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Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Contemporary (Mean Streets / The Untouchables / Goodfellas / Heat / The Departed)

Warner Bros. // R // May 21, 2013
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted May 21, 2013 | E-mail the Author

Warner Bros.' Ultimate Gangster Collection: Contemporary is a companion set to their Classics collection of the same name, both of which celebrate some of Hollywood's most influential and entertaining crime films. This five-disc Contemporary collection includes Mean Streets, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Heat and The Departed, originally released on Blu-ray between 2007 and 2012. Clicking each film title below will take you to DVD Talk's original review of the respective Blu-ray release, while a brief summary of collective A/V presentations, packaging and bonus features is included further down. Please note that the discs contained in this set are 100% identical to all five previous releases, save for the disc art.

Mean Streets (d. Martin Scorsese, 1973) established the tone of his crime-inspired output for years to come and serves as an ideal front for this collection. It bolstered the careers of both Harvey Keitel (who Scorsese first worked with on his debut film, Who's That Knocking at My Door) and Robert DeNiro (who had just starred in Bang the Drum Slowly that same year); both would be frequent collaborators with the director for years to come. Small in scope, Mean Streets intently focuses on Charlie (Kietel, playing a young man moving up in the New York Mafia), Johnny Boy (DeNiro, playing his irresponsible friend) and their day-to-day struggles with religion, loyalty, doubt, relationships and trust, all common themes within Scorsese's filmography. Produced for roughly $300,000 and shot on location, the influential Mean Streets helped to successfully bridge the gap between two levels of a changing, director-driven landscape.

The Untouchables (d. Brian DePalma, 1987) switches gears a bit, as it's both a Paramount title and one that significantly favors the perspective of "cops over crooks". Based on the autobiography of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness, this Chicago tale pits Ness (Kevin Costner) against Al Capone (DeNiro), who holds a monopoly on the city's liquor and commands high prices for his inventory. Ness forms a group known as "The Untouchables", which also includes officer Jim Malone (Sean Connery), trainee George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), who are chosen because...well, Capone hasn't gotten to them yet. Though DeNiro's portayal of Capone remains one of the film's most surprising weak links, The Untouchables remains highly entertaining and accessible more than 25 years later.

Goodfellas (d. Martin Scorsese, 1990) is the proverbial 800 pound gorilla of this collection, due to its enormous artistic merits, high entertainment value and lasting influence on pop culture. The violent saga of Goodfellas spans several decades depicting the life of mobster Henry Hill, Jr. (Christopher Serrone as a teenager, Ray Liotta as an adult) who, along with friends Jimmy Conway (DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), rises among the ranks of organized crime before his own addictions, bad habits and paranoia lead to a sobering downfall. Goodfellas is a true epic in every sense of the word, both endlessly quotable and watchable and, like DePalma's earlier Scarface, is frequently viewed as a glamorization of the gangster lifestyle instead of a cautionary tale. Moral specifics aside, Goodfellas is so well-constructed and fully realized that it's not surprising to see it on many short lists of top American films, regardless of genre.

Heat (d. Michael Mann, 1995), in my opinion, is every bit as compelling and watchable as Goodfellas and shares equal billing in this collection. Though it's obviously more of a cat-and-mouse tale smaller in both scope and time frame, the film's distinct three-act structure allows for plenty of character development, clever twists, foiled plots, a legendary bank heist sequence and, of course, powerful lead performances by Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Like The Untouchables, these methodically opposing forces are placed on opposite ends of a maze and we're lucky enough to follow them every step of the way. Heat remains one of the decade's best productions due to consistently tight pacing, distinct locales and strong direction.

The Departed (d. Martin Scorsese, 2006) follows the devilish Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), an Irish-American crime lord loosely based on Boston fugitive James "Whitey" Bulger. Creating deep connections within the Massachusetts State Police, Costello hand-picks young Colin Sullivan (who would later become an officer, played by Matt Damon) as a future mole for his organization. Meanwhile, Sullivan's classmate Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is persuaded by police captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to join Costello's ranks after Costigan is released from prison. It's all downhill from there...but only for them, not us. Winner of four Oscars (including Best Picture), The Departed isn't Scorsese's best effort, but it remains a twisting, complex thriller with plenty of his signature touches.

NOTE: All five discs included in this boxed set are the same as their individual Blu-ray releases, save for the disc art.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in their original 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 aspect ratios (save for Heat, which has been opened up slightly to 1.78:1 at the director's request), the visual presentations are of slightly different quality. As more than half of the discs in this collection were originally made in 2007 (The Untouchables, Goodfellas and The Departed), what looked great back then might not hold up as well now. The important thing is that all five films seem to replicate their original look, for better or for worse, and none feature any sort of excessive tinkering or major cropping. Goodfellas is probably the one that's aged the most, as it can't help but look a little flat and dull compared to newer releases from the era. Heat also looks a bit colder and more washed-out than I remember, but this also apparently is similar to the original print. Ironically, Mean Streets features the newest transfer of them all, but the film's particular film stock and casual appearance don't lend themselves to a pristine image (nor should they). So while fresh new transfers for at least the 2007 discs would've been appreciated, nothing here gets a genuinely failing grade.

