Much like its protagonist, 54 is a film with big dreams, hurtling toward an encounter with cold, harsh reality. The film was rushed to theaters in fall 1998 in order to beat Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco, but 54 is closer kin to Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Both films center themselves around naive, wide-eyed kids who are taken under their wing and thrust into an adult world, but in every place where Anderson was free to show the seedy underbelly of his 1970s film, director/writer Mark Christopher was forced to compromise his.
54's focus is Shane (Ryan Phillippe), whose only initial interests in Studio 54 are the promise of some unfamiliar faces, and the possibility that he'll catch a glimpse of his celebrity crush, soap star Julie Black (Neve Campbell). Upon arriving, however, he discovers there's more on the other side of the river than just some new girls to look at. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, all with a mixture of celebrities and oddballs handpicked by club owner Steve Rubell (Mike Myers). After his first night, Shane gets a job as a busboy, and after his first month, he moves to the big city, shacking up with fellow employees Greg (Breckin Meyer) and Anita (Salma Hayek).
Christopher's goals appear to be character oriented, using the New York hotspot more as a backdrop for Shane's life changing than as a focal point for the film. Unfortunately, based on poor reactions of a test audience to a gay subplot between Shane and Greg (the film was a true love triangle involving Shane, Greg, and Anita), Miramax excised 45 minutes of footage from the film and scheduled extensive reshoots in order to keep Shane as straight as an arrow. Such softening would be objectionable in any case, but it robs the film of purpose. Without a compelling conflict, 54 turns into a faint rise-and-fall story where Shane hardly rises and falls into the cushion of a happy ending. Other than providing a place for him to be through the 1970s, it hardly seems like the experience of working at the club has much of an effect on Shane. There are no big falling outs, no destructive affairs, no draining drug addictions. He works there, he learns a few simplistic life lessons, and goes onto become an average member of society. Still, Phillippe carries the film with relative ease, finding a character in Shane despite his character's shifting persona.
The re-editing of the picture also apparently cut out the heart of Mike Myers' performance as Rubell. In the finished film, Rubell is a pleasant eccentric whose kindly wisdom unites the characters, whose refusal to see the end looming is forgivable because his dreams are founded on love. Coverage of the director's cut, which Christopher strung together himself out of untimed, unscored raw footage, says that the original film puts more of a dark edge on his character, hinted at here by his frequent pill-popping and a line of Phillippe's voice-over narration about Rubell making the occasional cruel choice for no reason. Even in this version, Myers is excellent; it's pretty easy to imagine that an uncut version of the picture might've been award-worthy.
It's not that 54 is an unpleasant movie. In fact, it's too pleasant, a film where the depths of drama are someone changing their mind about doing something cutthroat, or turning out okay after all the wild times back in the good old days. The film could've been a companion piece to Anderson's, but it's as Hollywoodized as true stories get, interested in peeking at the lives of free spirits without actually participating.
Note: Although the the case lists the runtime as 104 minutes, this is the same 100-minute "extended" version from Miramax's DVDs (which was not accurately noted on that packaging either). From what I understand, the theatrical version cut out the love triangle entirely; this version reinstates it to a standard "stay away from my girlfriend" situation but does not return to Christopher's original version of events.
Lionsgate has appropriated Miramax's servicable but somewhat misleading poster, which, aside from Phillippe's hair, gives the film a modern look (especially Hayek, with her shimmering hair and glossy lips). The back cover, however, is a little weirder, attempting to continue the same color scheme but ending up with a background that looks more like an explosion than the dance floor of a disco. Were it not for the synopsis (and anyone who "recognizes" the title), I'm not sure anyone would be able to tell from the packaging that the film is set in the 1970s. The case is an eco-friendly Viva Elite and there is no insert in the case.
The Video and Audio
54's MPEG-4 AVC 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is resoundingly okay, hampered most by what must be a somewhat dated master. Bright daytime and extreme club lighting provide vivid reminders that this is a high definition presentation, but anything in between starts to look a little more murky. The biggest strike here is poor contrast, robbing the image of a sense of depth. Look at anyone's hair, and you'll get an idea of the dimensionality the image is lacking. Colors are somewhat uneven, popping in one scene and looking pale in the next, and there are a few flecks and nicks on the print, although nothing serious. Still, overall clarity and a reprieve from Miramax's old non-anamorphic DVD are likely more than enough difference for fans of the film to upgrade.
A 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio track does a good job of replicating the booming, echoing, pulsating sensation of being inside Studio 54, right down to that that distant, hollow version of the dance floor that one hears through the walls of other rooms inside the club, all without losing any of the dialogue amidst the disco tunes. The film is also filled with performance numbers, which are all rendered with enchanting clarity. The picture quality of 54 leaves a little to be desired, but the audio sounds great to me. English and Spanish subtitles and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
A music video for Stars on 45's "If You Could Read My Mind" (SD) is the only extra feature.
Trailers for The Lincoln Lawyer, the Scream trilogy, Velvet Goldmine, Frida, and a promo for Epix play before the main menu. No trailer for 54 has been included.
If you like this version of 54, then this disc (which will likely be available for $10, based on Lionsgate's other Miramax Blu-Rays) is a decent step up from the standard-definition version. However, if you've been waiting for a true director's cut of the film, you're still out of luck. I'll split the difference between a Skip It and a Recommended with a Rent It.
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