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Virtuosity Blu-ray Review

Virtuosity (1995) movie poster Virtuosity

Theatrical Release: August 4, 1995 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Brett Leonard / Writer: Eric Bernt

Cast: Denzel Washington (Parker Barnes), Kelly Lynch (Dr. Madison Carter), Russell Crowe (Sid 6.7), Stephen Spinella (Dr. Darrel Lindenmeyer), William Forsythe (Chief William Cochran), Louise Fletcher (Commissioner Elizabeth Deane), William Fichtner (William Wallace), Costas Mandylor (John Donovan), Kevin J. O'Connor (Clyde Reilly), Kaley Cuoco (Karin Carter), Christopher Murray (Matthew Grimes), Heidi Schanz (Sheila 3.2), Traci Lords (Media Zone Singer), Michael Buffer (Emcee/Himself)

Buy Virtuosity from Amazon.com: Blu-ray DVD

Two decades on, 1995 looks like an extraordinary year for cinema. It produced more great films than many recent years put together with excellence emerging from a wide array of genres. Toy Story, Heat,
12 Monkeys, Seven, and Casino all opened within the final fourteen weeks of the year and that doesn't even touch upon the eminently rewatchable entertainment released in the previous nine months, like Clueless, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Apollo 13, Outbreak, and Billy Madison.

Not every movie from 1995 is as worthy of celebration. Twelve years before teaming up on Ridley Scott's acclaimed hit Academy Award-nominated film American Gangster, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe first worked together on Virtuosity. The year that the "information superhighway" truly broke into mainstream America gave us a pair of movies trying to make sense of new-fangled technology that had suddenly grown prevalent. Virtuosity opened one Friday after The Net, but failed to gross even half of what that paranoia thriller earned, despite the drawing power of Washington, then in the midst of his first commercial hot streak.

"Virtuosity" stars Denzel Washington as Parker Barnes, an LAPD detective turned prison inmate set free to capture a computer-engineered menace.

Whereas The Net explored the havoc that the Internet could wreak on an individual, Virtuosity explores that other popular topic of the time: virtual reality. The film opens with Parker Barnes (Washington) and another man chasing after a criminal on the run (Crowe). Eventually, we come to understand this prologue of futuristic cops and working stiffs in gray as a simulation. Barnes, a former LAPD officer, is now a prison inmate serving seventeen years for the clearly accidental murder of his wife and daughter while attacking the madman who kidnapped them.

The criminal is not a real person, but an invention of the spindly engineer Dr. Lindenmeyer (Stephen Spinella). For reasons that are never fully clear, the super odd, sketchy Lindenmeyer merges his creation with an underwear-clad seductress used to get diagnostics. The result is Sid 6.7 (still Crowe), an indestructible fighting machine programmed with the personalities of 200 serial killers, including Matthew Grimes, the man responsible for the Barnes family murders and Parker's long jail sentence.

Somehow, Sid 6.7 is released upon our world as a living entity. Based on his strong performance in simulations, Barnes is given a conditional release and assigned to track down and kill this artificial being who is a genuine menace. Helping Barnes on this mission is criminal psychologist Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch).

Sid 6.7 soon makes his presence felt in Los Angeles. He crashes a hip night club and a UFC fight. He struts Travolta-style to the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." Craving a larger audience for his mayhem, the madman who bleeds aqua and can quickly regenerate digits and limbs proceeds to hijack a popular news station he renames Death TV. On the air, he proudly announces he has kidnapped Carter's 9-year-old daughter (an unrecognizable young Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting).

A young Russell Crowe plays Sid 6.7, an artificially intelligent being programmed with the personalities of 200 serial killers.

Playing kind of like a mindless Terminator knock-off, Virtuosity is low-intelligence cinema. You expect better from Washington, whose then-recent credits included Malcolm X,
Philadelphia, The Pelican Brief, and Glory. Even his present-day action vehicles -- e.g. Safe House, The Equalizer, Unstoppable -- tend to have a little more to them in terms of excitement if not brains. Virtuosity does strike me as a creative nadir for the long popular leading man. Not unlike The Net, its attempts to be timely render it instantly outrageous and outlandish. Furthermore, the movie relies heavily on primitive CGI visual effects that don't hold up very well at all. Coming two years after Jurassic Park and four after Terminator 2, Virtuosity is a joke and yet one that probably won't make you laugh either with or at it.

