also look a bit red to me, leaving many faces piggish. Black levels and contrast are fine if unexceptional, with the image always flat and never exhibiting true depth. Fine detail is improved over the DVD, but don't expect a wonderfully textured image -- softness is rampant. Shadow delineation is average at best. The encode also suffers from frequent bursts of noise in solid patches of the screen. There are no major flaws, such as edge enhancement, posterization, etc., but that's hardly a rave. 'Risky Business' certainly looks fine on Blu-ray, but this is far from Warner's finest catalog moment.
Warner offers up a new English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit) remix for 'Risky Business.' Like the video, it's average and nondescript, offering little improvement over the previous DVD.
Surround use is rarely engaged. There are a few sporadic pans to the rears (mostly for a car chase scene and a late-night train ride). Atmosphere is lacking, as even Tangerine Dream's excellent score is never cleverly directed to the rears. I also expected more from the use of rock songs, none of which really stand out. Dynamic range is fine for a film of this period, with a lack of depth to low bass and a flat, tinny feel to the high end. Dialogue replacement is frequently obvious as well, with a weirdly inorganic quality to background noise etc. There are no obvious defects with the source, so at least that's a plus. For a Dolby TrueHD remaster, I expected a little more.
Warner has provided a decent standard package of new supplements to celebrate the film's silver anniversary, even drafting in mega-star Tom Cruise to participate. These goodies are definitely the highlight of this set. (All materials are presented in 1080i/VC-1 video, and I could access no subtitle options.)
'Risky Business' is one of the best teen films ever made, and certainly the best the genre had to offer in the '80s. It remains a funny, sexy, stylish, and insightful look at consumerism and faded idealism in the era of insatiable, Reagan-fueled greed. This Blu-ray is a bit of a disappointment, however -- the video and audio are merely average, though the extras are pretty nice. This is hardly a bad Blu-ray, but I was far from blown away.