Subway (CEL) (1985) (NTSC)

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Released 1-Jun-1999

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1985
Running Time 104:00
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Luc Besson
Studio
Distributor
CEL Music Starring Christopher Lambert
Isabelle Adjani
Richard Bohringer
Michael Galabru
Jean Hughes Anglade
Jean Reno
Case Snapper
RPI $19.95 Music Eric Serra


Video (NTSC) Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Pan & Scan English Dolby Digital 2.0
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 480i (NTSC)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    I should point out before I begin that I do bring some bias to this review.  Firstly, I love this movie and have seen it many times, as Luc Besson is a favourite director of mine, as is Christopher Lambert a favourite actor. Secondly, dubbed movies, with no choice of being able to select the original audio language track are a pet hate of mine. You may want to bear this in mind when reading on...

    Let me summarise my review for you very bluntly in just four words: Great movie, pathetic transfer. There has been no effort at all put into this disc. Before you shell out any hard-earned dollars to buy it, you should be warned that purchasing this disc is the equivalent of buying a very poor quality bootleg audio CD - you will be disappointed. My best advice to you if you want this movie on DVD now is to check out the Region 1 version instead, or else wait for an eventual proper aspect ratio release in Region 4.

    I first saw Subway many years ago and appreciated it for its style, music score and very quirky (typically French) humour.  Having said that, Subway won't be for everyone and many people will wonder why it has become a cult arthouse movie.  How do I describe what this movie is about? Well, think of it not so much as a normal movie, but more like a ninety-minute rock video and then you should get the idea. Forget about the usual movie elements like a detailed story and character development, as they aren't here to any degree. Want the plot? OK, Christopher Lambert is a criminal who blows up safes.  After stealing from the safe of Isabelle Adjani's husband, he flees to the Subway (underground Paris Metro), where he meets a series of very weird and seedy characters who live there. He manages to escape numerous pursuers, whilst finding time to seduce Isabelle Adjani and also form a rock band. That's about it really.

    So with a plot like that, if you haven't seen this movie why would you bother? Well, this movie is vintage Luc Besson. It is very stylistic visually and is a good platform to showcase Christopher's smouldering looks for the girls and Isabelle's beauty for the guys. The whole movie is underscored by a pulsating and at times very atmospheric contemporary music soundtrack by Eric Serra. This soundtrack is in my opinion quite superb and a principal ingredient of the film's warmth. The soundtrack should be appreciated by anyone who is into rock music.

    The supporting cast are all great. Watch out for a very young Jean Reno, playing a frustrated drummer who really cuts loose in his first concert performance at the end of the film (a classic)! Jean-Hughes Anglade plays "The Roller", a roller-skating bag-snatcher who gives the Paris Metro police plenty of grief. Other memorable and funny characters include "Big Bill" and "Mr Bass", who all add to the very quirky and typically 1980s French sense of humour in this movie.

    You may recall that many of the above names (Eric Serra, Jean Reno, Jean-Hughes Anglade) appear in subsequent Luc Besson films, such as Nikita and The Big Blue. This is for good reason. Luc Besson must have discovered very early on in his career, probably even with the making of Subway in 1985, that this particular mix of cast and crew seems to gel.  Without any one of the aforementioned specific individual contributions - and this is particularly true of Eric Serra's soundtrack - Subway could have very easily changed from being the cult classic that launched Luc Besson's career to being a very silly experimental film.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Call me a cynic, but I do start to worry when reading the cover of what appears at very first glance to be a poor quality DVD release and I come across such reassuring superlative claims as "GUARANTEED SUPERIOR QUALITY" and "This DVD is a high quality MPEG 2 compression. There may be slight visual variances due to the state of the original master."  Oh dear, warning signs...

    This transfer is very cheap and nasty - there is no other way to describe it. The mastering is not from an original film print, but rather from analogue video, most probably the 1" analogue video sub-master used for the original Pan and Scan American TV release in the early 90s (this being the same 4:3 Pan and Scan version used for the Subway video cassette release here several years ago). Proof beyond doubt that the master is indeed poor quality analogue video can be found in Chapter 2, where there is a momentary complete video dropout all the way to snow! Note that specific time references cannot be given in this review as the disc itself does not include time encoding. Chapter selections only can  be cited.

    This disc is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 Pan & Scan, compared to the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 - a crying shame. The disc is a multi-zoned release but has been manufactured in the US and is in NTSC format.