It's a bad movie, but not quite bad enough to enjoy for its camp value. Crowe's hammy performance, only his second after The Quick and the Dead to be seen by a nationwide US audience, is ludicrous enough to imagine Hollywood closing its doors to him. Instead, his star would rise with turns in the winning dramas L.A. Confidential and The Insider giving way to his star-making lead role in 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator. The Australian has maintained his international star power longer than most and it is no surprise to see him share prominent billing and cover art space with Washington, whose unadvertised dreadlocks and goatee disappear when Barnes is released from prison.

Separating the two men in both the opening and closing credits is Lynch, who flirted with stardom for a while (with credits like Road House and Cocktail), but never quite took to it. Turning 36 during production, Lynch is almost old enough to buy as renowned criminal psychologist, but she isn't close to conquering the challenging task of action movie leading lady duties, unconvincingly dispensing exposition and hysterics.

The failings of Virtuosity are substantial enough to completely understand why director Brett Leonard (The Lawnmower Man, Hideaway) and screenwriter Eric Bernt (Romeo Must Die, 2007's The Hitcher remake) never really "made it" in the traditional sense. They both continue to find occasional work (Leonard much more so than Bernt), with each having directed a maligned 2000s Highlander sequel. But neither seems likely to give direction or dialogue to the likes of Washington and Crowe again anytime soon.

Belonging to the large majority of Paramount's home video library that has been entrusted to Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Virtuosity premieres on Blu-ray today to little fanfare.

Virtuosity Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish, French
Not Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $14.98
Release Date: July 7, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Still available on Warner DVD ($5.97 SRP; May 21, 2013)
Previously released as Paramount DVD (May 25, 1999)

VIDEO and AUDIO

You can certainly identify Virtuosity as a mid-'90s movie on Blu-ray. The clean 2.40:1 transfer is satisfying, but it just doesn't have the same clarity, detail, and luster of a new film. Still, this very colorful film (Sid 6.7's fashion tastes resembles the Joker's) is suitably vibrant and fairly presentable.

Better than the picture is the potent 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack. It grabs and consistently holds your attention with its tasteful, immersive sound design. Gun shots, shattering glass, and moving trains all aim to distract you from the plot's inanities and succeed to a limited degree. Those accustomed to watching the film on DVD should be pleasantly be surprised by how much aural impact the film has in lossless HD.

Not yet real, Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe) has some words for his maker.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Virtuosity's Blu-ray sadly includes no bonus features,
not even the one item that accompanied it on Paramount's original 1999 DVD: the theatrical trailer that bizarrely downplayed Washington in favor of the then-unknown Crowe.

It's a little disappointing that preview could not be retained and confusing, since Warner has put great effort into some recent catalog Blu-ray debuts. Based on Kelly Lynch's 2012 A.V. Club interview, there are some fascinating making-of details to reveal, like the fact that Washington's role was written for Mel Gibson and that Washington rewrote the script to remove an interracial romance and much of her role. It's no surprise, though, that the filmmakers and actors wouldn't want to reopen the wounds of what sounds like a poorly-orchestrated shoot.

The static, silent menu adapts the cover art. The disc even failed to resume unfinished playback for me.

Of course, no inserts or slipcover liven up the eco-friendly keepcase. At least the disc's label shows a smidge of creativity.

Following a fairly successful simulation, Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) is surprised to not be returned to his isolation wing.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

If 1995 is some day recognized as a great year in cinema like 1939 and 1967, Virtuosity isn't one of the films that will be cited for that. This extremely dated and intelligence-insulting action vehicle fascinates as a snapshot of mid-'90s technology paranoia and primitive CGI, as well as for intersecting the divergent career paths of a number of notable actors. The movie remains watchable, especially if you're fond of the '90s or the cast, but it's not likely something you'd want to revisit without nostalgic memories of a distant viewing experience. Warner's Blu-ray offers pretty good picture, excellent sound, and not a single extra. At least it's reasonably priced.

Buy Virtuosity from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / DVD

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Related Reviews:
Denzel Washington: The Equalizer He Got Game Deja Vu Unstoppable The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Remember the Titans
Russell Crowe: The Insider Noah Winter's Tale | Kelly Lynch: Magic City: The Complete First Season Passion Play
Louise Fletcher: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | William Fichtner: The Lone Ranger Drive Angry
New to Blu-ray: Chappie Vanilla Sky State of Grace

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Reviewed July 7, 2015.



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