Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Warner, pan&scan, languages: English Dolby Surround [CC], subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 32 chapters, rated R, 120 min., $14.98, street date 10/20/98.

Studio Line

Directed Roman Polanski. Starring Harrison Ford, Betty Buckley, John Mahoney, Emmanuelle Seigner.

Harrison Ford and filmmaker Roman Polanski count thrillers among their best work. Frantic teams, USA Today's Mike Clark wrote, "an imaginative cast superstar and the greatest living suspense director in fine form."

Ford plays an American doctor whose wife (Betty Buckley) suddenly vanishes in Paris. To find her, he navigates a puzzling web of language, locale, laissez-faire cops, triplicate-form bureaucrats and a defiant, mysterious waif (Emmanuelle Seigner) who knows more than she tells. "It is the spirit of Hitchcock that reigns here" (Michael Wilmington, Los Angeles Times). And the consumate skill of Polanski and Ford that's on dazzling display.

Picture/Sound/Extra (C-/C+/F)

Sometimes it's good to give movies a second chance. Take Frantic, for instance. Despite the considerable star power offered by the presence of Harrison Ford, this sucker essentially tanked at the box office in 1988 and I only gave it a screening on videotape. My recollection of this experience is minimal; clearly the movie didn't make much of an impression, and what vague memories I possessed told me that I hadn't enjoyed it.

As such, when I espied it in the William C. Jacobson Memorial Film Library (otherwise known as my Dad's DVD collection) I thought I should give it a shot, but I didn't expect much. Happily, I received a very pleasant surprise. Though not without its flaws, Frantic actually works well as a tense and provocative thriller.

The movie clearly follows a very Hitchcockian model as it tells the story of a man (Ford) whose wife (Buckley) has mysteriously disappeared while they attend a conference in Paris. Director Roman Polanski starts out the film with shots of the very ordinary couple as they go about their very ordinary business, and only slowly starts to turn matters askew. He skillfully shows the difficulties Ford encounters as a stranger in a strange land, and he even has a little fun with some stereotypes such as the legendary French rudeness (a lot of people hang up on others in this movie). The movie proceeds at a natural but provocative pace and it offers only a few relatively slow or dull scenes; for the most part, Polanski does a good job of keeping the viewer intrigued and involved in the plot.

Really, the film's biggest fault - SPOILER COMING UP! - results from the reason why Ford's wife was kidnapped. It seems that she took the wrong suitcase from the airport; she got one that contained a smuggled atomic bomb detonator, whereas the bad guys got her blouses and pantyshields. Ford and Buckley plan to return this to the airline and hopefully get her bag, but the villains take her away before that can happen.

All this makes me wonder: why didn't they just show up at the hotel, say there was a mix-up, trade bags with her and be done with it? Probably because that would make for a dull movie. I had to let my disbelief evaporate to enjoy this movie, because I thought this aspect didn't make much sense. I mean, the bad guys got a suitcase that didn't contain what they wanted; they must have figured that the other suitcase would have it, but they come to the hotel and take her but they don't bother with the suitcase? Why?

As the film proceeds, you learn that the suitcase was left for them in a locker and that they were supposed to get just one item (a ceramic Statue of Liberty) from that locker. Okay, maybe this confused them; they got a whole bunch of stuff instead of just one thing. But since they later ransack Ford's hotel room to try to find the item, and since they must have figured that there was a suitcase mix-up, why didn't they just take the damned thing when they came to get Buckley? Man, the more I think about it, the less sense it makes.

So take the simple solution: don't worry about it and just enjoy the ride. The film features Ford in his Fugitive mode as he battles to find his kidnapped wife. The comparison to his work in The Fugitive goes beyond the fact that his character's a decent guy who has been wrapped up in events beyond his making; in both films, he plays a doctor named Richard. Spooky!

Anyway, I'm very much in the tank for Ford; he could fart all his dialogue and I'd still think he did a great job. You can almost always count on him for some solid acting, and Frantic is no exception. This is especially crucial since the success of the film really rides on Ford; he appears in virtually every scene.

