Justice is too human to be perfect. When a middleweight boxer named Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was tried and convicted for robbery and triple-homicide murder in 1967, justice imprisoned him. When Carter continued to proclaim his innocence at several appeals hearings in the '70s and a second trial in 1976, justice determined that his defense was circumstantial and sent him back to prison. But when his attorneys argued in 1985 that his case was based on racism rather than the facts, justice recanted and declared Carter a free man.
'The Hurricane' is Hollywood's answer to this infamous mistrial that drew itself out over two decades. Billed as a true telling of Carter's false imprisonment, the film is a indicting examination of the US justice system, the fragility of eyewitness testimony, and the power of hope and perseverance. At the same time, it has come under fierce criticism for its altered facts and unrelenting glorification of an imperfect man who may or may not have actually been innocent.
The film follows Carter (Denzel Washington) through his boxing career, his run-ins with a prejudiced law enforcement system, and his eventual imprisonment. After numerous failed appeals, Carter appears to have resigned himself to a life in jail when his story captures the attention of a poor teenager in Brooklyn named Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon). Against all odds, Lesra will reignite Carter's hopes, and will ultimately help the former boxer finally prove his innocence.
While the film is incredibly energizing and thematically exciting, critics were split upon its release as to whether or not more fictionalized elements of the plot undermined the overall story's power. Although true-life stories are often simplified for the big screen, the film's detractors have argued that the black and white world portrayed by the film infuses it with an inauthentic sentimentality. Indeed, as directed by Norman Jewison ('Moonstruck,' 'Only You,' 'Other People's Money'), the film presents the entire justice system as morally bankrupt, while Carter's supporters (low-level lawyers, a teenager, and wealthy stars like Bob Dylan) are elevated to near sainthood simply for standing up for him.
Jewison himself has openly discussed and defended the changes made in translating Carter's story for the big screen (see the Supplements section of this review for more on this in his Director's Commentary), but it's been theorized that the controversy surrounding the film and its facts ultimately cost Denzel Washington an Oscar win for Best Actor, despite the fact that he was an early favorite to win.
To be sure, Washington turns in a commanding performance as he plays three different versions of the same man over the course of the film -- young and hot-headed, middle-aged and angry, and old and disillusioned. He tackles each stage in Carter's life with a humanistic ferocity that made me forget I was watching an actor. Likewise, his performance seems to elevate everyone around him. The supporting cast (which includes Liev Schreiber, John Hannah, Deborah Unger, Clancy Brown, and Dan Hedaya) is truly excellent, with all of the players bringing their A-game to their performances.
But the most impressive cast member in the film is Vicellous Reon Shannon, whose Lesra is nothing less than a force to be reckoned with -- a boy who's too young to be tainted by the apathy and acceptance of adulthood. Watching Washington and Shannon together on screen is like watching a virtuoso and his master-apprentice. The two are so effective and have such authentic chemistry that their scenes often generate chills.
'The Hurricane' tells a moving story of hope and perseverance against all odds. In the end, the less you know about the actual facts of Ruben Carter's real-life struggles, the more likely you are to enjoy this film. It's not a unique problem for a bio-pic, but when a movie derives so much power from its real-life origins, it's hard not to have a tough time reconciling the liberties it takes in telling its true-to-life story. Still, whichever side of the fence you fall, a series of exceptional performances are sure make this one worth your time.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, 'The Hurricane' looks a lot better than its softer standard DVD counterpart, but it still fails to pop like the best catalog titles I've seen on HD DVD.
To be sure, the video has its merits and manages to deliver the fundamentals of high-def quite well. The color palette may be drab and washed out, but primaries are vibrant and the picture features a pleasing level of contrast. Detail is impressive as well (especially in interior scenes) -- living room trinkets, background objects, and on-screen textual elements are suitably sharp. Textures and skin details give the image a convincing earthiness that isn't hindered by the film's miniscule grain field.
