Broken Vessels

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


A-Pix, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English Dolby Surround, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 12 chapters, Theatrical & Bonus Trailers, Cast/Crew Bios, rated R, 91 min., $24.98, street date 4/25/2000.

Studio Line

Directed by Scott Ziehl. Starring Todd Field, Jason Landon, Roxana Zal, Susan Traylor, James Hong, Brent Fraser.

Broken Vessels slams into gear in its very first scene and never loses its manic energy. When wide-eyed Tom, (Jason London) gets a job as a paramedic sidekick to Jimmy, (Todd Field) their pressure-cooker lifestyle of anger escalates into a terrifying joy ride. The back of the ambulance becomes a daily crime scene where violence, casual sex, and abuse gradually destroys them both.

A hit at the Toronto Film Festival and Audience Award Winner at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Broken Vessels will make you think twice about calling 911.

Picture/Sound/Extras (B+/C+/D)

As part of the wonderful world of the DVD reviewer, I often receive free discs from various distributors. This can sometimes be quite cool - nothing like getting DVDs that I want weeks before street date! - but it also often requires me to screen movies of which I have never heard.

Add Broken Vessels to that pile; when I opened my box and saw the package, that was the first time I knew it existed. Based on what I witnessed from the cover art, I wasn't terribly excited to make its acquaintance. A pair of intense eyes stared at me from underneath the title and the catchline "911... THE LINE IS DEAD." Below the eyes was a glass cross with what looked like a bloody handprint inside and with blood dripping from some cracks.

Based on what I saw, I quickly deduced that this was some sort of cheesy slasher flick. However, I guess you really can't judge a DVD by its cover, as it turns out my initial impression was erroneous.

Actually, BV could be classified as a horror film, but not in the traditional sense. Its plot concerns itself with the slow, drug-induced abusive collapse that occurs to two ambulance drivers, veteran Jimmy (Todd Field) and newcomer Tom (Jason London). Tom starts out all fresh-scrubbed and well-meaning, but he inevitably gets sucked into Jimmy's world of pain and goes along for that ride as well.

What I found most striking about the film was a sense of deja vu. Didn't we already see a remarkably similar movie last fall, when Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead hit screens? The two aren't perfect copies, and they each have their own takes on the subject, but I couldn't help but feel surprised to witness such similar pictures. I haven't received my review copy of BOTD yet so I can't say for sure, but I could swear it even featured a little Hawaiian girl bobbing-doll on that ambulance's dash as well!

One might note these similarities and assume that this was another case of a young filmmaker stealing from a veteran, but one would be wrong, as BV came out about a year prior to BOTD's fall 1999 release. Scorsese stealing from an unknown? Say it ain't so, Marty!

Maybe it ain't - maybe it's all a coincidence. I look forward to again watching BOTD so I can better note the similarities. In any case, the two seem too close for comfort, in my opinion.

Excluding that issue from the debate, how does BV fare as a movie? I found it to offer a mildly compelling and visceral experience but not anything special or terribly interesting. To be frank, the film aspires to be a gripping, gritty drama and succeeds through some graphic material (well, not all that graphic, but some blood and vomit mainly) but largely falls short of its goal.

BV works best when it focusses on the guys' lives as ambulance drivers and the pressures they face. Those aspects are largely confined to the first half of the movie; the second segment mainly sticks with their decline into a narcotic-induced stupor. Although the movie should have gotten more dramatic and stimulating at that point - after all, it was supposed to build to a climax - I lost interest as it proceeded to it fairly inevitable finale.

Overall, Broken Vessels is a competently-made kinetic drama that offers a few solid jolts as it documents the difficulties involved with being an ambulance driver. However, I found it less than compelling as a whole. It made for a reasonably watchable experience but I almost totally forgot it as soon as the DVD stopped spinning.

Broken Vessels appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While generally a satisfying picture, BV includes a few flaws that bump it down to "B+" level.

Sharpness looks consistently quite good, with clear and well-defined images that only rarely betray any softness. This results in some occasional moiré effects and jagged edges, though these aren't terribly distracting. The print used for the transfer displayed some white speckles and sometimes seemed a bit gritty, but it generally looked clean.

Colors were good but unspectacular; they seemed reasonably well-saturated and accurate but lacked any boldness that might make them really stand out. Black levels were also strong and seemed appropriately deep, and shadow detail appeared thick but not overly opaque. All in all, BV provides a very satisfying viewing experience.

The same cannot be said for the film's very blah Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack. The range of the this movie's soundfield seems very limited. It spreads acceptably across the front three channels but generally sticks pretty closely to the center. Some good forays into the front side speakers occur, but these usually happen only through the film's electronic score; effects also appear from the sides but not with great frequency. The surrounds receive similar treatment, with effects and music popping out of them only occasionally.

One tremendously odd audio error occurs fairly early in the movie. One scene shows our "heroes" as they bring a biker dude and his old lady into the hospital; as the woman and then Tom enter the doors, the sound suddenly slams straight from the front right speaker. It doesn't appear that all of the soundtrack comes from that one channel, but the speech and effects inappropriately emanate just from it; one could make a case for having the woman's dialogue appear from that side, since she starts on the right side of the frame, but Tom is dead-center when he speaks. Weird!

That was the only genuinely significant error of that sort I found. More consistent, however, was the often relatively weak quality of the audio. Dialogue fared the worst, as it frequently seemed thin and distorted. Most of it appears intelligible, but I honestly had a hard time deciphering serious amounts of it, and since this DVD lacks subtitles, that made the going rough at times. Effects were reasonably clear and realistic but nothing special. The music sounded quite good, however, with nice stereo separation and some decent bass. The music and the effects are what salvaged the soundtrack, and only barely; I came pretty close to dropping my rating lower than a "C+", but thought the mix did enough well to merit that fairly mediocre grade.

Even less exciting is the DVD's complement of supplemental features. Essentially all we get are some biographies and a slew of trailers. The bios cover six cast members and the director and are actually relatively good. They range in quality - the entries for actor/producer Todd Fields, director Scott Ziehl, and actors Jason London and Roxana Zal are best - but generally seem above average even for the less-detailed offerings. As for the trailers, we find clips for BV itself and other movies that appear on DVD from A-Pix: ; Relax - It's Just Sex; Phantom of the Opera; Six Ways to Sunday; Oxygen; and Razor Blade Smile.

Broken Vessels is a decent movie that at least beat Martin Scorsese to the punch; this film about strung-out ambulance drivers was completed at least a year prior to Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. That's about the only reason anyone will remember BV, however; I found it to be watchable and mildly interesting but completely unmemorable. The DVD provides good picture but flawed sound and few extras. You might consider renting this one, but you'd probably be better off skipping it altogether.

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Current as of 5/15/2000 to purchase are the DVD at special discount and the original score soundtrack composed by Bill Laswell. the DVD at special discount.
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