"Ever since I could remember, I always wanted to be a lawyer."
When we first meet Dick (Timothy Olyphant), he is not a lawyer. In fact, he is sitting in a getaway vehicle in front of a bank robbery, which is in the middle of going completely wrong. Revolver in his hand and panic in his eyes, he looks in the rearview mirror for a bit of last-minute reassurance and doesn't find any. Dick is a shaggy, drug-addled burnout, but his mind is sharp enough to handle a few key things, and he's plotted out, as they always call it, "the perfect heist". The year is 1983, and Dick's version of the "perfect heist" is knocking over one of the new-fangled "Automated Teller Machines" by posing as repairmen. Sadly, there are a few glitches.
There are hints of Pineapple Express in High Life, as far as combining stoned slackers with violent gunplay, and while Express is the better movie, High Life is surprisingly entertaining. Primarily, I'll chalk it up to lead actor Olyphant. I've seen him in several movies now, usually as the villain, and on top of his characters being intensely dislikable, I haven't necessarily enjoyed his performances in all of those movies either (I'm looking at you, Live Free or Die Hard). Here, he finally plays a character we're meant to sympathize with, and he finally reveals all that charisma I've been told he's got. Even though Dick is a drug addict and stealing is not the way to go, you want the heist to go smoothly, because his plan isn't riddled with holes, it's mildly clever, and he almost seems like he deserves to get away with it. Olyphant is also very funny, and doesn't stumble over jokes in voice-over like I've heard plenty of actors do.
Dick's plan requires four people, and he's found two reasonably dependable guys to back him up. The most dependable of all (even more dependable than Dick, really) is Billy (Rossif Sutherland), a smooth-talking, good-looking guy who Dick wants to use as a distraction. Sutherland is especially amusing, with his genial attitude and willingness to roll with whatever the other guys throw his way. The other guys are nervous because Billy has never been to jail, but I guess none of them have considered how that makes Billy a better criminal than them. Trailing behind Dick and Billy, Donnie (Joe Anderson) seems to have his head on fairly straight, except when it comes to his drug addiction and lack of backbone, but he's a nice guy deep down -- he even returns the wallets he snatches, because "it's awful when you lose your ID and shit". In a way, he's like a child, desperate for Dick's unsteady guidance.
Of course, every heist movie needs a loose cannon, and High Life's is Bug (Stephen Eric McIntyre), an insecure, loose-cannon thug whose glory days are past him and it's just beginning to dawn on him. In a sense, the Bug part of the screenplay, by Lee MacDougall, is the least interesting aspect of the movie, because it's the one part of the movie that doesn't even try to shake up the tried and true conventions of the bank robbery movie, but McIntyre is a believable threat, and he works well with the other cast members.
The movie was directed by Gary Yates, who seems to be wandering along around the fringes of Hollywood. I don't know that High Life is directorially inspired, but there are some fun little moments he pulls off very well (such as the surprising bank commercial Dick sees on TV), he's wrangled together a highly-entertaining cast, and the whole package never feels workmanlike or mechanical (which you might expect, if Yates took the movie as a gun-for-hire). The guy also has a love for the oldies, which I appreciate: "Mama Told Me Not to Come", "Have You Ever Seen the Rain", and "You Could Have Been a Lady" are all used to good effect. The film doesn't have much of an ending (or at least not a particularly impactful one, and the movie runs a short 79 minutes, including 5 minutes of credits), but all in all, High Life is the noticeably lesser, but agreeable younger brother of movies like The Big Lebowski and Pineapple Express: some drugs, some guns, some laughs. You know, whatever, man.
High Life's cover art is slathered in cold grays, stark contrast and steely blues, with a giant splash of blood red on the back for good measure, all in the name of playing up the movie's "heist" angle rather than the slacker drug movie it really is. The box copy notes that it's a comedy, and the critical quotes blanketing the backside do too, but I think a bigger emphasis on the retro '80s vibe of the film (in the style of the movie's opening credits) would have been a better way to go.
The Video and Audio
The packaging claims that High Life is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, although the image seems slightly pillarboxed (maybe 1.66:1). In any case, the quality of the image is hard to gauge based on the cinematography by Michael Marshall, which chooses a drastically different look for each type of scene. Specifically, any scene that takes place outside in the daytime features burning, extremely blown-out whites, to the point where it seems like the transfer must be inappropriately cranked up. Indoor scenes, on the other hand, generally look like they've been tinged brown, although color is generally pretty good, and fine detail seems stronger. The whole thing is a little bit fuzzy, too, and I can't quite tell if there's a bit of edge enhancement to boot (probably, but it's not consistent). All in all, it looks okay -- a reasonable amount of fine detail, and the colors look good for most of the runtime -- but it could've been better.
Dolby Digital 5.1 is a notch above many of the low-budget, probably direct-to-video releases I've seen recently, containing a handful of directional effects and dealing with music very well, but it doesn't have that final spit-and-polish that would make it really shine. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Only a trailer is included, which also plays up the drama angle (to extremely poor effect). Too bad, I'd have liked a commentary by Yates and Olyphant.
I was legitimately surprised by High Life, which is much more entertaining than it has any right to be, and finally convinced me that Timothy Olyphant is someone I can like. I was going to give the film a "rent it", because the disc doesn't have any bonus features, and the picture quality isn't outstanding, but since it's nice to see a little movie that does what it wants to and does it well, I'll bump High Life up to a recommendation.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.