For me, though, the black and white boxing scenes were the most visually exciting moments in the transfer -- these perfectly contrasted scenes retained the feeling of age to the footage without sacrificing picture quality.
On the opposite site of the coin, among this transfer's less positive atrributes are a still-prevalent softness in wide shots, a series of flecks and tiny scratches, and black levels that are often overbearing and prone to crushing. But while I found each of these only mildly annoying, what really bothered me were several instances of edge enhancement that seem to have been carried over from the DVD transfer -- there's no reason a high-def transfer needs edge enhancement and it only reveals a transfer that wasn't built specifically for HD.
All in all, 'The Hurricane' definitely benefits from the HD edge (especially in the boxing scenes). Compared to other high-def transfers, however, this one's little more than slightly above-average.
Although it lacks the Dolby TrueHD support common to many of Universal's more recent HD DVD releases, the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5 Mbps) on this one handles what it's given with ease and power.
Dialogue is full and well prioritized, jazz music swells in all of the channels, and ambiance is present throughout the film, regardless of the complexity of a scene. Room acoustics are believable as well and the prison scenes are of particular note as they send quick echoes of sound bounding lightly around the soundfield. The all-too-brief boxing scenes again sent me scribbling in my notes -- as Carter dances around the ring, the soundfield stays centered on his position. As a result, the noise of the crowd and the other boxer spins with him and showcases superior channel movement and accuracy.
Having said all that, the film is largely dialogue-driven and there just isn't a lot here to wake the neighbors. The boxing scenes feature the only major improvements over the standard DVD as they bring the subwoofer to life and surround the listener with the chaos of a hungry crowd. In the end, the Digital-Plus track on 'The Hurricane' does its job well, it just isn't given the chance to flaunt as often as I would have liked.
Fans of 'The Hurricane' will be happy to see that this HD DVD edition ports over all of the primary supplements from the Collector's Edition DVD released in 2003 (the only missing components are production notes, outdated cast and crew bios, and some insignificant DVD-ROM features). Unfortunately, however, it's not quite as comprehensive a package as you might expect for film of this scope.
First up is perhaps the most infuriating Commentary Track I've ever listened to. While I appreciate director Norman Jewison's candor about the changes he made to actual events to create his film (as well as his fervent belief in Carter's innocence), I can't possibly wrap my head around his motivations. Why use a true story if your intention is to cloud it with so many misleading accounts of the facts? Why dwell in the world of non-fiction when your story is so fictional?
As Jewison points out the myriad of changes he made to facilitate the film's goals, my heart began to break. Simply put, I felt completely fooled into feeling genuine emotion for a man abused by the system. Jewison's decisions didn't just make me question his directorial choices, they suddenly made me question Carter's innocence. This sort of post-doubt is a slap-in-the-face to the facts and the man the film is based on. In the end, I still believe Carter was innocent, but the simple fact that a "true account" made me doubt him undermines Jewison's stated purpose in filming his story. In short, this is the first time a commentary nearly ruined a film for me.
Next up is a puffy featurette called "Spotlight on Location: The Making of The Hurricane" (19 minutes). While this one features typical interviews with the cast and crew of the film, the thing that makes it worth watching are a series of brief interviews with the real Rubin Carter and Lesra Martin.
Rounding out the package is a collection of "Deleted Scenes" introduced by Jewison. The scenes are decent enough, but mainly feature character beats that expound upon feelings that already established by the film in its final cut.
(Note that each of the video features listed above are presented in 480i/p only.)
Despite the questionable facts portrayed in the film, 'The Hurricane' is still a noteworthy entry in Denzel Washington's canon that will have viewers shaking their heads at an all too flawed legal system. While this HD DVD isn't likely to blow anyone away, it certainly delivers on the bottom line with an above-average video transfer, an impressive audio mix, and the same (albeit slender) list of supplements as the previously released Collector's Edition DVD.