The Film: 4/5
Movie lovers hear the name of Wes Anderson and what immediately comes to mind are images that could only have been realized by him. He has made a name for himself as one of the most imaginative filmmakers of our time by making films in a style instantly recognizable as his own and heavily evident in every aspect of creation from the performances and dialogue to the cinematography and production design. One of the truest auteurs working in film, Anderson ensures that each film he directs is different in many ways than the last.
Over two decades ago Anderson made his directorial debut with Bottle Rocket, a witty and charming comic adventure expanded from a short feature he directed in the early 1990’s from a script co-written with Owen Wilson, who also played one of the main characters. We meet our hero Anthony, played by Wilson’s brother Luke, as he is in the process of being “rescued” from a psychiatric hospital by his best friend Dignan, played by Owen. In reality Anthony checked himself voluntarily due to exhaustion (even though he’s never really had a reason to be exhausted), and the moment he leaves the hospital Dignan is dragging him into an oddball scheme to rob a local bookstore.
With the help of their na´ve friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave), whose services are required because he’s the only member of the gang with a car, Anthony and Dignan manage – barely – to pull off the heist and then proceed to go “on the lam”. In this case, that means laying low at a motel located in the middle of nowhere while the heat dies down. During their stay, Anthony falls in love with Inez (Lumi Cavazos), a maid working at the motel who doesn’t speak much English but is able to understand most of what he says to her and vice versa. Meanwhile, Bob feels pressured to return home to help his bullying older brother Future Man (Andrew Wilson) out of a jam with the law that he feels responsible for getting him into the first place.
None of this figures into Dignan’s long-term (somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 years) plan for himself and Anthony to become professional thieves in the employ of Mr. Henry (James Caan), the leader of a small band of criminals who pull off modest heists. Dignan’s plan, and his friendship with Anthony and Bob, is tested harder than ever before when Mr. Henry tasks them with ripping off a cold storage facility for their first major job as part of his team.
Backed by Columbia Pictures to the tune of $7 million, Anderson was able to realize his ambitions with the help of a creative brain trust consisting of Hollywood legends (including producers Polly Platt, L.M. Kit Carson, and James L. Brooks) and several behind-the-camera collaborators whom he would employ on many of his future films – among them cinematographer Robert Yeoman, editor David Moritz, and composer Mark Mothersbaugh).
Released theatrically in early 1996, Bottle Rocket bombed at the box office but did well enough with critics, arthouse viewers, and home viewers catching up with Anderson’s feature debut on VHS to get the director’s foot in the door. Two years later his career would officially take off with the dark coming-of-age comedy Rushmore, but watching Bottle Rocket for the first time one can easily spot some of the visual and narrative flourishes Anderson would finetune and employ to great effect in the much better-known films that established him as a filmmaker to always watch.
The 1990’s were an important decade in the evolution and appreciation of independent cinema, but the filmmaking landscape became a lawless frontier after Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith exploded onto the scene with their no-holds-barred comedies, adventures, and crime dramas made with little money but with lots of imagination, ingenuity, and bravado. Suddenly every high school dropout, slacker college student, and video store clerk with nothing but scripts written in the middle of countless nights on a rush of cheap soda and microwave chimichangas were itching to transform them into cinematic reality.
A surprisingly majority of these scripts, most of which thankfully remain unmade, revolved around gangs of disenfranchised losers with varying I.Q.’s making feeble attempts to break into a life of crime. Voluminous profanity, violence, pop culture references, and achingly hip soundtrack selections were thrown into the mix to distract viewers from the lack of narrative originality and genuine entertainment value. Bottle Rocket might have appeared to potential audiences of 1996 as merely more of the same, but even in the early days of his filmmaking career Wes Anderson refused to make conventional cinema - although a lot of the man’s first full-length feature has the comforting fašade of the familiar.
Anderson, unlike many of his peers, always knew how to keep the quirkiness in his films from becoming overbearing and insufferable, and he brings a comedic vitality to the indie crime genre that prevents predictability from setting in until the finale. From the moment you first meet his main characters Anthony and Dignan, you can’t help but love these guys. They’re interesting people – complex, you might say – and casting real-life brothers Luke and Owen Wilson as the two lifelong friends and compatriots in crime was a wise choice since their lived-in chemistry helps the interplay between them feel honest and refreshing.
Owen in particular has rarely ever been as good as he was here playing the wannabe master thief Dignan, always intensely focused on the excruciatingly detailed plan he has created and wanting desperately for his friends to be involved without having to surrender the leadership position he carved out for himself or risk failing to impress his fatherly hero Mr. Henry (a confident and droll performance from James Caan, ably foreshadowing Anderson’s future working with Caan’s fellow screen legends Bill Murray, Gene Hackman, and Angelica Huston). Luke Wilson’s natural geniality and optimism works delightfully for his character, and the sweet onscreen romance he shares with Lumi Cavazos’ down-to-earth motel maid is very credible. Reprising his role from the short film, Robert Musgrave (who would go on to work with the Wilson brothers on films like Idiocracy and Drillbit Taylor, although he has yet to reteam with Anderson) brings an instinctive skepticism and an eagerness to please everyone in his orbit as the crucial third man in our unlikely band of thieves.
Yeoman’s cinematography captures the enchanting uses of effervescent color, eccentric props, and storybook framing that would become trademarks of Anderson’s later films and brings out pleasant details in Bottle Rocket’s ordinary everyday world brought to life by production designer David Wasco (Pulp Fiction, La La Land) and set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco (Jackie Brown, Collateral). Every scene is perfectly underscored by Mothersbaugh’s original music and a soundtrack featuring classic tunes from The Rolling Stones, Love, The Proclaimers, and Italian film greats Guido and Maurizio De Angelis (the latter represented by their 1974 song “Zorro is Back”, a cut from the soundtrack of Duccio Tessari’s Zorro starring Alain Delon).
There is no way that the transfer prepared by the Criterion Collection for their 2008 Blu-ray release of Bottle Rocket can ever be improved upon. Taking that into consideration, Australian distributor Umbrella Entertainment has imported that 1080p high-definition transfer – opening Criterion logo and all – for their Region B release. Correctly framed in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the bright and picaresque compositions astound with special attention paid to the vibrancy of the color scheme and maintaining a consistent sharpness level as to allow home viewers to spot details previous VHS and DVD editions were not capable of highlighting. The amount of grain is kept to the bare minimum in order for the transfer to retain a filmic quality while the image stability is strong. Skin tones and fine detail are both accurate and pleasing to the eye. Umbrella has also seen fit to hang on to the Criterion disc’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, an excellent reproduction of Bottle Rocket’s eclectic sound mix that gives proper volume to Anderson’s dialogue and permits his soundtrack selections and the whimsical original score to add to the overall experience rather than overwhelm the rest of the layered mix. English subtitles have also been provided.
Sadly, Umbrella Entertainment did not port over any of the great extras from the Criterion Blu-ray. In fact, they didn’t include any extras whatsoever.
Bottle Rocket may not be Wes Anderson’s best film, but it was one hell of a directorial debut and a solid beginning to one of the most remarkable filmographies in modern cinema. More importantly, it’s funny and sweet and never drags its feet. Unfortunately for cinephiles, due to the lack of supplements on Umbrella Entertainment’s new Region B Blu-ray, I would instead recommend you import Criterion’s far superior release. If you live in Australia and don’t care for bonus features, then this Blu will suit your needs quite well.