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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/11/00

Ride with the Devil
1999 (2000) - Universal

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Ride with the Devil Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A-/D

Specs and Features
138 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:05:17 in chapter 11), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, production notes, cast & crew bios, music video for What's Simple Is True by Jewel, weblink, film-themed menu screens, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English & French

Based on Daniel Woodrell's 1987 novel Woe to Live On, Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil tells the story of a young man named Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), growing up on the frontier of America during the Civil War. While the Union and Confederate armies battle fiercely in the East, Missouri seems an unlikely place for conflict. But the war is starting to become personal for a lot of young men like Jake. With no army to join, loyalists on both sides of the issue at hand are forming their own armed militias to fight each other - the Jayhawkers allied with the North and the Bushwackers with the South. Jake and his friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) grew up as Southerners, but have no particularly strong feelings about slavery, right or wrong. Their fear is simply that their friends and neighbors - their people - are coming under attack.

That fear is born out when a band of Jayhawkers kills Jack Bull's father in a raid one night. To revenge his death, the two run away and join the Bushwackers. But the thing about these militias, is that anyone can join. So in addition to those who want revenge or believe in the cause, you've got men who just like killing. It doesn't matter who - anyone who gets in the way will do. And once revenge has been had, there's only a hollow feeling left and only so much killing you can witness.

Director Ang Lee is one of those filmmakers whose work I find truly fascinating. How many directors would devote their energy to such diverse projects as Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, then tackle this film, and follow it up with a much-lauded action/romance film starring Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh (the forthcoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)? What I really like is the way he finds the personal stories - especially the unlikely stories - and brings them to the forefront. Such is the case here.

The acting is surprisingly good, especially Maguire, who we've seen previously in The Cider House Rules, Pleasantville and The Wonder Boys. He brings an interesting measure of restraint to this role, which gives his character an added and hidden complexity. Skeet Ulrich is also solid as Jack Bull, but it's Jeffrey Wright who truly shines as Holt, a semi-freed slave who fights for the Bushwackers (and thus the South) to help revenge the death of his white friend/owner's family. His character is by far the most interesting, and creates a fascinating dynamic among the other leads and the Bushwackers as a whole. He also bonds closely with Jake, giving Jake still more reason to question his feelings and the cause. And even Jewel is good as a young Southern women, widowed by the war, who becomes a love interest for both Jack Bull and Jake. Anyone who feared that this would be another Young Guns can rest easy - these young stars deliver.

Unfortunately, this DVD from Universal leaves a lot to be desired. The video is good and it's anamorphic, but the combination of the print quality and the cinematography means that the transfer looks rather over-soft. You'll notice it right away in the opening credits and it continues through most of the film (although you do get used to it). The film also has a rather washed-out color scheme, while retaining color accuracy, particularly in flesh tones. Contrast is generally very good, and there's fair detail in the blacks - not outstanding but it's solid.

The audio fares somewhat better. This isn't the kind of Dolby Digital 5.1 track that will test all of your surround speakers - you won't be looking over your shoulder. But the front of the soundstage is nicely wide, and dialogue and music are well presented. The rear channels are used mostly for atmosphere, creating an excellent sense of space in the sound environment. Bass is also solid, and kicks in well during battle scenes.

It's really the extras that disappoint. You get a trailer for the film, a few pages of production notes and a Jewel music video. There's also a page of cast & crew info, where only half of those listed have biographical information - the leads and the director. What I really wanted was a commentary track with Ang Lee or even the screenwriter and the writer of the original novel. It's the stories and the history that are interesting here, and I would have liked to hear the filmmakers talking about it.

Sometimes a man will fight for a cause or a noble principle. Sometimes a man will fight because he has everything to lose. And sometimes a man will fight because he has nothing left to lose. These are the ideas explored in Ride with the Devil, and Ang Lee makes that exploration well worth experiencing. This DVD is somewhat disappointing, but the film is good enough to overcome that. If you're looking for an interesting and rewarding couple of hours with a movie, I think Ride with the Devil delivers.

Bill Hunt

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