Directed by the late Ronald Neame almost 50 years into a career that would last ten more, Hopscotch (1980) is a comedy-thriller that's not exactly razor sharp in either genre. Not for lack of trying, of course: it's made by a respectable cast and crew, features great location footage, and is co-written by Edgar Award-winning source novelist Brian Garfield. Yet Hopscotch never feels like much more than the sum of its parts---and sometimes less, to be honest---because a lot of the jokes aren't all that funny and it's ultra-light tone saps almost every ounce of danger and suspense from the story. It's not a total loss, but this one hasn't aged particularly well.
Regardless, the film has a few obvious highlights, not the least of which is its consistent focus from start to finish. Our story follows CIA field officer Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau), who's just been downgraded to a desk job by his potty-mouthed boss Myerson (Ned Beatty) and replaced by former friend Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston). Kendig initially goes along with the punishment but shreds his personnel file, secretly leaving for Austria to reunite with Isobel von Schoenenberg (Glenda Jackson, who appeared with Matthau in House Calls two years earlier) and write his memoirs to expose Myerson and other high-ranking officials. From start to finish, Hopscotch celebrates the cat-and-mouse chase as Kendig is pursued across multiple continents but always manages to stay one step ahead.
It sounds good on paper...and in some respects, Hopscotch is a light and fluffy diversion that makes a decent weekend matinee. Matthau is perfectly fine in the role (more than a little old, perhaps), while supporting roles are handled nicely from top to bottom. The film's globe-trotting backdrop adds a exotic appeal too, as it manages to stay focused despite the near-constant scenery changes. The music is pretty much all Mozart...so if that's your thing, Hopscotch delivers in spades. But as mentioned earlier, Neame's film has lost a lot of the fun, breezy charm that held more weight 20, 30, or almost 40 years ago. It's still good for a few laughs and the performances are capable enough on the surface, but comedy-thrillers rarely have a long shelf life and this is a pretty clear example.
But hey, different strokes for different folks. Those who have seen and enjoyed Hopscotch multiple times---whether during its original release, or by way of Criterion's 2002 DVD---will be glad to finally have it on Blu-ray. The film's at least been given a fresh new 2K remaster that showcases its scenic locales, although the lack of retrospective bonus features (especially given the 2010 death of Ronald Neame, who lived to be 99) makes Hopscotch an even more curious subject for such a long upgrade window.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Hopscotch looks much stronger and more stable than Criterion's own 2002 DVD. This 1080p image is the result of a brand new 2K transfer, and everything about these visuals is more precise and refined overall. Black levels look relatively good (even a handful of dimly-lit indoor scenes, such as those at the pub during the film's halfway point), image detail and textures are quite good, and the film's light to moderate grain structure is represented perfectly well from start to finish, which results in an extremely natural, clean, and crisp appearance. A handful of stray shots seemed a bit less robust and leaned towards heavier grain levels, but these are likely source material issues and nothing more. No obvious digital imperfections or heavy manipulation (compression artifacts, excessive noise reduction, etc.) could be spotted along the way, either. I simply can't imagine Hopscotch looking much better on home video than it does here, so fans should be enormously pleased with Criterion's efforts.
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There's less to say about the PCM 1.0 track aside from that it's perfectly adequate and sounds just as expected for a film from the era. Dialogue, all of those classical music cues, and background effects are relatively crisp and clear without fighting for attention; it can't help but feel a little thin overall, but the overall experience manages to showcase a few moments of depth at times. Overall, this lossless mono presentation seems true to the source material and purists will enjoy the lack of surround gimmickry. As with the previous DVD, an optional TV Audio Track is also offered; it's limited to Dolby Digital 1.0 and essentially dubs over all the swearing (mostly Ned Beatty's character)...you know, in case your kids are begging to watch a 40 year-old Walter Matthau flick. Optional English subtitles have been included during the main feature, which replicate the theatrical audio only.
As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is locked for Region A players; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" keepcase and includes eye-catching, colorful new artwork that's highly reminiscent of Al Hirschfeld's work. The fold-out Insert includes notes about the restoration, cast/crew lists, and an essay by film critic Glen Kenny.
The only new supplement on board here is a full TV Episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Walter Matthau (21:56), in which the late actor discusses his formative years, recent work, and other topics from his personal and professional life. Originally broadcast on April 21, 1980, this is a nice little bonus that, despite its age, is apparently new to home video. It's also an interesting time capsule that shows just how much talk shows have changed in appearance, polish, and attitude during the last several decades.
Otherwise, everything from Criterion's 2002 DVD has been ported over, including the Alternate TV Audio Track, a lengthy Interview with writer Brian Garfield and director Ronald Neame (22:01), plus the film's original Trailer (2:55) and Teaser (1:37). It's not exactly the most overwhelming collection of extras (no commentary?) but those new to Hopscotch should enjoy them even more.
Though made by talented professionals that apparently had a great time on set---including veteran director Ronald Neame, screenwriter Brian Garfield (based on his book), and actors including Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson---1980's Hopscotch hasn't aged particularly well during the last 37 years. This comedy-thriller routinely shoots itself in the foot: big laughs are few and far between, while the film's consistently light tone never amounts to any real sense of danger. It's a fine and fluffy diversion if you're in the right mood, but almost everyone involved with Hopscotch has done much more satisfying work. Regardless, Criterion's new Blu-ray should only appeal to die-hard fans: featuring a solid A/V upgrade and a small but entertaining batch of bonus features (mostly recycled, though), it's mildly recommended to those who will grab it off the shelf often. Everyone else, including newcomers? Rent It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.