The first time I saw 'Cruel Intentions' was on a Sunday afternoon in a mall multiplex, the kind you usually find half-empty and smelling of week-old popcorn. After paying my admission, I walked up to the ticket-taker, a kid no older than 16, who looked at me and said, "Boy, old people sure do love to see this movie."
Watching 'Cruel Intentions' almost a decade later, I think I finally understand what he meant. Casting a troupe of extremely photogenic and inexperienced young actors and putting them in a series of complex sexual situations, this is the kind of leering, voyeuristic movie that seems tailor-made for pedophiles.
When we first meet them, step-siblings Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) and Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) are wealthy, bored and apparently without a single moral fiber in their being. Frolicing about like the bad seeds of the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," the two seem to love shamelessly corrupting and destroying fellow classmates at their upper-crust New York prep school. But their protected lives begin to unravel after they decide to simultaneously meddle with two new students: the inexperienced, daffy Celcile Caldwell (Selma Blair), who is secretly carrying on a forbidden affair with her African-American violin teacher (Sean Patrick Thomas), and "perfect target" Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), a virginal do-gooder armed with a manifesto praising god, country, and chastity (and not necessarily in that order).
A (very) loose adaptation of the famous novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" by Choderlos de Laclos, 'Cruel Intentions' re-works the classic story with all the intelligence and insight of a smutty prep school play. I found it just plain icky watching the very young, nubile cast member try get their mouths and bodies around the vulgar dialogue and pseudo-erotic situations they are asked to enact. To boot, the diabolical mean streak of the characters is so borderline psychotic that it's hard to imagine thirt year-olds behaving this way, let alone a bunch of kids. But 'Cruel Intentions' is more than just an Afterschool Special with a filthy mouth -- it seems to really get off on the lurid thrill of watching kids masquerade as sex-starved, coke-fueled adults. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for fun trash, but 'Cruel Intentions' just feels dirty, to the point where I seriously questioned the motives of the filmmakers.
That's is a shame, because the concept could've made for a still-racy but thought-provoking film. Also based on de Laclos's novel, the much more competent 1988 film 'Dangerous Liaisons' makes clear, intelligent statements about the repressive values of the Victorian era by paralleling it with the rise and fall of the Valmont and Merteuil characters. 'Cruel Intentions' attempts no such similar feat. Instead, it seems to simply be a marketing concept -- one concocted solely to entice The WB fanbase to save up their allowance and sneak into this R-rated movie. We learn nothing about the values of the upper-class world the film mocks, nor are we offered any insight into what turned these scheming little brats into such monsters. Without giving away any the film's secrets, the supposedly shocking ending grasps at some sort of deep moral relevance, yet it jars badly with the hour and a half that precedes it.
To be fair, I'm not sure that 'Cruel Intentions' was ever really meant to offer much beyond entertainment value, and on that level, it's somewhat successful. It certainly looks and sounds great, with an attractive production design and a pretty cool soundtrack. The cast exhibits their talents with confidence and ease, foreshadowing their later success as adult actors. One can see the fire of intelligence and ambition in their eyes as they enact each of their respective roles, even if they ultimately fail to pull off their ridiculous character arcs. It's just a pity that in the depressing worldview of 'Cruel Intentions,' these young actors exist only to be consumed as sex objects.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings 'Cruel Intentions' to Blu-ray eight years after it first hit DVD, and I suspect the master being used is one and the same. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks fairly good, but suffers from a somewhat dated look.
The source print is generally fine but not pristine. There are some instances of dirt, and a white speck here or there. Grain is light, so the image retains a natural and film-like look. Blacks remain nice and solid throughout, with healthy contrast that gives the image some fairly strong depth. Detail also is good -- close-ups reveal fine textures and other subtleties, while long shots are a bit flatter by comparison. Colors, however, are a bit all over the map. A few shots exhibit rich hues, while most others are surprisingly dull and lifeless. Fleshtones also often look overly red and are generally inconsistent. There is also a slight amount of discernible edge enhancement, which leaves the image looking sharp but artificial. Overall, 'Cruel Intentions' looks pretty good, but this is certainly not a demo disc.
The audio rates about the same as the picture. This is a perfectly nice if dated soundtrack, offered here in uncompressed PCM (48kHz/16-bit/4.8mbps) and Dolby Digital (448kbps) 5.1 surround options. The movie's sound design is not very involving, and dynamics lack the kind of power I've become used to with most modern high-def presentations.
Surround use is pretty meager. The numerous pop-rock songs get a bit of bleed, and there are about a half-dozen noticeable discrete effects, but that's about it. As a result, pans to the rears feel forced and out-of-place, as there is no real sustained ambiance. Dynamics are also a bit wanting. Low bass never packs much of a punch, even on the tunes. The high-end feels a bit more cramped than most modern soundtracks, although dialogue is recorded perfectly. In short, 'Cruel Intentions' is easy to listen to and fairly pleasing, but much like the video, it's certainly no new reference standard.
Backed by a spacious BD-50 dual-layer disc, 'Cruel Intentions' on Blu-ray enjoys all the same extras as the previous standard-def DVD release. Unfortunately, however, most feel either wholly promotional, or quite dated. (Note also that all of the video-based material is presented in 480i video only.)
Things kick of with two featurettes. "The Making of 'Cruel Intentions'" (8 minutes) is another one of those extended commercials, complete with on-set interviews and cheesy narration. I do have to hand it to Reese Witherspoon for daring to actually compare herself and Ryan Phillippe to Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey with a straight face. "Creative Intentions: Finding a Visual Style" (21 minutes) is much more substantial, and includes interviews with all of the key creative personnel.
More promo material comes by way of two music videos, one for Placebo's 'Every Me Every You" and the other for Marcy Playground's "Coming Up from Behind." Each is presented in full frame only and the video is pretty fuzzy-looking.
Next are six Deleted Scenes, nearing about 20 minutes in total. All of the sequences are expansions of Kathryn and/or Sebastian's devious manipulations. The only highlights are a scene with Blair and a sudsy beard, plus a stripper scene that was apparently too hot for theaters. The quality here is also poor, although on the bright side, director Roger Kumble does offer introductions for each sequence that add much-needed context.
Finally, we get a screen-specific audio commentary with the filmmakers. This one's a fairly crowded and laugh-filled track featuring Kumble, co-producer Heather Zeegen, director of photography Dale De Sande, costumer Denise Wingate, designer Gary Steele, composer Edward Shearmur. A champagne bottle cork can be heard popping right at the beginning of the track, and it seems to be followed by several others. But while the raucous, over-stuffed invite list wears a bit thin by track's end, at least there are some good tidbits here and there. Kumble admits that the film was written in only 12 days(!), and that much of the cast was quite reluctant to take on the film before being prodded. The discussion on MPAA restrictions during later parts of the track are also fascinating -- apparently if you snort cocaine out of a crucifix on-screen, you get an NC-17. I could have done with a cleaner, less busy commentary, but it is certainly the highlight of the supplements.
There are no theatrical trailers on the disc.
'Cruel Intentions' takes a very famous novel and updates it to present day, recasting a decidedly adult story as a teen exploitation flick. Unfortunately, I found the results a bit creepy. Technically speaking, 'Cruel Intentions' on Blu-ray is a decent if unexceptional catalog release. The video, audio and supplements are fine, but all seem a bit dated. Give it a rent if you're curious, but even fans of the film may find it tough to be swayed by a Blu-ray release that doesn't offer that much of an upgrade over the standard-def version.