After impressing critics and audiences alike throughout the '70s with his roles in such seminal flicks as 'The Godfather,' 'Serpico,' and 'Dog Day Afternoon,' Al Pacino's film career hit a fairly well-publicized dry spell during the '80s. Appearing in only five mostly-forgettable films throughout the decade ('Scarface' being the only true notable among them), the actor seemed to retreat further and further into theater with each passing year. At one point, he was even quoted questioning the likelihood of his return to film.
Thankfully, that crisis was averted thanks to an under-the-radar flick that's been widely credited as the film that pulled Pacino out of his '80s slump -- the 1989 thriller, 'Sea of Love.' The story follows detective Frank Keller (Pacino), a New York City cop hot on the trail of a female serial killer. When he can't make any headway with the case, Keller teams up with a detective named Sherman from another precinct (John Goodman).
After realizing that the killer is placing personal ads in local newspapers and murdering the men that respond, the detectives place their own ad and set up an undercover sting to try to catch her before she can strike again. That's when Keller meets Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin), a classic '80s femme fatale who answers the ad, and conveniently finds her way into his personal life. Lovestruck, Keller must keep his emotions in check while he attempts to determine whether or not Helen is who she claims to be.
I'd never seen 'Sea of Love' before, but after reading through the largely positive critical response to the film, I thought I was in for a genre treat that would keep me guessing. Unfortunately, 'Sea of Love' failed to impress and I ultimately found myself wondering why it was so held in such high esteem.
Don't get me wrong, the film is certainly decent -- Pacino sells a washed-up alcoholic better than anyone, and both he and Goodman deliver a pair of performances that kept me engaged from beginning to end. But I just couldn't buy the script or Barkin's character for a second. While the dialogue itself is notable, the plot developments generally feel too contrived and overly complicated. Barkin seems both oblivious and mysterious at the same time -- competing characteristics that maintain the film's mystery but ultimately fall flat. Worst of all, the ending literally comes out of nowhere and is clearly meant to shock rather than make sense.
As a newcomer to 'Sea of Love', the other thing that kept me from fully immersing myself in the film is that it hasn't completely stood the test of time. Simply put, there are key moments where costumes and details so distractingly date the film that I honestly had a hard time holding back laughter. The costuming on Barkin's character in particular is often laughable, as is the soundtrack, which seems to borrow a page from the late-night Cinemax guide book.
Overall, I'm guessing fans of 'Sea of Love' won't find these quirks to be a problem -- in fact, if my own personal experience with old favorites is any indication, such elements can often surround movies like this with a warm glow of nostalgia that may even serve to enhance the experience. Having no such relationship to the film myself, however, 'Sea of Love' generally struck me as a below-average film with some above-average performances from Pacino and Goodman.
In all its years on DVD, 'Sea of Love' has never been gifted with a remaster, and alas the same appears to be true here, with Universal delivering an HD DVD transfer that's all over the place.
Presented in its high-def debut with a 1080p/VC-1 transfer, at least all of the upgrades inherent to the increased resolution and disc space are here -- detail is improved, edges are sharper, and the picture isn't plagued by artifacting like the standard DVD. But the overall impact of the image is underwhelming to say the least.
The transfer has drab colors, average contrast levels, and dark gray shadows that fail to reach complete darkness -- in fact, the entire image feels flat and lacks any convincing depth. Long shots are murky, skintones are unnatural, and grain clouds tend to spike at random. Worst of all, fine object detail is severely limited in interior shots and delineation is arguably as poor as it is on the standard DVD.
It really pains me to see Universal release a visual dud like this -- in a week where a title like 'Hot Fuzz' can look so amazing, the poor transfer of this aging catalog title really shows its wrinkles.
As if the picture quality wasn't bad enough, 'Sea of Love' features a dead-on-arrival Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5 Mbps) that fails to impress on any level. To be honest, there's precious little difference between this track and the standard DVD mix beyond the fact that the dialogue is a tad crisper and the subwoofer has a little more oomph.
Prioritization is the first of many fundamental problems -- dialogue is lost beneath effects, the soundtrack rarely chooses a consistent volume, and sounds that should be weighty are quite thin. Channel movement is also practically non-existent because a majority of the mix is pumped through the center channel only. The rear speakers rarely make a peep until the third act -- as such, ambiance and acoustics are stagey and unrealistic. If I didn't know better, I could have easily mistaken this mix for a stereo track.
The film's musical soundtrack is the only audio element brave enough to venture beyond the center channel, but sadly it too suffers from empty bass tones and tinny trebles that constantly waver. I'd have to say this is probably the most disappointing sound mix I've heard since 'Excalibur' graced my HD DVD player.
Happily, this edition of 'Sea of Love' on HD DVD retains all of the features available on the previous standard DVD. As you might expect for a film of this vintage, this is a fairly slim package, but there are a few items here worth a spin.
Despite my disappointment with the film itself, I actually quite enjoyed the commentary track with director Harold Becker. He has a friendly tone and provides a variety of tidbits that made me appreciate the film slightly more than I had before. Becker discusses coming on board as a last-minute replacement, working with the actors, preparing the sets, filming in Toronto, and other more technical details. I always love it when a commentary explores the motivations and development of the characters and Becker doesn't disappoint. His commentary was easily my favorite part of this release.
"The Creation of Sea of Love" (14 minutes) doesn't fare as well. Featuring generally bland interviews with producer Martin Bergman and Becker, this one's particularly repetitive after listening to the commentary. A group of "Deleted Scenes" (7 minutes) is worth a watch if you enjoyed the film -- they tie together a few loose ends and expound on some of the supporting characters.
Rounding things out is the film's theatrical trailer, which (like all of the other video-based extras on this release) is presented in 480i/p video only.
While fans of 'Sea of Love' will likely enjoy revisiting an old favorite, as a newcomer to the film I found Pacino and Goodman's performances to be the only things of note in this otherwise typical '80s thriller. Regardless of your opinion of the film itself, the poor video transfer and lackluster audio mix on this HD DVD should make for an extremely tough sell. Offering only a marginal upgrade over the standard-def DVD, I'm sorry to report that this one's a true high-def dud.