DISCLAIMER: This images in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's fancy-pants 1080p resolution.

The nagging audio sins committed by the aforementioned 2007 releases, unfortunately, are a little harder to forgive. The Untouchables and Goodfellas still contain lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes, but at least The Departed is granted an LPCM track. Heat arrives in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and the only DTS-HD Master Audio track (offered by Mean Streets) is presented in mono. Needless to say, this vintage classic is far from a sonic marvel, but at least we get the best possible presentation here. Warner Bros. was notoriously late to jump on the lossless audio bandwagon and releases like this one make it painfully obvious: though even the standard Dolby Digital mixes still sound better than DVD (due to the higher 640kbps bitrate), they're still a far cry from what a true lossless audio experience should sound like. All five discs include optional subtitles in a variety of languages, including English, English SDH, Spanish and French.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, this five-disc collection is housed in a multi-hinged slim keepcase and includes a sturdy hardcover Companion Book and a handsome outer slipcover. Unfortunately, the book itself is meager, limited to barely two pages of shallow summaries for each film, a handful of quotes and the expected production photos for decoration. So this isn't a true Blu-ray book package as hinted at on Amazon (like the Alien or Indiana Jones collections, for example), but it still looks pretty nice and doesn't hog much shelf space. The menu interfaces are obviously identical to the original releases: Heat and Mean Streets allow for easy setup and...well, the 2007 discs only feature a pop-up wall of text during playback.

Bonus Features

Since these are essentially recycled discs, a basic list of bonus features is provided below for each film. Again, clicking on each film title will take you to DVD Talk's original review of the respective Blu-ray.

Mean Streets leads off with a full-length Audio Commentary featuring director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Mardik Martin and actress Amy Robinson. Recorded separately, these three participants do a capable job of sharing production stories and personal memories, especially Scorsese. Other returning extras include a vintage Production Featurette (7 minutes) and the film's Theatrical Trailer (3 minutes).

The Untouchables returns with a four-part Retrospective Documentary ("The Script & Cast", "Production Stories", "Reinventing the Genre" and "The Classic" (all produced by produced by Laurent Bouzereau, 56 minutes total), as well as a short 1987 Featurette and the film's Theatrical Trailer (3 minutes).

Goodfellas recycles Audio Commentaries titled "Cast and Crew" (featuring Scorsese, co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara DeFina, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and more) and "Cop and Crook" (the recently deceased Henry Hill and FBI contact Edward McDonald). Also returning are the "Getting Made" Production Featurette (30 minutes), the fluffy "Made Men" Testimonials (14 minutes), Interviews with Henry Hill and others (8 minutes), as well as a brief Storyboard Comparison (4 minutes). Please note that the second disc of extras included with the 2010 Digibook has not been carried over.

Heat serves up the familiar feature-length Audio Commentary with director Michael Mann, which appears to have been assembled from different sessions but remains entertaining. We also get an excellent one-hour Production Documentary, a surface-level Featurette about DeNiro and Pacino's eventual on-screen meeting (10 minutes), a Location Featurette detailing some of the film's landmarks and visual flourishes (12 minutes), several Deleted Scenes (10 minutes) and a trio of Theatrical Trailers (7 minutes total).

The Departed leads off with "Stranger Than Fiction" (20 minutes), which discusses the real characters and situations that influenced the film. Also returning are the career-spanning "Scorsese On Scorsese" (a 2004 Turner Classic Films production, 85 minutes), the familiar "Crossing Criminal Cultures" featurette (24 minutes), a brief assortment of Deleted & Extended Scenes (9 clips with introductions by Scorsese, 19 minutes total) and the film's excellent Theatrical Trailer. This is a fine mix of bonus features that, despite not entirely focusing on the main feature, is only limited by the continued lack of an audio commentary.

As a whole, there are several hours of supplements to dig on paper, it's money well spent. But since all five discs have already been made available, it's likely that you've seen everything before.

Final Thoughts

Warner Bros.' Ultimate Gangster Collection: Contemporary appears to be a complete no-brainer, but it's actually a paint-by-numbers example of what passes for boxed sets these days: a subtle (dare I say sneaky?) repackaging job when updated version(s) seem to be just over the horizon. At first glance, this is a fairly bulletproof collection of top-notch entertainment, but the odds are that you own at least two or three of these titles on Blu-ray already. Assuming you don't and want everything here and now, it's fairly priced to grab in one fell swoop. Otherwise, just pick and choose your favorites, since each of the five discs in this collection has been available separately for several years. Mildly Recommended.

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.

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