When you think of comedy greats, names like Groucho Marx or John Belushi probably come to mind. To some, the names Harold Lee and Kumar Patel might be at the top of such a list. The two stoners rose to cult status on the back of their infamous trip to White Castle (a fast food chain that I wish would make its way out here to Los Angeles). The duo have proven quite enduring, managing to get not one, but two theatrical sequels of varying quality. Not surprisingly, Warner Bros. has bundled together all three films into one convenient set (although not one that is cheaper than buying each title individually), with some deluxe themed packaging.
'Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle' starts things off with a bang (or a puff, as it were). Harold Lee (John Cho, Sulu in the new 'Star Trek') is a meek analyst who longs for the affection of Maria (Paula Garces, 'The Shield'), a neighbor in his apartment building. He lives with Kumar Patel (Kal Penn, '24' and the Obama administration), a perpetual stoner who could easily be a doctor if he wants to, but won't out of defiance of his overbearing father. After getting high, the pair realizes that the perfect food for their munchies can be nothing less than White Castle. As you might expect, their trip doesn't go as planned, and over the course of the night their adventures get more and more surreal and absurd.
'Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle' is a modern comedy classic. The film is bold and outrageous, playing with the ideas of cultural and racial stereotypes in a sharp, incisive manner. The casting alone tells you that this film has more going on than you'd expect at first glance. Harold and Kumar aren't written as stereotypes in any sense. Harold crunches numbers for a big firm, but he hates his job. Kumar's a stoner, but a high functioning one. Neither of them speaks in funny accents. Harold doesn't even like associating with Koreans that do conform to Asian stereotypes. Other characters who do act more in line with expectations often defy them in later scenes. For Hollywood, such portrayals are rare. Cho and Penn aren't exactly what Hollywood considers leading men material, either.
However, despite the social commentary, the movie is first and foremost a comedy, and in that arena it excels. The dialogue is snappy, the situations absurd. Cameos by Ryan Reynolds, Christopher Meloni, and Neil Patrick Harris have become enshrined in the golden halls of comedy, and rightly so. The humor is surprising, whether it be an anti-drug ad that becomes shockingly extreme or an escaped animal from the zoo playing a part that you'll never see coming. Director Danny Leiner of 'Dude, Where's My Car?' fame keeps things moving along and elicits top-notch performances out of the entire cast. No comedy fan's library should be without 'Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle'.
The flick writes in the premise for its own sequel, and despite being released four years later, 'Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay' begins mere minutes after 'White Castle' ends. Harold and Kumar hop on a plane to Amsterdam, and Kumar, unable to help himself, gets high in the airplane restroom. Mistaken for terrorists when Kumar's bong is thought to be a bomb, the pair quickly find themselves locked up in Guantanamo Bay. Making a hasty escape, they trek across the southern US in an attempt to clear their names. At the same time, Kumar is on a personal quest to win back his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Daneel Harris).
'Escape From Guantanamo Bay' is a massive step down in quality. Danny Leiner's light touch is sorely missed, replaced by the heavy-handedness of series writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, making their debut behind the camera. The picture could have still come out all right if the writing were up to par. Initially it seems like it might, with Kumar getting into a fight with the TSA to hide the fact that despite his protests of racial profiling, he is in fact smuggling drugs. The writing quickly takes a downturn, with Hurwitz and Schlossberg doing everything they can to top the events in 'White Castle'. What results is a decline in character development and a sense of humor so juvenile that it makes the jokes in the first film look like they were written by Oscar Wilde in comparison.
By far the worst addition is Rob Cordry as a Homeland Security agent. Cordry's character is overtly racist, buying in to every stereotype imaginable. The result is the exact opposite of how race and culture were skewered in the last film. Instead, he's being outrageous simply for the sake of being outrageous. His character (although not necessarily his performance as Cordry can be a very entertaining actor) is indicative of everything that's wrong with this underwritten, overly obnoxious sequel. A few funny moments do manage to sneak their way in, with Neil Patrick Harris once again stealing the show. On the whole, you could skip this entire movie and miss nothing of value.
After 'Guantanamo Bay', I assumed the franchise was done. After all, that movie was so bad that there was no way anyone would greenlight a sequel, right? Wrong. And to be fair, 'A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas' is nowhere near as bad as its immediate predecessor. At the start of the film, Harold and Kumar have drifted apart. Harold, now married to Maria, is very worried about impressing her father (Danny Trejo) when the family comes to stay for Christmas. Kumar was suspended from practicing medicine when he tested positive for marijuana use (surprise!). A packaged mailed to Harold at the old apartment prompts a reunion of the two. When it turns out to be a giant joint, Kumar can't help but light up, burning down the Christmas tree that was going to win Maria's father's approval. Now they have to fix the mess before the family gets back from Midnight Mass.
For 'Christmas', Hurwitz and Schlossberg remembered that the comedy comes from the characters, and consequently the movie is far more grounded in character development than 'Guantanamo Bay.' Having a falling out between Harold and Kumar makes for excellent tension that drives the humor. Of course, the comedy is quite frequently absurd, with a Claymation sequence that sees the guys being attacked by a giant evil snowman, and a toddler who becomes a drug addict. Neil Patrick Harris makes his inevitable return (even going so far as to indicate that he'll be back for the next one with a wink to the audience), although Christopher Meloni is sadly a no-show (Patton Oswalt does make an appearance, which I wasn't expecting). A fictional toy, the Wafflebot, who falls in love with Kumar, provides the funniest moment in the flick. The image is clearly designed to be seen in 3D, and there's nothing classy about the 3D effects, but in some ways that's a refreshing change from the glut of 3D films that make no attempt to use the added depth at all.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Harold & Kumar Ultimate Collector's Edition' is a repackaging of three existing Blu-ray discs into a single normal-sized Blu-ray case that houses all three films. 'White Castle' and 'Guantanamo Bay' offer the unrated versions, while 'Christmas' includes both the R-rated and unrated cuts. The whole thing comes in a larger package designed to mimic a lighter. Inside the lighter you'll find six White Castle cardboard coasters, and three scented air fresheners. One looks like a White Castle slider, the second like the unicorn Neil Patrick Harris sees while on shrooms, and third looks like Wafflebot.
