Kansas City Review
Writer-director Robert Altman couldn’t put a foot wrong in the early nineties, following a somewhat patchy period during the previous decade. Much praise was heaped upon his biopic Vincent & Theo (1990), satirical black comedy The Player (1992) and sprawling multi-story Short Cuts (1993). Then along came Prêt-à-Porter (aka Ready to Wear, 1994), Altman’s disastrous swipe at the fashion industry – and that winning streak suddenly came to a crashing halt. The reviews were scathing, with The National Review describing it as “a picture that only a director's mother could love”. Undeterred by such a critical mauling, for his next film Kansas City (1996) Altman would turn to the place where he was born and spent his formative years, finding fresh inspiration.
Set during 1934 – when Altman was 9 years-old, the film provides an evocative tribute to the Depression-era City, with its shady mobster fraternity and boisterous jazz clubs. In these lively venues legendary black musicians including Count Basie, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and Coleman Hawkins would blast out infectious tunes to adoring audiences, who would dance the night away. Playing out against a backdrop of the local elections, the story centres on gangster’s moll Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose beloved husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) has been snatched by crime boss Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). The small-time crook has foolishly stolen money belonging to the formidable kingpin, who is now holding him hostage at local hangout The Hey-Hey Club – with continual threats of harm.
Don’t be fooled by a name, since Belafonte’s character is rarely off the screen – and he’s tremendous here too, getting some of the film’s best lines. Even when the dough is returned, Seldom Seen is not backing down, considering his reputation tarnished. This cigar chomping honcho has developed a very low opinion of his white neighbours, especially the ones stupid enough to take from him. When loyal Blondie enquires if she can have her husband back, the cold response is “how do you want him, in a box or a sack?”.
In desperation Blondie hatches a daring plan, which finds our gun-toting heroine kidnapping Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) – the wife of an aspiring politician, hoping that he will use all his influence to get hapless Johnny freed. This strategy might seem like a doozy, except that twitchy Blondie doesn’t turn out to be the most proficient of kidnappers and Laudanum addicted Stilton is a continual liability – often in a state of confusion due to the quantity of what she has been swilling. They make for an oddball pairing – and the two stars are a joy to watch, their characters often bickering as Blondie drags her hostage around the city, waiting for the wheels to turn. At one point this even involves a detour to the local fleapit, so that Blondie can watch the latest flick starring her idol Jean Harlow.
Despite the basic storyline seeming a little light and hackneyed, this being an Altman film, it still manages to be far from bland. The script, which he co-wrote with regular collaborator Frank Barhydt, incorporates numerous themes ranging from power, race and class. This leads to some nice little scenes, such as one where the affluent Stilton is taken back to Blondie’s very humble little dwelling. Along the way Stilton recognises that her financially struggling kidnapper truly loves her husband, in stark contrast to her own unhappy marriage.
You can get too much of a good thing and that’s very much the case here, with scenes continually cutting back to the Hey-Hey Club, where musicians blow feverishly on trumpets or tickle the ivories with great relish. The music doesn’t so much compliment the film, as often take centre stage with some of the characters underdeveloped as a result. I would have liked to see more of Steve Buscemi – tragically under-used here as scheming fixer Johnny Flynn, who ships poor folk in from other towns in order to vote and sway the results.
Kansas City competed for the 1996 Palme d’Or at Cannes, ultimately losing out to Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies. It remains one of Altman’s lesser known films and, while not showing the director at the top of his game, there is still much to admire. The production design - by Altman’s son Stephen - is gorgeous, there’s plenty of sharp dialogue to savour and, of course, that fabulous soundtrack.
Kansas City makes its UK debut on Blu-ray with an impressive HD presentation that preserves the OAR of 1.85:1. The image maintains a good level of fine detail, despite a muted colour palette utilising darker tones. No discernible signs of damage were observed.
Audio options are the original 2.0 and DTS-HD MA 5.1. Both do a first-rate job at delivering the fantastic jazz sounds. There are no evident issues with the soundtrack and dialogue is well-defined throughout.
English SDH are included.
Audio commentary by director Robert Altman
Newly filmed appreciation by critic Geoff Andrew (25:20): An informative discussion on Altman’s style of filmmaking and the making of Kansas City.
Gare, Trains et Déraillement, a 2007 visual essay by French critic Luc Lagier (15:56), plus short introduction to the film narrated by Lagier (3:49)
Robert Altman Goes to the Heart of America and Kansas City: The Music: two 1996 promotional featurettes including interviews with cast and crew (8:45 & 9:20)
Electronic press kit interviews with Altman, Leigh, Richardson, Belafonte and musician Joshua Redman, plus behind-the-scenes footage (cumulative 13:26)
Four theatrical trailers, TV spots & image gallery
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio
Illustrated collectors’ booklet (not available for review): featuring new writing by Dr. Nicolas Pillai, original press kit notes and an excerpt from Altman on Altman.