Directed by Buzz Kulick in 1969, Riot is set in the sweltering Arizona desert where Cully Briston (Jim Brown) does time in a state prison. When the Warden (Frank E. Eyman) heads out for a bit, he gets into a heated argument with a guard named Grossman (Gerald S. O'Loughlin) over some of his racist comments. Angered over the disrespect he's been shown, Grossman goes to Fisk (Jerry Thompson) in the Warden's absence and is told to let it slide but he's not having any of it. He takes it upon himself to put Cully in isolation but before he can get him from his cell to the isolation chamber, he's attacked by a gang of inmates lead by Red Fraker (Gene Hackman).
It seems with the Warden away, the inmates have taken over one of the cell blocks and Grossman wandered into that very wrong place at a very wrong time. From there the inmates start a riot with intentions of making it over the prison walls to freedom. Guards are taken hostage as negotiation pieces but Biston, who dreams of hot ladies in bikinis, has a parole hearing in the not too distant future and understandably he wants to walk away from all of this. When Fraker finds out that the supplies he and his crew stashed away were discovered and confiscated, he figures out another way, at which point he latches on to the media attention that their acts inevitably attract. While he tries to convince the reporters on the scene that this is an organized protest and not a calculated prison break, Briston does what he can to help save a guard who is in rough shape. When the Warden returns, however, Briston realizes that he's going to strike back with an iron fist and that even his minor involvement in all of this could mess up his chances of parole or even worse. With no other choice, the man decide to escape, while the Warden calls in all the armed guards at his disposal to make sure that doesn't happen.
The whole setup for this movie is a bit beyond what most would probably consider to be plausible, but once you get past that, Riot is a pretty decent movie made better than decent by some really solid acting. You'd expect a solid performance from Gene Hackman and that's exactly what you get but big Jim Brown proves to be every bit his equal here. Hackman as Fraker is all business. He's very determined and smart enough to know how and when to coerce and manipulate not only the press but also his fellow prisoners. Hackman fits this character well, he's got a forceful enough personality that he works well in the role and he invests some impressive physicality into the role as well. Brown as Biston is in many ways his opposite and while the Warden is their true enemy, in a lot of ways Biston and Fraker are coming at all of this from very different sides of the spectrum. Biston dreams of earning his freedom through parole, not in taking it from those who have sent him away. He finds himself stuck in the middle in a lot of ways, it makes his character more interesting.
The movie was shot on location, though it did use some sets. You can't really tell when the movie switches from one to the other, it's well edited and the production values are solid. The song by Bill Medley, ‘100 Years', is also used well in the movie. The use of real life prison guards (and the warden!) is also interesting and adds some authenticity to the movie. The film does have some pacing issues, however. There are quite a few long stretches of dialogue that don't add up to a whole lot. They neither successfully develop the characters further nor do they really add much to the plot, they're simply talky. It's also fair to criticize the movie for building up to a whole lot of nothing. Things are set up well, even if unrealistically, and it seems like the last third of the film really should fire on all cylinders but without going into spoiler territory it sort of fizzles out very quickly at the end.
Riot arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen presentation in full 1080p high definition. This is a pretty nice transfer of a fairly gritty looking movie. Film grain is a constant, purists should be happy, and it suits the tone of the movie rather well. Color reproduction is nice and lifelike, never pushed too far or over saturated and adding to the tone, nicely complimenting the picture's atmosphere. Skin tones look realistic, never too pink or orange, and there's no evidence of any noise reduction or edge enhancement of any kind. Detail isn't reference quality as some scenes appear to have been shot a bit soft, but it definitely exceeds what DVD can offer. All in all, this is a nice film-like presentation that should make fans of the movie quite happy.
The only audio option on the disc is a basic English language DTS-HD 1.0 Mono track but it sounds pretty good for the most part. The levels are nicely balanced and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion in the mix. The score and dialogue both sound good and the performers are always easy enough to understand. There's a bit more depth to some scenes that take place inside the prison than you might expect, no complains here really, this is a fine mix that sounds true to the movie's origins.
Aside from a static menu and chapter stops there are no extra features on this disc at all.
Ultimately Riot is worth seeing more for the performances, which do save it, then for any other reason. If you're a fan of Hackman or Brown, check it out, they're both great here and they make all of this quite watchable. The story itself is a bit pedestrian and predictable despite a few decent twists here and there, though the picture is quite gritty and well shot. Olive Film's Blu-ray looks and sounds good but as is typical of the label it's completely barebones. Not likely an essential addition to your home video library, it's still worth seeing. 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.