This latest round of releases from Warner mark a significant change in the studio's approach to Blu-ray, because with the exception of 'Full Metal Jacket,' Warner has switched from using the MPEG-2 compression codec to VC-1, which the studio has been using from the start on its counterpart HD DVD releases.
Since each of these movies have previously been released on HD DVD, as we did with Warner's first wave Blu-ray releases, our reviews of these titles will pay particular attention to how the two formats compare.
For a more in-depth look at the state of the format war following the release of these four titles from Warner, check out our feature article, "Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: Round Two -- The Next Dimension?."
There once was a time when Mel Gibson wasn't crazy in real life, only on the big screen. Okay, okay, that was a cheap shot, but before 'The Passion of the Christ' and his recent run-in with Malibu police, the only controversy Gibson courted was what the box office would be for his latest blockbuster. Regardless of quality, Mel could open a movie. 'Bird on a Wire,' 'What Women Want,' 'Signs,' 'Conspiracy Theory,' the Oscar-winning 'Braveheart' -- Gibson enjoyed such a string of hits throughout the late '80s and the '90s that it is hard to imagine that, no matter what happens in the future, he won't be guaranteed a place in the pantheon of the all-time great Hollywood icons.
But if there is any single film with which Gibson is still most associated with (save now perhaps 'Passion') it is 'Lethal Weapon.' At the time he starred in the 1987 sleeper smash, he had already earned the attention of critics and audiences with such films as 'Gallipoli' and 'Year of Living Dangerously,' as well as a cult following for the first two 'Mad Max' pictures. But he was not yet a bankable leading man in Hollywood, until 'Lethal Weapon' forever changed all that. And not only did it turn Gibson into a serious actor, a sex symbol and a big box office drawn, it also practically created the genre known today as the "buddy cop movie."
What's fun about watching 'Lethal Weapon' today, almost twenty years on, is how innocent and fresh it all seems. Let's face it, we've a million of these types of movies in the interim, and they all play out like a virtual copy of the 'Lethal' movies, only more cynical. Bad boy cop (here Gibson, playing the hot-tempered, nearly-psychotic Martin Riggs) is teamed up with a mild-mannered new partner Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover, a sort of gun-toting version of Bill Cosby on "The Cosby Show"), who must thwart an evil criminal mastermind (Gary Busey, never weirder) before he takes over the world, or at least Detroit. By the end of the movie, you can be guaranteed of at least these things -- the two cops will initially dislike each other, a member of one of the cop's families will be kidnapped, the witty banter will lead to heartwarming male bonding, there will be lots of gunfire and explosions, and finally the bad guy will get his in a spectacular creative death scene. And don't forget the cheesy end-title song by either Bob Seger, Glenn Frey or George Thoroughgood.
I don't want to give 'Lethal Weapon' too much credit as a cinematic milestone, as it is true the buddy-cop flick was not totally new even back in 1987. But it is hard to imagine a more prototypical version of the story then this. I think it's because the filmmakers and cast had no expectations beyond must making a good, solid action movie, and that is readily apparent in the chemistry between Gibson and Glover. There is no hard sell of the mismatched cops, no forced sarcastic humor, and no desperate stunt casting (think Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi in the dreadful 'Red Heat'). I almost hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliche, but in many ways 'Lethal Weapon' is not really an action movie but a love story. No, not a romantic one, but about a friendship between two very different people. Which makes it no surprise that 'Lethal Weapon' and the Riggs and Murtaugh characters continue to enjoy an emotional resonance with male audiences over the past two decades (the film did spawn no less than three blockbuster sequels, after all). It is kinda like 'The Shawshank Redemption' or 'Field of Dreams,' only with cops and guns -- which is maybe why the film's three sequels were never able to quite match its charm and appeal . Because 'Lethal Weapon' is one of the only films of its type that remembers the Golden Rule of buddy-cop flicks -- it is not about the toys, but the people, stupid.
Same as the HD DVD release of 'Lethal Weapon,' the Director's Cut version of the film that Warner first released on DVD back in 2001 is not included here. That version ran about seven minutes longer than the theatrical cut, and though the extra scenes are included on this Blu-ray edition as a supplement, they have not been reinstated into the film itself. So that means this transfer has not been minted from the same master as for the old DVD -- which is probably a good thing, as the Director's Cut transfer had its share of image problems.
