Interestingly, the Director's Cut of the film is two minutes shorter than the theatrical version. Having not seen it before, I won't be able to comment on what's been removed.
Like 'Cleopatra,' 'Heaven's Gate,' and many others, writer/director Elaine May's 'Ishtar' is a film whose notoriety is derived from its production troubles and box-off failure. And while the latter likely had an impact on word of mouth, I am not aware of anyone I know, including myself, having seen it. Although it received VHS releases, 'Ishtar' was oddly never granted a North American DVD release. After an initial announcement that it would debut on Blu-ray in 2011, Sony will make good on that claim over two and a half years later on August 6, 2013.
Ishtar is the fictional African country where a team of failed singer-songwriters, Chuck "the Hawk" Clarke and Lyle Rogers (the film's producer Warren Beatty), unknowingly end up in the middle of Cold War intrigue. As the film opens, they having been working together for five months, which, as seen in flashbacks, has led to the loss of the women in their lives: Lyle's wife, Willa (Tess Harper), who I don't remember speaking a word during her screen time, and Chuck's girlfriend, Carol (Carol Kane), although the accuracy of that designation depends on which one of them responds.
The men find themselves in desperate straits and their "talent" limits their agent Marty (Jack Weston) to just two options for them: playing in Honduras or Morocco. They decide on the latter, thinking it is the safer of the two countries. In order to get to Morocco, they have to land in Ishtar, which is on brink of revolution from leftist rebels. At an archaeology site, one of the rebels discovers an ancient map containing a prophecy foretelling of two messengers that will come during a time of upheaval and lead a revolution.
Once they get to the Ishtar airport, Chuck and Lyle naturally end up involved, though it makes little sense. At first, Sirra (Isabelle Adjani, whose relationship with Beatty must have helped with the casting decision), sister to the man who found the map, approaches Chuck when he's alone and requests his suitcase and passport so she can get to Marrakesh, where their hotel gig is. Her pretty face and gender-identification reveal (i.e. breast flash) were inexplicably enough to convince him. When Lyle goes on ahead to their job, CIA agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin) approaches Chuck and gets him on the payroll in an effort to help keep the Ishtar Emir in power. In Marrakesh, Lyle encounters Sirra and becomes sympathetic to her plight and that of the Ishtar people. The friends soon find themselves having to survive against spies that want them dead and vultures that think they already are.
'Ishar' is a throwback to movies by Classic Hollywood comedy teams. It has the feel of the Crosby-Hope 'Road' picture with Chuck and Lyle more like Laurel and Hardy, with the smarter of the two not actually being very smart himself. Beatty is amusing playing against type as the dim-witted Lyle, who is awkward with women. He and Hoffman have a good comedic chemistry together when writing songs, and their characters reveal a strong friendship bond when out on the ledge of a building.
Though 'Ishtar' has a bad reputation, it offers more laughs than I expected. There are a few funny scenes, like when Lyle asks for Simon & Garfunkel requests, when he has to deal with the vultures, and when different spies track the two in the city market. Unfortunately, the film falters in the last third and makes it tough to recommend beyond those that are very curious. Much of the comedy and characterization either gives way to action or just isn’t funny enough, like the desert auction sequence that goes on way to long, as does their final concert, which is just an extended epilogue that doesn't pay off.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ishtar' is a 50GB Region Free Blu-ray disc housed in a standard blue case. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. There are trailers for 'Before Midnight', 'Love Is All You Need', 'Stranger Within', Breakout', 'Magic Magic'.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. The image looks clean throughout, free from dirt, damage, and digital artifacts. There is noticeable film grain that becomes accentuated when against a bright sky. Colors are delivered in moderate, consistent hues, and blacks are solid.
The image offers fine details. A good example is the scene with the two leads on the ledge of Charles' building. Textures are evident in the clothing as well as the building. When the rebels are meeting, Adjani's face looks very smooth in her single shot. Cuts to other people within the scene find them in sharper focus, so the softness is likely due to the way cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot her and not an encode issue.
The audio is available in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and Original Mono. Each sound clean and free of hiss or defect and also deliver clear dialogue. The gun effects are weak on both. It's louder on the 5.1 track, but remains underwhelming in terms of expected oomph.
The 5.1 offers ambiance that tends to be front heavy for the quieter moments while the louder, action scenes fill the surrounds with sounds of vehicles and gunfire. The music fills the surrounds as well, but it isn't balanced well with the other elements. The at-times shrill synthesizer score drowns out the effects during their arrival in the Ishtar airport and drowns out their vocals during the beginning of their final performance. This track offers a decent dynamic range and limited bass.
There are no supplements.
'Ishtar' is not the bomb it was made out to be. I was surprised to enjoy as much as I did in it, but was certainly disappointed the film fizzled out before it was over. For the curious who haven't seen it, I'd recommend viewing it, but if uninterested, don't bother.
Fans will be happy to learn the Blu-ray offers a pleasant high-definition experience. But what a missed opportunity for Sony to offer it with no features. A commentary track could have been very intriguing.