When in August of 2011 Warner Bros. decided to release four Sylvester Stallone pictures on Blu-ray, I had to wonder anew at how studios make their decisions about these things. I also had to wonder which of these four mediocre films to tackle first: "Assassins," "Cobra," "Demolition Man," or "The Specialist."
Here's the thing: Stallone started his career effectively with the "Rocky" and "Rambo" movies. Then he fell into decline with a string of inferior action flicks. After which he got into even more trouble trying to do comedy. And later he redeemed himself by going back to his roots, making new, above-average "Rocky" and "Rambo" films and a silly but fun-filled "Expendables" with a whole flock of familiar action stars.
Nevertheless, there remained for me the question of what to do about the four less-than-appealing films I had on hand. I chose to start with "The Specialist" from 1994 largely because of its supporting cast: Sharon Stone, James Woods, Rod Steiger, and Eric Roberts. I mean, who could resist watching again that famous naked shower scene where Stallone attempted to prove he had a better body than Sharon Stone? Here, while I have to admit Stallone has kept his bod in excellent shape, it's the male chauvinist in me that declares Ms. Stone winning the contest.
Anyway, in this one Stallone plays a demolitions expert named Ray Quick (how do they make this stuff up?). At first he's working for the CIA in covert ops; afterwards, he's on his own, a bomb for hire so to speak. The opening flashback scene sets the tone for the rest of the picture: We know Stallone's character, Quick, is going to be entirely good, a tough guy with a conscience and a heart of gold; we know Quick's CIA partner, Ned Trent, played by co-star James Woods, is going to be entirely bad, a remorselessly evil being without conscience or heart. And we know the film is going to be relentlessly preposterous. (Well, that and the fact that the director was Luis Llosa, whose other important films were "Sniper," "Fire on the Amazon," and "Anaconda." That should tell you something about this one, too.)
Flash forward to the present, where a woman named May Munro (again with the names), played by Sharon Stone, hires Stallone to do away with three bad guys who murdered her parents many years before. She's been waiting for her revenge, and, apparently, for just the right guy like Quick to help her. She's a very patient woman.
The main baddie she's after is Tomas Leon (Eric Roberts), the slimeball son of a big-time Mob boss (Rod Steiger). What she doesn't tell Quick is that his old nemesis, Ned Trent, is now working with the Leons or that Tomas Leon's father is a big-shot mobster.
For an action movie, "The Specialist" moves along at a relative crawl, which is to say that things aren't blowing up every two minutes. It's more like every five minutes. It's also one of those movies where the hero runs into unrelated trouble wherever he goes and has to handle it with his fists, like his punching out three thugs on a bus. Segal has this problem a lot in his movies, too. People acting all violent around these action-hero types, and the action heroes have to take 'em out to prove what good guys they are and how compassionate and all they are.
The Woods and Roberts characters are about as evil as evil can be in order to make the revenge plot work better. You can't have a good revenge plot unless the initial crime was really, really heinous and the perpetrators are really, really vile and repellent. They are.
Stallone's character, on the other hand, must be really, really good, and he is. The man appears to have been working out endlessly for his movie roles because he does look good, so much so that the aforementioned shower scene emphasizes his body over Sharon Stone's, no mean feat. To underline the point, we get an extended scene of Quick exercising with his shirt off, just to let us watch Stallone's rippling muscles. Even Quick's hair always has just the right muss in it, as though he combs it that way, to fall precisely over his forehead and look stylishly windblown. It's like the one curl that appears over Superman's forehead when he changes from Clark Kent.
Then there's the Oscar-winning actor Rod Steiger doing a gangster. Maybe he remembers what playing a hoodlum did for Brando's career, I dunno. Steiger affects an accent that is vaguely, sort of, Cuban, so we can infer Cuban as his probable nationality. Also, most of the movie takes place in Miami, so again I'm guessing Cuban. Maybe. Or Mexican. Or Colombian. Or Canadian. Who knows; the guy's accent is all over the place.
The police are all idiots and pawns of the Mob. Everyone except Stallone's character sort of slithers around; they're all snakes. Quick can't just shoot people; he has to blow them up. As the story moves on, the complications become ever more ludicrous.
The one actor worth watching is Woods because he's so over the top. In fact, he so exaggerates his utter meanness in "The Specialist," it's pretty funny and livens up the picture. Thank goodness for small favors.
Warner engineers use a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to reproduce the film on Blu-ray in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1. What we get in the transfer is generally soft and fuzzy. There is nothing especially bad about the picture quality; it's just quite ordinary. Flesh tones are often too reddish or too orangish. Colors show up looking dusky. Detail and object delineation are not too sharp or revealing. Actually, the whole thing looks like a very good upscaled DVD.
Using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 to replicate the soundtrack, the Blu-ray disc displays a wide front-channel stereo spread in fairly clean, smooth, well-defined sonics. However, there isn't much going on in the rear channels, even during explosions, and the bass response and dynamic impact are only, again, ordinary. In sum, everything about this film and its disc reproduction is mediocre.
What you get in the way of extras on the disc are a lot of language and subtitle selections: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired. Beyond that, there are thirty-three scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer. The disc comes housed in a flimsy BD Eco-case.
As I said in the beginning, choosing which of four mediocre Stallone filmsto watch is a futile exercise. Mediocre is mediocre no matter what the title. "The Specialist" is all formula action, formula adventure, formula characters, formula romance, and formula revenge plot. Nothing in it should surprise you, despite the twists the story attempts to take. Formula is formula.