A Hollywood studio executive with a shaky moral compass (Tim Robbins) finds himself caught up in a criminal situation that would fit right into one of his movie projects, in this biting industry satire from Robert Altman. Mixing elements of film noir with sly insider comedy, The Player, based on a novel by Michael Tolkin, functions as both a nifty stylish murder story and a commentary on its own making, and it is stocked with a heroic supporting cast (Peter Gallagher, Whoopi Goldberg, Greta Scacchi, Dean Stockwell, Fred Ward) and an astonishing lineup of star cameos that make for a remarkable Hollywood who’s who. This complexly woven grand entertainment (which kicks off with one of American cinema’s most audacious and acclaimed opening shots) was the film that marked Altman’s triumphant commercial comeback in the early 1990s.
"Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change? We're educated people."
After establishing his auteur credentials in the 1970s, Robert Altman nearly destroyed his commercial viability as a filmmaker with the disastrous 'Popeye' at the start of the 1980s. For that, he spent a long decade lingering in near-obscurity on the fringes of the art house circuit, producing small movies that inspired neither much critical attention nor popular appeal. It was his scathing bite-the-hand-that-feeds-him Hollywood satire 'The Player' that finally brought the director back to prominence in 1992 and launched a very successful career comeback.
Based on the (really lousy) novel by screenwriter Michael Tolkin, 'The Player' stars Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, an amoral movie studio executive who has burned too many bridges in the industry. While in the midst of fending off career advances from an upstart rival (Peter Gallagher), Griffin also finds himself on the receiving end of threatening postcards from an anonymous writer he has apparently wronged. The problem is that he's wronged so many, many writers over the years that he can barely narrow down a list of suspects. When he makes the mistake of trying to confront and smooth-talk the most likely candidate, things go disastrously wrong. Soon, there's a dead body on the ground and blood on Griffin's hands. He spends the rest of the film covering his tracks, dodging police investigators, and launching production on his studio's latest horrible wannabe-blockbuster movie. A dedicated multi-tasker, he also finds time to seduce the writer's girlfriend. As the saying goes, seize the day.
It's like 'Double Indemnity' meets 'Postcards from the Edge'. With heart.
'The Player' is an extremely meta movie. The film opens with an eight-minute unbroken tracking shot in which the characters discuss famous lengthy tracking shots in other movies. The entire story takes place in the insular culture of Hollywood, a place where movies are the only subject that anyone can talk about, and every conversation inevitably leads to a pitch. Even the central murder mystery begs comparisons to famous movie mysteries. The cast is populated by dozens upon dozens of celebrity cameos (Altman called in every favor he could muster), half of whom play themselves while the other half play fictional characters in the story – blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.
The movie is a very cynical black comedy in which the hero is also the villain, and we find ourselves rooting for him to get away with murder. The (largely improvised) dialogue is clever and funny. A running subplot about the picture Griffin's studio is trying to make – an uncompromising Oscar bait legal drama called 'Habeas Corpus' that's continually watered down to pandering simplicity at every step of development – pays off with a hilarious climax.
What doesn't work so well in 'The Player' is the thriller aspect of the story, which is never particularly suspenseful or unpredictable. As I mentioned earlier, Tolkin's novel (which I've read) is actually quite terrible. It has the thinnest of one-dimensional characters and an utterly formulaic plot structure. Altman's film isn't necessarily any better in those regards, but the director improves the material greatly by spinning the story off into his own whimsical tangents. Still, a red herring plot thread in which we're meant to believe that Lyle Lovett is the writer stalking Griffin doesn't even remotely work. Nor is the romance between Griffin and his victim's girlfriend (Greta Scacchi as a bohemian artist who doesn't know or care about movies) at all convincing.
I prefer Altman's next film, 'Short Cuts', over this one by quite a considerable margin. Nonetheless, 'The Player' is a very good and entertaining movie that allowed the director to get his mojo back after a long drought. If nothing else, that earns it an important position in cinema history.
The Criterion Collection has had its eyes on 'The Player' ever since the film was first made. Director Robert Altman collaborated with the company to put out a very nice Laserdisc edition of the movie way back in 1993. Unfortunately, Criterion lost the rights to the title for most of the DVD and Blu-ray era. Warner Bros. (via its New Line label) released 'The Player' on DVD in 1997 and on Blu-ray in 2010. Both discs were adequate for their respective formats but hardly exceptional.
