Nicholas Cage took home and Oscar for his performance as a screenwriter named Ben Sanderson in this 1995 film from director Mike Figgis (who also adapted the source novel and did the film's score). The film follows Sanderson as he basically hits rock bottom, his alcoholism completely taking over his life and costing him his career and his personal life. With his life a complete mess, he decides to head to Las Vegas where he will quite literally drink himself to death. By chance or by destiny, when in Las Vegas Ben meets a beautiful prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue) and the two hit it off. The form an unusual romance, bound by a 'non-interference' pact and he moves in with her. It soon turns out that Ben isn't the only one with problems, not the least of which is her abusive pimp, Yuri (Julian Sands).
Leaving Las Vegas is a pretty grim movie. We're never given much of a motive for Sanderson's alcohol abuse, when we meet him he's already afflicted with it and he's quite obviously hell bent on self destruction, his drinking proof positive of this. His habit really does cost him everything - his wife, his son, his job, his ability to socialize with 'normal' people and quite literally his will to live - so his decision to drown himself in drink until he can't anymore does make sense from a nihilistic point of view, but the film doesn't bother with the traditional set up you might expect it to: he doesn't drink because he's lost everything, he's lost everything because he drinks. It seems fitting then that Sanderson meets Sera, herself a bit of a mess though on a different level than he. Once she manages to get Yuri out of the picture, you'd think, by typical Hollywood standards, that she'd somehow manage to turn her new love around and get him off the booze, change him or save him the way Hollywood characters are apt to do, but that doesn't happen here. We know very early on that there's no way these two aren't damned from the start, but that's what makes it such an interesting and compelling film. It seems they know this too, and armed with that knowledge, their love becomes as close to unconditional as it can probably get.
This movie just flat out would not work if the performances weren't dead on, but thankfully both Cage and Shue turn in their best work here and the film succeeds because of it. Figgis shot the picture with a fairly modest budget and a small cast and crew and you can assume he had a fair bit of control over how things went in this regard, and the results speak for themselves. Cage is, as many will note, prone to overacting and playing things way over the top but here he's entirely believable. Never an actor to shy away from the physical side of a role, he does a good job of convincing us that he really does have a drinking problem but at the same time, allows the character to shine through when the script calls for it, reminding us that while on the outside Ben may be nothing more than a wasted booze hound, he is still human. Shue is incredibly sympathetic, her character just can't catch a break and seems destined to deal with these problems. She accepts her fate and trusts in Ben, allowing herself to be hurt, expecting it even as she doesn't seem to know any different. The focus of the film starts off centered on Ben's drinking, but once these two meet, it shifts gears and instead starts to delve deeper into their dysfunctional relationship.
Figgis' prior directorial efforts proved he could handle tension and drama effectively enough, and he does that to a different degree here too. He lets Las Vegas become a fascinating back drop for all of this to play against, and the film is shot with an almost classic Hollywood/noirish style at times. It all adds up to an engrossing film that borders on but never quite passes the line of melodrama. It's expertly acted, nicely directed with just the right amount of style, and very well written (making it all the more tragic that the author of the book that this film was based on, John O'Brien, committed suicide shortly after he learned his book was being made into a film).
Leaving Las Vegas debuts on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.85.1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer that replicates the film's grainy 16mm origins quite nicely. Detail won't astound you the way certain big budget titles can, but the higher bit rate ensures that the image is more film like. Compression artifacts are never much of a problem nor is edge enhancement and while detail and texture aren't amazing, they are noticeably improved over the standard definition release. Scenes with more light look better than the film's dark scenes but black levels and contrast tend to waver some times. If you've seen the movie before you'll know what to expect, if not, well, the film's visuals reflect the grim situation of its characters so it isn't always going to look very pretty - nor should it.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on this disc is pretty decent, though far from bombastic. This is a dialogue heavy film, so most of the sound comes from the front of the mix with rear channels used primarily for periodic ambient and background sounds and to spread out the score. The levels are well balanced and there are no problems with hiss or distortion to complain about, but bass response isn't always all that impressive. Again though, what matters most in this picture is the dialogue and that's handled very well. If this won't be your new demo disc, it does its job quite nicely and offers up a very nice sounding mix. Optional Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks are provided in French and Spanish with optional subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.
Aside from a menu and chapter selection, the only thing this disc contains, as far as extra features are concerned, is the film's theatrical trailer (in 1080p high definition).
While more extras would have certainly been a nice touch, Lionsgate has at least provided a good transfer and decent lossless audio for Leaving Las Vegas' domestic Blu-ray debut. The movie itself holds up very well, thanks to the two strong lead performances and a believable and engrossing script and this release comes recommended.
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.