But first, a note on this comparison. For this second wave of Warner Blu-ray versus HD DVD reviews, I again hooked up my Toshiba HD DVD and Samsung Blu-ray players to our reference HD monitor (the Toshiba via 1080i, the Samsung via 1080p, per what each player current supports) using both HDMI and component outputs. This time, however, I mixed up the comparison in two ways. First, I used an outboard video switcher to route the signals, to avoid the cropping issues I previously experienced with the Samsung when I reviewed the first batch of Warner releases. Second, and more importantly, I forced a friend of mine (who owed me some big time payback) to come over and orchestrate a "blind" viewing test. He'd flick the switcher between the Blu-ray and HD DVD signals, and not tell me which was which. Sneaky, huh?
The result was that for round two, any differences between the Blu-ray and HD DVD were just about indistinguishable. For 'Lethal Weapon,' I compared three full scenes -- the opening credit sequence, the rescue of Murtaugh's daughter, and the climactic front yard fistfight -- as well as a few sporadic short segments, and I could scarcely tell a dime's worth of difference the two formats. Aside from a slightly darker cast on the Blu-ray, just as I noticed on my first round of Blu-ray versus HD DVD comparisons -- though it is so minor it could just as easily be attributable to slight differences in connections or the hardware -- I would say the Blu-ray and the HD DVD are exact replicas of each other. I highly suspect that any differences one might find noticeable are entirely hardware-specific, and not really inherent in the software.
However, just as with the HD DVD release of 'Lethal Weapon,' the Blu-ray version does not hit a home run either. 'Lethal Weapon' is twenty years old, and there remains deficiencies with the source material, though nothing too severe. Overall, it's a clean print, with no major blemishes or anomalies to mar the picture. However, there are dirt speckles here and there, and considerable film grain visible in some shots. Colors are also somewhat dull by today's standards, and frequently inconsistent. I notice occasions when hues seemed to fluctuate slightly within a single shot, or vary noticeably from shot to shot. Fleshtones also were a bit lacking to me, with faces somewhat reddish instead of a vivid orange. Again, 'Lethal Weapon' looks far from awful, but certainly not on par with the color reproduction seen on today's modern transfers.
That said, this is still a good-looking presentation of a film almost two decades old. Blacks are rock solid, and contrast quite good. The image does pop quite often, especially some of the night scenes, which can look nearly three-dimensional. Sharpness is also not too shabby, though a bit soft most of the time. I was almost impressed with the lack of any pixelization -- for a transfer minted from a print that's somewhat inconsistent, I noticed no blocking or other motion artifacts, even on the grainiest scenes or those with a lot of fast action.
Unlike the HD DVD release of 'Lethal Weapon,' which contained a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track, the Blu-ray version is presented in standard Dolby Digital. But remember that both are encoded at the exact same bitrate of 640kbps, and the Blu-ray format doesn't require the use of Dolby Digital-Plus anyway, except for recordings that utilize more than six channels (such as a 6.1 or 7.1 mix). That said, this is a pretty good mix. Again, you have to take into consideration that this film is now almost twenty years old, and if my research is correct, comes from a four-track master originally created for the film's theatrical. (Note that Warner has elected not to include the DTS track that appeared on the previous Director's Cut DVD on either the Blu-ray or HD DVD releases.)
There are a lot of good qualities of this remaster. Dynamic range is surprisingly solid for audio elements of this vintage, with fairly expansive mid-range and high-end that is largely free of distortion and tinniness. Low end also has a fair amount of punch to it, delivering a considerable amount of deep bass. I was also impressed with how much directionality is present in the mix. Both obvious and discrete sound effects can be heard in the surrounds, and even some reverberation. The score is also nicely rendered, which gives the soundtrack a lively presence that is actually rather enveloping. Granted, some specific sound effects can have a dated sound (most of the ADR in particular sounds obviously canned), but then I expected less. Sure, this soundtrack can't compare to the sound design on a modern film, but overall, 'Lethal Weapon' sounds a lot better than I anticipated.
Though Warner opted not to present the film in its Director's Cut form, they have included all the excised material here as a supplement. All the scenes (about seven minutes) are presented in widescreen, and the quality is on par with the previous standard DVD -- no worse, no better. Most of these scenes are character-building moments for the Martin Riggs character, and for me were welcome though not quite essential. It would have been nice if Warner reinstated them into the film for the fans, but at least they are here.
The only other extra is the film's theatrical trailer.
I enjoyed watching 'Lethal Weapon' again, almost twenty years after it first hit theaters. And it is good to remember that before all the rip-offs and increasingly over-the-top sequels, there was just an unassuming, entertaining buddy cop flick that coasted along on the genuine chemistry between its two leads. As far as picture quality goes, 'Lethal Weapon' looks fine, if no great shakes. It is not really a vastly superior upgrade compared to the standard DVD, and going head-to-head with the HD DVD, the Blu-ray version looks identical. But if you don't already own the film on DVD and have just gotten into Blu-ray, this one offers a very good excuse to pick the film up.