With another six years gone by since the last release, Warner has finally loosened its grip and allowed Criterion to license Altman's film again. The Blu-ray joins the Collection as spine #812. A comparable DVD is available separately.
The Blu-ray comes packaged in one of Criterion's standard clear keepcases. The fold-out pamphlet includes an essay by film writer Sam Wasson. The disc has a very simple (some might say boring) menu.
The New Line Blu-ray of 'The Player' wasn't necessarily terrible. It was watchable enough on the whole with no glaring deal-breaker errors, but was a little soft and dull, and didn't seem to have a great deal of effort put into it beyond a basic scan of the film elements. With no better alternatives available, it was fine.
The Criterion reissue features a brand new transfer based on a recent 4k scan of the film negative. The results are noticeably superior to the older disc. The image is crisper and better focused, with much better clarity of fine object detail. Colors are warmer with a slight red push, which is both more visually pleasing and seems more appropriate to the sunny California setting than the blue push in the prior transfer. (According to the liner notes, Criterion used a 35mm answer print and the old Altman-approved Laserdisc video master as color references.) The contrast is also richer. At its best, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is very lovely.
Whereas the New Line disc had an open-matte 16:9 image, the Criterion version is letterboxed to the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. However, it appears to be mildly zoomed-in and loses a small amount of picture on all four sides of the frame. The difference would not be noticeable without a direct comparison, and variances like this are quite common when dealing with two completely different film scans performed years apart.
In almost all of his movies, Altman had a free-wheeling shooting style and favored large wide-angle group shots. He also had a fondness for zoom lenses. The result of this is that the picture's sharpness and focus can vary from shot to shot. Grain levels also fluctuate and are sometimes very noticeable. If the Blu-ray has any fault, Criterion's encoding quality leaves something to be desired. Grainy shots often look overly noisy, and have an ugly thatched texture when paused. Fortunately, this is a minor issue and the Blu-ray looks terrific overall.
In the below comparisons, click the images to enlarge. Witness the differences in the fabric texture of Tim Robbins' suit jacket and the legibility of text in the signs.
Don't take it as a downgrade that the 2010 Blu-ray had a 5.1 soundtrack while the Criterion reissue is technically only DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. When it was released to theaters in 1992, the film was mixed in Ultra Stereo, a matrixed surround format similar to Dolby Stereo. Criterion's soundtrack is arguably more faithful to the original. So long as you play it back with some form of Dolby Pro Logic or Dolby Surround decoding (or comparable competitor products), the sound mix does retain its matrixing cues and will deliver surround activity not too dissimilar to the prior 5.1 track.
This is not a surround-heavy movie in any case. Robert Altman's focus was primarily on dialogue. To that end, speaking voices on the new track are mostly crisp and clear, though some scenes are better than others. Most of the dialogue was recorded with wireless microphones, and Altman enjoyed letting multiple characters talk on top of one another. On occasion, the recording quality may be a little thin.
The surround channels, when they come into play, are mostly reserved for music bleed. Thomas Newman's unusual score only pops in infrequently, but when it does it has a pleasing robust body. Bass never extends too deeply (the movie doesn't have any car crashes or explosions), but it has a nice musicality. The sex scene at 1 hr. 44 min. and the 'Habeus Corpus' climax are fairly aggressive and immersive.
The Criterion Blu-ray presents a mix of content, some of which originated with the label's 1993 Laserdisc release and some of which is new.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The Blu-ray has no exclusive features. All of the content on the Blu-ray is also included on the concurrent Criterion DVD release.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
Not all of Criterion's old Laserdisc content for the movie made its way to the Blu-ray. Missing are more interviews with the filmmakers and stars, interviews with 20 screenwriters about 'The Player', lots of production stills, and an annotated photo history of films about Hollywood.
The 2010 Blu-ray from New Line had a different (drier) commentary and a different vintage interview with Altman.
'The Player' was an important movie in the career of director Robert Altman, but doesn't necessarily hold up as a great one. Still, it's a pretty sharp satire of the film industry and offers some genuine laughs.
The Criterion edition is a decided improvement over the older Blu-ray from 2010. It has both a superior video transfer and much better collection of bonus features. It's a worthy upgrade. If you're a fan of the film, this is the version to own.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.