Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Big Blue: Director's Cut (1988)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - Danger...Life...Passion...Runs Deep.

Experience the peril and intensity of free-diving, the world's most dangerous sport, in The Big Blue. Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr, Breaking The Waves) and his friendly rival Enzo (Jean Reno, The Professional) are considered masters of free-diving and have made a career out of this one-of-a-kind competition. Jacques' life-long obsession with diving comes form his unusual bond with the sea, while Enzo thrives on the challenges of its inherent danger. In his travels, Jacques meets Johanna (Rosanna Arquette, Pulp Fiction), who is attracted to his innocent qualities and follows him across Europe to share his adventures, triumphs and ultimately tragic bond with Enzo. With breathtaking underwater photography and matching musical support from Eric Serra (The Fifth Element), The Big Blue immerses you in a life and death adventure you'll never forget.

Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Rosanna Arquette, Jean-Marc Barr, Jean Reno, Paul Shenar, Sergio Castellitto
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 28 chapters; rated R; 168 min.; $29.95; street date 8/15/00.
Supplements: Photo Gallery: International Ad Campaign; Isolated Music Score; Bonus Trailers; Talent Files; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Import soundtrack - Eric Serra | Version Integrale soundtrack - Eric Serra

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/D+

Director Luc Besson's usually provides me with a very positive surprise. When I saw Leon (The Professional) in 1994, I thought it was okay, but nothing special - I guess that one was a draw at the time, though I just viewed the DVD and liked it very much. I took in The Fifth Element theatrically in 1997 although I expected to dislike it; instead thought it was fun and exciting. Despite that pleasant experience, I skipped the theatrical run of 1999's The Messenger entirely; the subject matter didn't interest me and the reviews were generally poor. Nonetheless, I found it thrilling and compelling when I watched the DVD.

Would Besson's 1988 work called The Big Blue make him four for four? Unfortunately, such success was not to be. While I didn't actually dislike the movie, I found it to be fairly dull and uninspired.

TBB is the first time I found a Besson film that seemed like something made by a French guy. No, I'm not trying to disparage the nation (besides, I already did that in my review of Leon), but I will admit that there's a certain airy, pointless style I associate with French films; I always imagine that they'll be lovely to watch but provide somewhat gaseous content.

To my surprise, Besson's other movies - the ones I've seen, in any case - seemed distinctly un-European. For certain, they displayed a strong sense of visual panache that made them more effective, but they also featured strong enough content to create enjoyable experiences.

TBB seems like too much fluff, not enough stuff. The plot is extremely slight. Essentially we find Jacques (Jean-Marc Barr) and Enzo (Jean Reno), friends since boyhood but rivals at free-diving and most of the film follows their interactions and competition. The story becomes complicated when Johana (Rosanna Arquette), an American insurance agent, meets Jacques and instantly (literally) falls in love with him. She then travels from New York to Europe to pursue him; she quickly bags him and the two become a couple.

And that's about it. The film follows these relationships but they never really go anywhere. The lack of complexity in the characters is simply astounding; we watch them for nearly three hours but never get any sense of depth. We know that Jacques has been traumatized to some degree by a childhood event, but the nature of its effect remains extremely vague. I never got any sense of what bond kept Johana and Jacques together, and the relationship shows little growth or development.

Enzo is the only genuinely interesting character, mainly due to a wonderfully ebullient performance by Reno. He makes Enzo the life of the part, someone who should be an obnoxious boor by who charms everyone he meets (and us as well). Reno's a terrific talent, and he single-handedly makes long stretches of TBB watchable. (I also liked Gregory Forstner, the kid who plays young Enzo, mainly because he's a dead ringer for Reno - I don't think I've ever seen quite such a stunning match between adult and child actors. It helps that the two display similar mannerisms as well.)

As for the other two main actors, Arquette looks pretty good, but she seems whiny and shallow. The script draws her role in the least-defined strokes of the three, as we get little idea of who Johana is and what she wants. Jacques doesn't fare much better, although he's really our lead. That seems mainly due to the weak presence of Barr. He's a good-looking guy, but that's about it; he has virtually no charisma or personality to offer.

When the romantic couple in your film are dull and duller, that ain't good, and TBB suffers whenever we're stuck with Arquette and Barr onscreen. Reno does his best to enliven the proceedings, but there's only so much he can do. Besson certainly makes The Big Blue look very good, with some absolutely gorgeous cinematography, but that's not enough to make the film as a whole compelling.

Granted, I made it through The Big Blue without too much effort, which says that the film's not a complete loss. After all, it runs almost three hours, which could have made it a tremendous chore. It wasn't a terrible battle to get through the movie, but I can't say I got much out of it. The Big Blue provides the film equivalent of New Age music: very gentle and soothing but without substance.

