The first and by far the best film by Andy and Larry Wachowski, Bound offers up the potent combination of a steamy Sapphic romance and a sharp deconstruction of gangster movie conventions. Corky (Gina Gershon) is a plumber who has just completed a stretch in prison and installed herself in a downtown Chicago apartment. There, she is quickly drawn to next door neighbour Violet (Jennifer Tilly), girlfriend of small-time mobster Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), and the feeling is clearly mutual. Before long, the sexual tension is ratcheting up at an impressive rate and Violet, who badly wants to escape from her boyfriend's brutal world, joins forces with Corky to hatch the heist to end all heists, screwing over both Caesar and his Mafia bosses in one fell swoop.
I like The Matrix, I honestly do. Its two sequels are another story entirely, and Keanu Reeves may well be the most wooden actor ever to breathe the word "whoa", but to this day I'm still impressed by the mood and artistry demonstrated in the brothers' 1999 sci-fi hit. That said, it has always irked me that The Matrix has been the recipient of so much critical praise, fan idolatry and cod-philosophising while this earlier, lower key but oddly more assured little movie so often remains ignored or forgotten. All the regular players are here - cinematographer Bill Pope, composer Don Davis, and Joe Pantoliano playing yet another wonderful bastard with great gusto - but somehow they seem to ring truer here. The filmmakers accomplish an impressive feat, both embracing and subtly usurping the clichés of a well-worn genre, creating that satisfying (and, let's face it, slightly smug) feeling of being in on a particularly clever joke. At the same time, they combine the tropes and aesthetics of both film noir and soft-core porn (just listen to the music when Violet is seducing Corky and imagine it accompanying one of those late-night Channel 5 made-for-TV movies), and in doing so revealing just how similar they really are. This does, admittedly, require some knowledge of the sort of films it references: to an outsider, the clichés being sent up probably just seem an awful lot like... well, clichés. That said, those relatively unfamiliar with the conventions can still enjoy a terrifically paced, wonderfully tense and often extremely funny nailbiter that spins increasingly more out of control with each of its multiple twists, many of which are genuinely surprising.
When Bound was originally released in 1996, it was all but ignored, probably because it was perceived primarily as sleazy girl-on-girl exploitation (which is rather strange, as I would have assumed this would have been a lucrative endorsement for many). It's a shame, because the audiences that later flocked to The Matrix ultimately missed out on the Wachowskis' masterpiece and one of the best gangster movies of the 90s - a supremely entertaining and in many ways novel take on a well-worn genre. Luckily, the DVD and now Blu-ray markets have provided viewers with an opportunity to (re-)discover this underrated, under-seen gem. Back in January, Japanese label Cinemart released a pricy and almost completely bare bones BD. This has now been usurped by French distributor M6 Vidéo, whose version sells for around half the price and ports over all the significant bonus content from the earlier DVD release. Both BD releases contain the uncut international version of the film, rather than the R-rated theatrical edition, which prudishly cut down the sex scene between Gershon and Tilly, and both are region free. (However, the French version does contain a 50 Hz-encoded trailer prior to reaching the disc's main menu upon boot-up, which will cause NTSC PlayStation 3s with the latest firmware patch to crash.)
While far from the most stunning-looking disc of the year, this 1080P, AVC-encoded presentation is mostly eye-pleasing. While the opening titles and logo, and any subsequent optical shots, suffer in terms of definition, the rest of the film looks reasonably pleasant. Close-ups and medium shots fare pretty well in terms of detail, although wider shots can look a little ill-defined, with some prominent ringing. Grain retention isn't too bad, but it looks pretty smudgy at times, and I strongly suspect some attempt has been made to reduce it. Like the standard definition DVD release, the print used appears a little on the grubby side, with some noticeable flecks and spots, but these aren't overly distracting, and I'm even tempted to suggest that they add to the gritty noir feel of the piece. (Full resolution captures can be found on my blog.)
Audio, too, is largely serviceable, consisting of separate French 2.0 and English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. It's not a hugely immersive or technically stunning mix, betraying to some degree the film's low budget origins, but the dialogue remains clear throughout, if a little harsh at times, and the bass response is often rather satisfying. There is some nice ambient noise in the surrounds on occasions (for instance, the hustle and bustle of the busy Chicago street just after the start of Chapter 8), but generally speaking this is a front-focused presentation. The optional French subtitles can be disabled either via the menu or with the remote.
Extras kick off with a solid if initially slightly tentative commentary featuring the Wachowskis, Staenberg and sex consultant Susie Bright, with belated appearances by Gershon, Tilly and Pantoliano. The participants have a good rapport, but the track is let down by an at times slightly sycophantic tone, as those involved become overly preoccupied with praising the performances and technical aspects, and some extended gaps of silence, as they struggle to come up with anything to say. Also in the offing are an unmemorable five-minute EPK, a collection of behind the scenes clips, the original French and US theatrical trailers, and brief video interviews with the two writers/directors and three lead actors - all in standard definition PAL.