Color, 1986, 104 mins.

Directed by Neil Jordan

Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Clarke Peters, Kate Hardie, Sammi Davis / Music by Michael Kamen / Cinematography by Roger Pratt

Format: DVD - Criterion (MSRP $39.95)

Letterboxed (1.66:1) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Mon

One of the crucial films in the art house revolution of the '80s, Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa was a dramatic change of pace from the director's previous critical success, the delirious 1984 fairytale meditation, The Company of Wolves. In many respects Mona Lisa could be seen as a transitional piece towards the crime drama subversion which Jordan pushed to extremes with The Crying Game, while Bob Hoskins turns in yet another magnificent performance after his memorable hardboiled turn in The Long Good Friday. Drawing on the iconography of both film noir and rough and tumble British gangster sagas, this one of a kind film has lost none of its power to astonish.

In the haunting and wry opening sequence, flower carrying ex-convict George (Hoskins) returns from prison to his warm and comfy home only to receive a slammed door in the face. Mortwell (Michael Caine), a mobster with a heart of ice, takes on George as the chauffeur to high priced call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson). The driver and the hooker are initially resentful of each other but gradually come to a deeper understanding, particularly when she tries to polish George up and pass him off as an upper crust member of society. He even attempts to rescue one of Simone's less fortunate colleagues, May (a young Sammi Davis), from life on the streets, but this proves to be the first of several unexpected and emotionally loaded reversals.

Though it could have been little more than a glorified TV movie in lesser hands, Mona Lisa succeeds thanks to its razor sharp performances. Hoskins and Tyson create some genuinely compelling chemistry, while Caine is terrifying in what could best be described as his character from Get Carter many years down the road and devoid of any conscience. As usual Jordan's visual style is gripping, from the rain-washed Soho streets dappled with neon to the dimly lit motel rooms which seem to hide a secret behind every mirror. Both the visual and narrative aspects would impact much of Jordan's future work, such as the thwarted romances in the aforementioned The Crying Game (particularly its relationship between Jaye Davidson and Stephen Raye), The End of the Affair, and Interview with the Vampire. Even had Jordan stopped with this film, however, that would have been enough.

Criterion's DVD directly transposes their transfer and extras prepared for the laserdisc release. While the image quality is a tad sharper, it looks about the same and unfortunately is not anamorphically enhanced. Black levels are also a bit lighter and more washed out than normal, but a little adjustment to your TV or DVD player settings can tweak it back into shape. Otherwise the colors and detail are just fine. The mono audio sounds identical to previous releases, with the melancholy Nat "King" Cole tune kicking off the elegant soundtrack punctuated with dialogue rendered in numerous British dialects. (Thank God this disc features optional English subtitles!) Extras include the U.S. theatrical trailer (which shows what a hard sell this thing was back in '86) and a commentary track with Jordan and Hoskins. Obviously at ease with each other, both men have plenty to say about the characters' motivations, the conscious attempts to deal with established genres, and the methods of creating a new look out of locations used in numerous other British productions. The retail cost is awfully steep for what could barely be termed a special edition, but the film itself is a steal at any price.

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