One note about the movie: the DVD features the "director's cut" of The Big Blue. This version runs a whopping 49 minutes longer than the US cut of the film. In addition, that edited edition used different music; instead of Eric Serra's score, a track from Bill Conti was substituted. The DVD restores the original version of the movie intended by Besson.

The DVD:

The Big Blue appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture shows a little dullness not atypical of film stocks from the Eighties, but it generally presents a very fine appearance.

Sharpness looks consistently clear and accurate, with very few instances of softness during the film. Moiré effects appeared on occasion - mainly due to some obnoxious striped Speedos worn by Reno - but are fairly minor, and I also noticed moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. The print looked pretty clean for the most part. I detected a little light grain, and I also saw a few speckles and some grit, but I generally did not witness many problems. Actually, the movie displayed fewer concerns than Leon, although the latter is a more recent film.

Colors were adequately saturated and defined, though they suffered somewhat from the slightly drab quality I saw in the film stock; I witnessed no specific problems with the hues but I felt they were slightly less bold than they could have been. Black levels were fairly deep and dense, and shadow detail generally appeared appropriately heavy without much excess opacity. Overall, the image falls short of greatness but seems solidly very good.

Also pretty strong is the movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Unlike the other Besson films I've seen, TBB features no killer action scenes with which to blast my system. As such, the scope of the mix is more limited; this is essentially a character drama, so the soundfield appears relatively modest. For the most part, audio sticks pretty closely to the center channel. All dialogue seemed to come from the middle, and most of the effects were localized there as well. Actually, a fair amount of ambience spread to the sides, and also occasionally appeared in the rears, but there's not a whole lot of activity at play here. The music utilizes the five discrete channels better than anything else, as Eric Serra's score pulses nicely from all around during much of the film. Nonetheless, the track seems pretty subdued as far as its dimensionality; don't expect the grandeur and thrills of the audio from Besson's other movies.

Quality appears quite good. Dialogue always sounded natural and crisp, with no problems in regard to intelligibility. Effects were clear and adequately realistic and showed no signs of distortion. Music seemed clean and smooth, with some very nice low end definition; the highs could have been a little brighter, but overall the score came across well. Although it's not a showy track, the mix of TBB works well for the film and it also holds up nicely for a movie from 1988.

One audio note: TBB features both English and French 5.1 soundtracks. Surprisingly, the French edition is the dubbed version, as the original dialogue is in English. I expected it to be the other way around, but it isn't, so feel free to watch with English speech and not worry about missing the original experience!

As I noted in my review of Leon, I've heard that Besson doesn't care for extras like audio commentaries or deleted scenes. As such, all of the DVDs of his films have been light on supplements, and TBB is no exception.

First up is an isolated score from Eric Serra. Disappointingly - and unlike the audio tracks on Leon and The Messenger - this feature only appears with Dolby Surround sound and doesn't offer a 5.1 mix. I found that confusing, especially since the film itself uses DD 5.1. Well, the score makes for a decent bonus nonetheless for fans of movie music, though the quality isn't all it could have been.

The remainder of the DVD features some old stand-bys. We get the usual bland and basic "Talent Files" found on most Columbia-Tristar (CTS) DVDs; this one provides text for the three lead actors and Besson. Another frequently problematic aspect of CTS discs stems from the way in which they present photo material. Here we find three movie posters displayed in the "International Ad Campaign" section. Unfortunately, the posters have been reduced so that they only fill about 60 percent of the vertical space on screen; they easily could have been made bigger, but the remaining area is left essentially dead. CTS did much better with Leon - only one of its 11 posters was too small - but this problem has affected a variety of their other DVDs, from Ghostbusters to The Blue Lagoon. Memo to CTS: just show the pictures in the biggest space possible and leave out any cutesy execution. (The latter isn't a problem here, actually, but has marred other DVDs.)

Finally, this DVD includes three trailers; we get clips for TBB plus fellow Besson efforts The Messenger and Leon. The booklet provides some short but compelling production notes as well.

I wanted to like The Big Blue but it proved to vaguely-ethereal and plotless for me. Not that I mind story-free character dramas, but when most of the participants are weakly-drawn and boring, that's where I hit the road. The DVD provides very nice picture and sound though it skimps on the extras. The Big Blue may be a worthwhile rental for folks who dig this kind of loosy-goosy pretty but depth-free material, but I can't recommend it to anyone else. I have to provide a particular warning to fans of Luc Besson's later work: if you liked has last few films, chances are good you won't think much of TBB. I didn't, no matter how much I hoped I'd take it to heart.

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