It's worth noting that the version of 'A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas' included here is the 2D disc. Aside from not having 3D, which reduces the impact of many of the gags, this also means that no Ultraviolet copy is offered. To get those, you'll have to shell out for the 3D Blu-ray. Additionally, the on-disc digital copy provided with the standalone 'Guantanamo Bay' release is not included here.
The three films are presented in 1080p transfers. 'White Castle' and 'Guantanamo Bay' are both 1.85:1, while 'Christmas' plays the odd man out at 2.40:1. 'White Castle', being the oldest film, understandably looks the weakest in this VC-1 encoded transfer. The image is soft, with muted colors and a washed out palette. Blacks are not deep enough and whites look bland. There is more of a veneer of grain on this transfer than there is on the others. Despite the drabness, fleshtones generally look accurate. On the whole it still looks better than standard definition, with very little in the way of compression artifacts or other visual defects, but it's not a movie you'll put on to show off your home theater. I'd give this one two and a half stars.
'Escape From Guantanamo Bay' certainly looks better in an AVC-encoded transfer, but we're still talking about a low budget movie by Hollywood standards. Grain is there, but far less noticeable, and while the image is sharper than 'White Castle', it's still soft by reference standards. Colors still feel muted, and at times fleshtones get a tad too warm. Blacks are much more true, and don't exhibit any noticeable crush. Whites are brighter but don't pop. Still no major compression artifacts. I'd give the transfer for 'Guantanamo Bay' three and a half stars.
Switching to a digital source for 'Christmas', the third film looks like what you'd expect for a brand new major studio release with this AVC-encoded transfer. Colors finally pop, with deep blacks and bright whites. Fleshtones are accurate. Contrast is strong, and the transfer exhibits plenty of detail. You can count every crag in Danny Trejo's face, and appreciate every thread of Maria's lingerie. Unfortunately, there are a few compression flaws, including some instances of black crush and aliasing. On the whole, though, this is a very strong transfer, comparable to some of the better (although not the absolute best) releases of the year. This one easily gets four stars.
It's worth noting again that the version of 'A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas' included in this set is 2D only. There is a separate 3D disc available which, according to M. Enois Duarte, has a brilliant transfer.
When it comes to audio 'White Castle' and 'Guantanamo Bay' are again matching sets, both getting DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mixes. 7.1 audio is most certainly overkill for movies like these, but it's nice to have them. Both 'White Castle' and 'Guantanamo Bay' don't make extensive use of the 7.1 elements, being dialogue-heavy films. Said dialogue is always delivered with excellent clarity, and the balance never sacrifices dialogue for effects. Other than the score, most of the sound is confined to the front speakers, but at times some effects do make their way over to the rears. When the respective soundtracks make demands of the 7.1 mixes, they perform admirably. There's just not a lot of call for them to be used. Both of those films would garner three and a half stars.
I should note that my copy of 'Guantanamo Bay' had noticeable audio pops every so often. I checked many other reviews of the disc and found no complaints, so I will assume that I simply received a faulty copy. However, if others have experienced this, please let us know and we can amend the review.
'A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas' sports two different 5.1 tracks, and the lossless DTS-HD 5.1 track is very impressive indeed. Unlike the first two films, the 5.1 mix here is quite aggressive to match the 3D shenanigans happening on screen. When Harold makes his triumphant beer pong shot, you'll hear it seamlessly whizz and pan across every speaker and back again. Sadly, the unrated edition gets saddled with a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that still has the same balance and dynamics, but loses a lot of fidelity and clarity. It's not a bad mix unto itself, but when compared to the lossless DTS track, there's no contest. The DTS track nets five stars, but I'm deducting a half point for the Dolby Digital.
Both 'White Castle' and 'Guantanamo Bay' arrived on DVD and later Blu-ray in packed special editions befitting their cult status. Multiple commentaries, deleted scenes, interviews, and other humorous extras were the norm. I was quite surprised to see that 'A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas' only had a paltry selection of bonus features. I checked to see if the 3D version had a more compelling selection, as many studios now relegate the best features to the highest priced editions of a given title, and was further shocked to find that the extras were exactly the same on both versions. This is disappointing given that the third film was just itching for a commentary.
'Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle':
'Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay':
'A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas':
Harold and Kumar have been the unlikely heroes of three comedies, and with this set you can buy all of them in one package. Whether or not you'll want to is another question, as all you get for your money (and currently the three-movie set is more expensive than buying these same discs separately) is a big box, some coasters, and air fresheners. This is also only a good deal if you want all three films, and 'Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay' isn't terribly good, so it may not be worth it to you. I'd say this set is only for serious fans, but they'll already have purchased all three movies individually, and would want the 3D version of 'A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas', which is not included here. If you only want one or two of the movies, this set isn't worth it. If you do want all three, this set is a single purchase and can save space on your shelf if you dump the extraneous physical goodies.