Kansas City

Kansas City (1996)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte
Extras: Commentary Track, Trailer

With "Kansas City" New Line Home Entertainment has now released one of director Robert Altmann’s often overlooked gangster drama to DVD, giving fans of the film reason to rejoice.

"Kansas City" plays in 1934 in Kansas City, as you’d expect, as the mob runs the town and control everything from games, cops, politicians and booze. Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney) is a dim-witted small time crook who wants to make it big and so he knocks over a friend of one of the city’s biggest gangsters, Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Of course, the mobster immediately puts the shackles on Johnny, making his own plans how to deal with the lowlife, when Johnny’s wife Blondie (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) has the idea to kidnap a wealthy socialite (Miranda Richardson) and trade her in for her husband. But will it work?

Altmann’s "Kansas City" is a small and underrated gem. Oozing atmosphere from every frame the film boasts an incredibly talented cast, spearheaded by a marvelous performance by Harry Belafonte as the vicious mobster. Miranda Richardson once again knows how to pull off a character that has style and deeper issues, while Jennifer Jason-Leigh’s simply perfect for the part of the fatalistic, dark main character of the movie with here monotone dialogue delivery and intrinsic hostility.

Set before the great backdrop of 1934’s gritty cityscape of Kansas city, the real star of the movie is the music, however. Filled with contemporary jazz tunes and tracks, the film features some of the greatest jazz moments in modern cinema, including on-screen performances by some of jazz’s greats. Combined with the atmospheric, brooding imagery and the bitter characters, Altmann weaves his movie magic to perfection and unleashes it on the viewer one scene at a time.

New Line Home Entertainment has prepared a great-looking transfer of the movie for this release in its original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. The image is free of blemishes or defects and contains a good level of detail. Given the film’s innate darkness, I was pleased to see how well the transfer handles shadow delineation and blacks. Rock solid and never losing detail, the transfer really brings out the best of the film’s cinematography without ever breaking up or losing detail. Colors are faithfully rendered and always feature strong hues without bleeding or oversaturation. No edge-enhancement is evident and the compression is flawless, just as you’d expect from a New Line release.

Since the film is heavily biased towards music it is great to see that New Line also handled the audio side of the release in style. Complete with a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> and a <$DTS,dts> track, the audio portion of the DVD definitely lives up to expectations and exceeds them. The track is engaging at all times and makes good use of the surround channels. It is the enhanced frequency response however that allows the track to come alive in the end. The music performances have more kick than expected and the good bass extension gives them the punch they need to come across as authentically live, giving the film another boost of realism. Dialogues are well integrated and always understandable, always stand well above the music and sound effects.

As an extra, New Line has also included a <$commentary,commentary track> by producer, director and co-writer Robert Altmann. Altmann is always eloquent and nicely comments on the many aspects and facets of this film. The entire production is covered here from all possible angles, including the conception, the pitch, the filming and the collaboration with the various people involved. Altmann also reflects on his actors and the integral part the music plays in the film. It is much less your promotional/entertaining commentary we get to find on too many releases these days, but much more of an insightful informative commentary catering to those among us who would like to know and understand a bit more about the actual making of the film as opposed to the listening to a PR recording session. For fans of the film and the director, this <$commentary,commentary track> is definitely a must, so don’t miss it.

"Kansas City" is a very understated film that never seems to receive the public attention it deserves, so let me stress it here. It is a wonderful movie, filled with atmosphere, great characters, cool music and an engaging plot. This DVD is meticulously reproducing all aspects of the movie so there’s really no reason why you should not take this trip to Kansas City in the 1930s, especially since New Line made sure you got a first-class ticket to get there.