The SmarK DVD Rant For Equilibrium

The SmarK DVD Rant for Equilibrium

“I saw Robbie Taylor crying today. He didn’t see me, but I saw him. Should I turn him in?”

It is indeed strange in a world where action movies are pumped out by the dozen, wearing influences ranging from Jerry Bruckheimer all the way to Don Simpson on their sleeves, to be hit in the face with a movie like “Equilibrium”, which takes as its inspiration equal parts Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Minority Report, the Matrix, Dark City and that Apple computers commercial from the Olympics. And yet it still kicks ass and is the first movie in a good long while to inspire me to run to my computer and write a review of it.

Take for instance the homages paid to the Matrix — in the Matrix, the freedom fighters engage in wire-fighting and augment their attacks with guns. Equilibrium takes that to the next logical level — Gun Kata, which is a kind of martial arts USING guns. More on that later.

Released in 2002 on a budget of $20 million (a pittance for an action movie) and ignored by moviegoers due to crappy distribution (it didn’t even play here in Edmonton, for instance), Equilibrium is a hidden gem that deserves cult hit status once it hits DVD on May 13, and it’s a movie that will utterly satisfy both thinking audiences and John Woo fans at the same time, no mean feat.

The Film

With almost no star power and an unknown director at the helm in Kurt Wimmer, this was an unlikely movie to even get released let alone gain a growing cult status, but here it is.

Set sometime in the 21st century after a third World War, Equilibrium puts forth the idea that humanity has decided to end all future wars not through peace and cooperation, but by extinguishing the cause of hatred — emotions. Kind of like the Vulcans in Star Trek, except with drugs and dictatorial rule taking the place of inner peace. Now you might be thinking that this setup is a bit Big Brotherish and derivative, and you’d be entirely correct, except that this isn’t really intended as a naval-gazing art film so much as an action film wrapped around a strong story.

Patrolling the new world of the future on behalf of the ruling Tetragrammaton (say THAT one ten times fast) are Clerics — enforcers who are gifted with empathic abilities and thus are able to sniff out those who shun the emotion-blocking drugs and become “sense offenders”. The irony of course is that they can sense emotions in others but are unable to feel them in themselves. The baddest of the bad among the Clerics is John Preston (played a stone-faced Christian Bale), who along with his partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean in a tragically short role) cruises the nether regions of Libria seeking out resistance to the new way of life. In an opening sequence that is like a shot of cold water to the face, Preston walks into a darkened room filled with armed rebels, and proceeds to cold-heartedly kill them all two at a time while evading every bullet, using the Gun Kata, a kind of ballet of gunplay developed as the ultimate weapon in the fight against lawlessness. The idea of the martial art is that all gun battles follow a predictable pattern if the sample is large enough, so by studying EVERY gun battle ever recorded, you can devise a pattern of actions and movements that, when memorized, guarantee a 120% increase in killing efficiency (and that’s just to start) and allow you to evade any and all shots fired at you. With the dangerous criminal element thus dispatched, our heroes discover the source of the unwanted emotional responses — a hidden stash of paintings, including the Mona Lisa. Of course, they burn it all to the ground to keep people from having dangerous thoughts, although Errol decides to keep a book of Keats’ poetry out of the rubble to be turned in by himself personally later, of course, because sometimes they forget little things like that. Preston has suspicions about where his partner’s REAL allegiances lie, and his worst fears are confirmed when he finds him (gasp) reading poetry in the burned out building they found the evil treasure trove in. Partridge reads a moving piece by Keats, and Preston shoots him in the face. It’s that kind of movie.

However, things are now stirring in Preston’s soul as well, as he reports to the head honcho of the new world order and is forced to recall the day when his own wife was dragged off and burned alive for her crimes of passion. Preston doesn’t feel anything at all thanks to the drugs and the training or does he? Although his own son (himself a Cleric in training) is carefully watching over him on behalf of the Tetragrammaton, he manages to stop taking his daily drug treatment (called “the dose” in the movie’s lingo) and suddenly sees little things like rainbows and sunrises in a new light. It’s an odd movie indeed that shows people tripping out when they STOP taking drugs. He finds himself falling into forbidden love with a doomed prisoner of war (played by the awesomely talented Emily Watson, although she’s wasted here) and stealing bits of her contraband just to smell her perfume. It’s a very understated relationship and one that I wish had been fleshed out more before the inevitable conclusion of it.

Anyway, Preston’s NEW partner (a young hotshot played by Taye Diggs) is growing just as suspicious of his partner’s actions as Preston himself was of his last partner (justifiably so, since Preston’s actions parallel Partridges almost exactly), and as Preston goes deeper and deeper into the Underground searching for himself, his partner creeps closer to discovering the truth. Things escalate to an ending that has one twist too many and the ultimate villain is pretty obvious, but the first ¾ of the movie works so well that it’s entirely forgivable for things to peter out after the first 100 minutes. Plus it has one of the BEST death scenes for a villain that I’ve ever seen in an action film.

As noted, for a relatively low budget movie, this thing packs a major wallop, both in making you think about the moral issues involved in brainwashing the masses for the greater good, and in good old fashioned blowing the shit out of the bad guys action. I liked this one almost as much as the Matrix, and that’s some high praise from me indeed.

The Video:

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the world of Librea is grey, black, and basically like shooting inside the Death Star, and this DVD handles all the drab colors and sudden changes to rainbows and bright sun with equal ease. Despite the constant and suffocating darkness and contrasting blacks and whites, the picture is beautiful throughout with no artifacting except briefly at the beginning and no other compression problems or edge enhancement. A spectacular transfer where you wouldn’t expect one.

The Audio:

Just as impressive as the video quality is the Dolby 5.1 mix (the only audio choice available). The dialogue is clear and centered, until the gun battles start, at which point things are flying all over the surrounds and you’ll be diving under your coffee table for cover. The subwoofer is active throughout with some good explosions, and there’s an ambient droning voice in the background all through the movie, telling you about the advantages of Librea’s new way of life, just enough to creep you out but not enough to distract you. Top notch!

The Extras:

As you might expect, it’s a small release, so it’s a bit light on extras. You get audio commentaries from the director, and also a director/producer track. In addition, you get a quick featurette on making the movie, and some trailers. Most notable is the teaser for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “Kill Bill”, which appears to be Uma Thurman as a samurai. In short, nothing to die for, but the Kill Bill trailer might make some fans pick up the DVD for that alone.

The Ratings:

The Film: ****1/2
The Video: *****
The Audio: *****
The Extras: **

The 411: If you were disappointed by “The Transporter” or have been hankering for something as darkly cool as “Dark City” or BOTH, then

Final Rating: 9.0