    Sharpness, clarity and shadow detail are all appalling. Grain and pixelization is extremely prominent throughout the entire feature. As an example, check out the extremely poor resolution of some of the darker scenes when Fred first escapes to the underground in Chapter 2, and then ask me how I could possibly score this transfer any more than I have for any of the categories of sharpness, shadow detail and grain/pixelization. The end credits were so bad that I couldn't even read them (!), which was quite annoying given that many of the basic credits were not provided on the DVD cover.

    The colour was not great. The director has gone for a fairly dark and washed-out look overall here, to match the bleakness and dark of the subterranean subway. To this extent, the very bad quality of this transfer doesn't really detract too much in terms of colour. Having said that however, it is clear that the director also intended for stark colour contrasts in the initial outdoor sequence and the subway station thoroughfare scenes, which were harshly fluorescent-lit and meant to stand out via the odd use of colour in (for example) clothing, flowers and the train signal lights. These things were all washed out in this transfer, with the effect that the whole transfer was a pretty bleak and washed out affair from go to whoa.

     Chroma noise and colour bleed were also the order of the day; just pick a scene, any scene. If you want some specific examples, check out the way the fluorescent lights completely bleed into The Roller's face when sitting on the seat with Fred in Chapter 2, but really it is pointless giving specific references as they are too numerous to mention. Just about every single wall and colour surface was plagued by severe noise and video artefacts.

    Added to the poor quality source material, the transfer appears to have been markedly overcompressed, with blocky MPEG artefacts throughout the entire movie. The disc is also a regular who's who of video artefacts. Where do we start?  First and most annoying, there is a prominent analogue tape tracking mark across the bottom of the frame throughout the opening car chase scene (Chapter 1). Being sourced from video, you won't be surprised to hear that aliasing was a major problem throughout the movie. The most prominent examples are to found on the Venetian blinds in Fred's hideout (Chapter 2) or even worse, check out the air conditioning grille in the Inspector's office in Chapter 7 - this one is prominently aliasing even before the camera moves! 

    For the record, there were no subtitle options available and this is a single layer transfer (so there is no layer change to note).

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

      Thankfully, I can at least report that the audio transfer wasn't as bad.   

    Unfortunately, there is only one language track available, being dubbed English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. Personally I find it extremely detracting when there is no marriage between audio and visual and the option of a French audio track with English subtitles is sorely missed on this disc. There was (surprisingly) quite a bit of surround information present at times, so make sure you listen with the Dolby Pro-Logic encoder turned on. Of course, what this movie would have benefited well from is a full discrete 5.1 surround mix, but after seeing where the visual was mastered from I certainly didn't expect to hear 5.1 audio on this disc.

    The dialogue quality was quite acceptable. It was distinct enough from the score for the most part and I didn't have any noticeable trouble in picking up any of the dialogue. 

    As stated previously, the fantastic musical score by Eric Serra is an essential element of this movie and the quality of the stereo mix on this DVD was thankfully pretty good on the whole. It was, in fact, a surprisingly decent mix when considering the quality of the visual you are watching along with it. Generally, it was clean enough (a bit of hiss notwithstanding), although the bass guitar/drum tracks were not nearly as distinct and punchy as they are on the soundtrack audio CD and the mid-range of the instruments did tend to bleed if you really wanted to be picky about it. On the whole, it was an acceptable but not fantastic audio transfer. 

    Subwoofer use was modest, but it was called upon when needed to accentuate the bottom end of some effects, like the rumble of trains, as well as the bass of some of the music tracks.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

     Ah no, there weren't any.

Menu

    Only one menu, which was a black and white still in 1.33:1 with no underscoring music. The only options available from the menu screen were a "Coming Attractions" option, which I selected with some interest, only to find it was a preview of some unknown old cartoon (very bizarre indeed!), and a basic Chapter Selection screen.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The multi-zone version of this disc which is available in Region 4 misses out on;     The Region 1 version of this disc misses out on;     Subway was re-released in Region 1 late in 2001, this time in a proper enhanced aspect ratio transfer along with a choice of soundtrack languages. If you are keen to obtain this movie, then my advice to you is to either order the R1 version now, or else wait for an eventual PAL release of this transfer here some time in the future.

Summary

    Subway is a great movie; stylistic and a lot of fun. However, you wouldn't know it with this DVD release. In fact, it's surprising you can even see it at all with this DVD release effort!

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Sean Abberton (read my bio)
Tuesday, January 29, 2002
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba 2109, using Component output
DisplayToshiba 117cm widescreen RPTV. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderYamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationElektra Home Theatre surround power amp
SpeakersOrpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears

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