As 'Brubaker' gets underway, we see Robert Redford as a prisoner aboard a bus of criminals on their way to Wakefield penitentiary. He spends the first half hour or so of the film with very little dialogue, as his character observes the prison life around him, particularly the cruel and uncalled for treatment of the prisoners by the guards and staff.
One day, he's assigned to help clean out the solitary confinement cells where the most hardened criminals are kept. One of those criminals (played by Morgan Freeman) gets free and grabs another prisoner, threating to kill him if he doesn't get to talk to "the man." It's at this point in the movie that Redford's character reveals his true identity: his name is Henry Brubaker, and he's the new warden of the prison. Brubaker has come in under the guise of a prisoner in the hopes of seeing how they were really treated. Now that he knows, he vows to reform the prison. Naturally, that doesn't sit too well with those who work there, nor will it with the bureaucrats who run it.
The corruption at the prison runs deep, as Brubaker uncovers problems as simple as employees hoarding the prisoners' food to as serious as the possibility of bodies buried on the prison grounds. He's often the lone man out, as he has to build the trust of the prison population while not knowing who to count on among his employees (as it turns out, not many can be). By the end of the picture, Redford's character may have lost his faith in those running the system, but he has a restored hope about the system's ability to reform under the right circumstances.
In addition to Redford and Freeman, the movie is simply packed with a who's who of great character actors, including Yaphet Kotto, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, Everett McGill, Matt Clark, Joe Spinell, Noble Willingham, Wilford Brimley, and M. Emmet Walsh. In other hands, the screenplay for 'Brubaker' might seem more run-of-the-mill and routine, but the cast manages to make the film tremendously watchable and entertaining.
'Brubaker' is loosely based on the real-life story of Thomas Murton, who wrote a book about his stint as a warden in Arkansas in the late 1960s. While Murton never posed as a prisoner like Redford's character does in 'Brubaker,' many of the other instances in the movie are taken straight out of Murton's book, including the attempts at a cover-up by prison officials.
No stranger to signing up for movies with a political message, Redford's performance in 'Brubaker' (and the movie itself) is an obvious statement about how prisoners should be treated, no matter what their crimes. What 'Brubaker' only hints at (because it was not as much an issue in 1980 as it is today) is the overall turning of America's prison system into a business. There's actually money to be made in prisons these days (again, at the expense of prisoners), and it would be interesting to see a new film that focused on those issues. Perhaps Redford could be involved in that one too.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Brubaker' comes to Blu-ray in another one of those eco-friendly cases, with chunks of plastic missing from the front and back cover to encourage recycling (does anyone really throw their cases out?). Although the disc has been labeled for Region A, some online research has indicated that this release is, in fact, region free. There are no front-loaded trailers or advertisements on the disc, which (after a brief 20th Century Fox logo) goes directly to the main menu, which is a still of Redford's character with menu options along the bottom of the screen.
There are indications here that Fox created a new master of 'Brubaker' for this Blu-ray release, as the picture is wonderfully colorful and detailed, with a healthy amount of grain that allows the movie to maintain its cinematic look.
Skin tones are properly balanced throughout, and the overall movie maintains a healthy "warm" look to it without being over-saturated. Black levels are solid, and details overall are sharp without noticeable instances of edge enhancement or artifacts.
Just before writing this review, I had reviewed the release of Fox's The Verdict, which had the same street date as 'Brubaker.' The difference between the video quality of that release and this one are like night and day. I have no idea why 'Brubaker' got such a good video transfer and The Verdict did not, but let's hope that future catalog releases from Fox look more like this one and less like that one.
While the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track keeps most of the sound towards the front speakers, it doesn't ignore using the rear channels as well as some directionality to give 'Brubaker' an updated and more active score. The results are quite pleasant, with several scenes (a rooftop cave-in during a thunderstorm, for example) feeling quite immersive. The mix is also quite solid, with a nice balance between the dialogue, music, and background sounds of the film.
For those wanting an audio experience more akin to 'Brubaker's' original theatrical exhibition, a English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track has also been included, along with a German Dolby Digital 5.1 track and Dolby Digital 1.0 tracks in both Spanish and French. Subtitle options consist of English (SDH), Spanish, and German.
After doing such a great job with the transfer, Fox's decision to only port over the slim extras from the 2003 DVD release of 'Brubaker' is baffling. Those hoping for an updated retrospective or any archival featurettes are going to be disappointed by this release.
Although Fox hasn't given us any new supplements, the Blu-ray transfer is a huge improvement over the 2003 DVD release, and that alone makes it worth the upgrade. 'Brubaker' may not be Redford's best film, but it's filled with enough good performances to add to any serious movie buff's collection. My sentence: Recommended (with no possibility of parole).