Talk about perfect timing. The Filmmakers Signature Series Blu-ray release of Danny DeVito's 'Hoffa' arrives just as another theory about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa hits the news. In suburban Detroit, the FBI has taken soil samples in a backyard where the vanished former Teamsters' president may have been buried. Alas, the samples came back negative, and the mystery of what really happened to Hoffa continues.
Danny DeVito takes some liberties with both Hoffa's life and his disappearance, but they're all for the purpose of telling the greater story – of a man so obsessed with organized labor he would become almost as powerful as the President of the United States himself. Jack Nicholson plays James Riddle Hoffa in a performance he seems to have been born to give. The physical resemblance between Nicholson and Hoffa is uncanny, and this is one of the few roles of his career where Nicholson disappears into the character he is playing. How he didn't get an Oscar nomination is anyone's guess.
In addition to directing, DeVito co-stars as Bobby Chiaro, right-hand-man to Hoffa and a character who provides a window into Hoffa's life and career. Chiaro isn't actually a real person, but rather an amalgamation of different people who were close to Hoffa during his lifetime. There are very few scenes involving Hoffa in the film that Chiaro is not present in. He's the character the audience relates to, and the movie is as much his story (albeit fictional) as it is Hoffa's. Because the film proceeds through Chiaro's eyes, we see very little of Hoffa's personal life, his family, or what actually makes him tick. As a result, this is less a bio picture than it is a movie about the spirit that Hoffa provided to organized labor. While the film doesn't shy away from Hoffa's darker side and his connections with organized crime, one is never quite certain of why Hoffa does what he does… is he obsessed with power, or just willing to do whatever it takes to make the Teamsters stronger? The film leaves that conclusion up to the viewer.
If I have one complaint, it's a small one, and it has to do with DeVito's directorial style. He's a very talented director, make no mistake about that, but sometimes it seems like every scene in the movie is a bit too perfectly designed and framed, DeVito has a love for creative transitions and interesting angles, and while they're almost always visually interesting, sometimes they can just be a distraction from the storytelling. Great acting doesn't always need fancy camerawork, and when you've got someone like Nicholson in the lead it's a good idea to lock the camera down and let your actor(s) do all the heavy lifting. DeVito also uses a lot of sets here instead of real locations, which is also far too evident in many shots…particularly ones that are supposed to be outdoors and are obviously soundstages.
All that said, 'Hoffa' is without a doubt the crowning achievement (to date) in DeVito's directorial career. Sadly, a string of bad directorial choices after this film (including the complete disaster that was 'Death To Smoochy') has probably limited the odds that he'll ever be able to direct something with the scope of 'Hoffa' again. Regardless of what the future brings, 'Hoffa' remains a powerful film and one of my personal all-time favorite performances from Jack Nicholson.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
Like all the releases in Fox's Filmmakers Signature Series, 'Hoffa' comes to Blu-ray in a recyclable Blu-ray case with a slipcover. I've mentioned in prior reviews about the mixed message this sends buyers (saving the case versus recycling it), but at least the slipcover helps keeps the rather flimsy box from being smashed if you (like me) have a particularly jammed shelf of movies or stack your boxes on top of each other. The movie is on a single, Region A encoded 50GB dual-layer disc, and the case also includes a nice 28-page booklet featuring behind the scenes information on the making of 'Hoffa.' Like 'The War of the Roses' Blu-ray, Danny DeVito makes a special introduction as the Fox Home Entertainment logo appears onscreen. After the intro, the movie goes to the main menu, which features video footage of the film along with menu options along the bottom of the screen.
In his introduction to the disc, DeVito mentions that 'Hoffa' has received a brand-new transfer from the original film negative, and it's a sight to behold.
This is a wonderfully sharp and crisp presentation, showing tons of detail and making the movie look like it was shot this year rather than back in 1992. Skin tones are well balanced, blacks are solid, and film grain – while present- is barely noticeable although I saw no indication of overly-excessive DNR use.
It's a shame that Fox didn't include a featurette on the restoration of 'Hoffa,' because it's obvious to me that a lot of love and hard work went into what we see on this release.
The audio is presented in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and although 'Hoffa' doesn't have a huge amount of action or explosions (there are a few), this is a well-done track that remains active and immersive. We are also told by DeVito in his intro that they went back to the original audio masters to create this new track, and once again it looks like a lot of love was put into it to make it sound right. While no means reference-quality, there's little to complain about here. The disc also includes Spanish Surround Dolby Digital 2.0 and French Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
Setting aside the powerful performance by Jack Nicholson (which is reason enough to add 'Hoffa' to your film collection), the movie is a good historical reminder of why the establishment of labor unions was so important for workers' rights, and also how too much power in the hands of one man can lead to corruption and, ultimately, downfall. No matter what side of the organized labor debate you side with, 'Hoffa' is worth your time, and this Blu-ray release is worth adding to your collection. Recommended.