Neil Jordan's third feature, which followed Angel and the criminally underrated In The Company Of Wolves, was 1986's Mona Lisa, a crime film he co-wrote with David Leland and which starred the always excellent Bob Hoskins in the lead. The film follows a low ranking would be mobster named George (Hoskins) who has finished serving time in the big house and has been released back into the general population after a seven year stint. He doesn't have much to come back to - while he was locked up his wife became his ex-wife and decided, fairly understandably, that he shouldn't have any contact with his daughter what with his criminal affiliations and all. With nothing else to really work for or towards, he decides to revisit his old boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine), despite the fact that he completely ditched him once he got arrested and didn't bother with him while he was in jail. George really only seems to have on friend in this world, and that's a guy named Thomas (Robbie Coltrane), whose got problems of his own.
George winds up at least getting a job, albeit a menial one - he's tasked with playing driver to a high class hooker named Simone (Cathy Tyson at her most infatuating) and to basically driver her around from one rich client to another and wait for her to do her business. His position has one catch though in that he also has to act as her wig. If she feels someone in a place of authority is starting to suspect that she's turning tricks, something which can often lead to jail time, she's to meet up with him under some more innocent situation. Basically, if she gets into trouble, he meets her for a cocktail and covers for her. Simone, however, doesn't seem to care for George much at all, and you can't really blame her. He dresses and acts like he's her pimp and his a puzzlingly large ego at times. George is none too keen on her either, looking down on her for her profession with more than a little bit of disdain. It's ironic then that they develop a mutual attraction for one another, and even more ironic when their trust becomes strong enough that Simone hires him to help her find another prostitute that she used to work with named Cathy (Katie Hardie). She knows that Cathy's in trouble, but not to the extent in which her situation has gotten unbearably bad thanks to her pimp, Anderson (Clarke Peterson). George, however, is keen on taking the case, no matter how sleazy the places he needs to explore in order to crack it.
If Neil Jordan perfected that emotional gut punch of an ending with The Crying Game he got a lot of practice with Mona Lisa, a film named after that fetching smile that the fairer sex can offer up to man and completely captivate him. This film has a lot more going for it than just standard sexual politics and power plays, however, as there's some very real and very legitimate character development going on as the story plays out and holds our attention. Borrowing from similarly themed American films like Taxi Driver and especially Hardcore (in which George C. Scott goes into New York City's underworld of pornography and the sex trade to find his daughter), Jordan's film lets the seedier side of London become a character as much as it is a location in the picture and the movie is all the better for it. Some beautifully skuzzy locations add loads of colorful atmosphere and realistically sleazy characters into the mix and add a layer of earthy realism to the picture that meshes quite nicely with how the film lets us get to know the people that populate its core.
As far as the performances go, there's nothing to complain about here at all. Coltrane makes a great supporting player while the fetching Cathy Tyson is attractive enough and interesting enough that you can absolutely see why George would start to develop feelings for her. Of course, this is basically Hoskins's show, he's rightfully top billed and very definitely the star of the show, delivering a performance that rivals the one he'll go down in the books for, that being The Long Good Friday, and seeing him share the screen with a legitimate legend like Michael Caine is really a treat for anyone who can appreciate seeing two of England's finest strut their stuff. There's a fair bit of violence and a realistic sense of bleakness to the picture that might turn some off but the mystery it unfolds is a compelling one and the film is never short on entertainment value. Jordan's picture is smart enough to let us get to know the character before then setting out to pull the rug out from underneath them, and in turn, us. This, however, is one instance where we enjoy the fall.
Image presents Mona Lisa in an AVC encoded 1080p 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that isn't exactly impressive. The first thing you'll notice are the compression artifacts that pop up in each and every one of the darker scenes and a fair amount of the lighter scenes too. The film itself is a pretty grainy one, though this in and of itself is not a problem, and the compression artifacts seem to compound this, as do the instances where macro-blocking rears its ugly head. This also results in some very obvious inconsistencies in the black levels. There is more detail and texture on display than there would be in a standard definition offering, but not much and while color reproduction is half way decent, this film really should have looked better than it does here.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio presentation on this Blu-ray sounds a whole lot like a 2.0 presentation despite the fact that both my receiver and the PS3 I was watching the movie on identified it as a 5.1 MA track (which the packaging also confirms). There's no noticeable rear channel avidity here at all, even if you listen really carefully for it. Regardless, if the surround action won't floor you at least the mix is serviceable enough. The dialogue is clean and clear and enough to understand even if it is a bit flat in a few spots. It's nothing to write home about but it's more or less problem free and it suits the movie well enough. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH.
Aside from menus and chapter selection, the only extra on this disc is the film's theatrical trailer, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and in standard definition.
Mona Lisa deliciously gritty and surprisingly involving thriller that hits that appreciable mix of tension and emotional impact really effectively. The fact that the cast is as good as they obviously helps but Jordan's picture really focuses in quite tightly on storytelling and technique and the results are very impressive. It's a shame then that Image's Blu-ray really isn't. The transfer is subpar, the audio mediocre, and the extras almost non-existent. I'd love to recommend this based on the strength of the film, as it's a very good one, but this release is subpar. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.