Virtually the rest of the cast fill a supporting role; Ford's the only lead actor in Frantic. Buckley's adequate as his wife, though she's not in very much of the film, and she isn't asked to do much when she is. Emmanuelle Seigner plays a much larger role as a young French babe who smuggled the Statue. Although she certainly is French and she's certainly pretty hot, she certainly can't act too well, or if she can, she certainly doesn't demonstrate that skill here. She basically cops a lot of patented French attitude and pouty sexiness, which pretty much is fine; since Ford's rowing this boat, she can just sit back and get a tan.

One cast-related disappointment: John Mahoney gets pretty high billing on the DVD's case, and that interested me. Best known as Frasier's Dad, he's a terrific actor and I looked forward to seeing his work in this film. Well, despite his relative prominence in the credits, he barely shows up in the film; his role only slightly exceeds cameo range. Like I said, Ford dominates this film; of the rest of the cast, only Seigner receives any significant camera time.

Warner Bros. released Frantic as part of their bargain, no frills line of DVDs. They should call this the "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" program, because the DVDs I've seen from this line have been pretty poor. Unfortunately, Frantic doesn't deviate from that pattern.

First of all, the picture definitely lacks the quality we've come to expect from DVD. While it maintains a pretty good level of sharpness throughout the movie, it boasts a filmy kind of haze during much of it. This may be grain, but it doesn't look the way grain usually appears in a film; really, it appears more like the kind of mucky film you'd get if you left soapscum on the camera lens. It's not a completely pervasive phenomenon, but it happens pretty frequently.

Overall, the image seems pretty flat and drab. Occasional scenes look pretty lifelike, but these are the exceptions. It's not a terrible picture, but it doesn't offer much of a step up from VHS.

Even if the image was crystal clear, it would still possess problems because Frantic offers a poorly cropped pan and scan transfer. Virtually all of these bargain DVDs appear in full screen renditions. This didn't seem to be too much of an issue because when most of these films ran theatrically, they were matted projections that simply blocked off the top and bottom of the original negative; while I prefer letterboxed films, some people liked these full screen versions better because they actually offered MORE material than had appeared on the movie screen.

Unfortunately, that isn't the case with Frantic. This DVD shows a full screen image that consistently either cramps the actors - they often seem "crammed" into the frame, as if there wasn't enough room for all of them - or it simply cuts them out of the image altogether. I'm no letterboxing zealot; if I hadn't noticed any issues, I would have said so. But the negative aspects of pan and scan transfers abound here, much to the detriment of the film.

Somewhat more successful is the film's Dolby Pro Logic mix. Actually, it's not a very good example of a surround track. The rear channels get used infrequently; music dominates their activity, although a few surround effects (gunfire, planes) appear. Happily, the sound quality of the program is pretty good. At times, the music and sound effects seem tinny or canned, but they generally sound natural and accurate. Dialogue virtually always sound clear and real. It's a modest soundtrack, but it largely accomplishes its goals.

As noted previously, the line of DVDs from which Frantic emanates offers no frills in return for its very low price. And they meant it, too; no trailers, no subtitles, no foreign languages, no nothing - just the movie and chapter search. You get what you pay for.

Although the DVD release of Frantic clearly possesses a significant number of faults, I ultimately have to recommend it. It's a poor transfer that offers no extras, but it's so damned cheap! The fact of the matter remains that you can get this DVD for virtually the same cost as the VHS version. It's a fine film, and if you want to own it, crappy DVD and crappy VHS are your only choices. If just because the format tends to be more durable, crappy DVD seems to be the more sensible choice. I just wish I could paint a rosier picture of the release, because this film is good enough to warrant a more elaborate version.

Related Sites

Current as of 3/15/99

  • Roger Ebert--"Frantic is a reminder of how absorbing a good thriller can be."
  • Harrison Ford: A Web Guide to the Films--A great site with articles, pictures, audio, links and more.
  • the DVD at 30% off.
  • the DVD at 30% off.

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