Black Moon Rising (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (11th May 2019).
The Film

Black Moon Rising (Harley Cokeliss, 1986)

Synopsis: The FBI hire ‘freelance’ thief Quint (Tommy Lee Jones) to steal evidence from the Lucky Dollar Corporation; this evidence will implicate Lucky Dollar Corp in a tax evasion scheme. Quint uses some high tech gadgetry to crack the digital keypad of the Lucky Dollar Corp building before sneaking inside. However, after he has grabbed the data, the alarm is triggered and, whilst fleeing from the building, Quint is recognised by a former associate, Marvin Ringer (Lee Ving).

Meanwhile, in the Nevada desert former NASA engineer Earl (Richard Jaeckel) and his buddies Billy (Dan Shor) and Tyke (William Sanderson) are testing an experimental car named the Black Moon. With a sleek black and red aerodynamic frame built from Kevlar, making it bulletproof, the Black Moon has a jet propulsion system allowing it to reach speeds of up to 325 miles per hour.

At a petrol station outside Vegas, the paths of Quint and the Black Moon cross. Whilst Earl and his colleagues are distracted, realising he is being pursued by Marvin and his security team, Quint stashes the tape containing the data taken during the raid on Lucky Dollar Corp in the bodywork of the Black Moon. He intends to follow Earl and the others to Vegas and retrieve the tape when it is safe to do so. Subsequently, Quint is confronted first by Marvin and then, after escaping from Marvin and his goons, the FBI; Quint angrily tells the FBI agents they should have warned him that Marvin was working for Lucky Dollar Corp, and he demands they pay him twice the previously agreed fee before he hands over the data.

In Vegas, Earl shows the Black Moon to a potential buyer. However, whilst Earl and his team are dining in a restaurant the supercar is stolen by a group of slick, well-heeled car thieves headed by Nina (Linda Hamilton). Witnessing this, and aiming to retrieve his data tape, Quint pursues Nina through the city, tracing her to the parking garage of the fortress-like skyscraper headquarters of an organisation run by Ryland (Robert Vaughn). Ryland is an underworld boss whose lackeys steal valuable cars from the streets of the city which then pass through a ‘chop shop’ before being sold on to car dealerships. Ryland’s headquarters are protected with a range of high tech security devices.

Determined to break into Ryland’s building and steal back the data tape, Quint teams up with Earl and his group, offering to return the Black Moon to them in exchange for their co-operation in a raid on Ryland’s headquarters. Quint also turns to his old friend Iron John (Keenan Wynn) for help. Iron John points Quint to Emile French (Don Opper), the man who designed many of the electronic security devices for Ryland. In collaboration with French, Quint and Earl devise a plan that will enable them to access Ryland’s headquarters. Meanwhile, Quint also makes contact with Nina, and the two begin a romantic relationship. Nina reveals that she is deeply unhappy with her role in Ryland’s organisation, and she agrees to assist Quint in liberating the Black Moon from within the bowels of Ryland’s fortress.

Critique: Based on a screenplay written by John Carpenter a decade earlier (in 1975), Black Moon Rising was greenlit following the commercial success, for New World Pictures and producers Joel B Michaels and Douglas Curtis, of the Carpenter-scripted The Philadelphia Experiment (Stewart Raffill, 1984). The popularity of The Philadelphia Experiment led Michaels and Curtis to pushing Carpenter’s script for Black Moon Rising into production. However, Carpenter’s material was reworked substantially by Desmond Nakano and William Gray – so much so that, reputedly, the finished picture bears very little resemblance to Carpenter’s source script.

Tommy Lee Jones had previously acted in another Carpenter scripted film, Irvin Kershner’s The Eyes of Laura Mars, in 1978. Though like The Eyes of Laura Mars, Black Moon Rising is rather middling, Jones excels in his role, playing Quint with a Clint Eastwood-esque laconicism. In the film’s opening sequence, Quint enters a liquor store; a young hood bursts into the store and holds Quint and the storekeeper at gunpoint, demanding money. Cool as a cucumber, Quint tells the youth that this must be his first time as a stick-up artist (‘This somethin’ new for you, son?’), as the young man has failed to wear a mask or to notice that the store has a CCTV system. (This reference to ‘high-tech’ CCTV, a fairly new phenomenon during the mid-1980s, foreshadows the film’s climax, in which Quint and Earl devise a way to bypass the ultramodern closed circuit surveillance system that protects Ryland’s tower.) The young man argues with Quint, but Quint calmly points out that he’s trying to help the kid (‘You don’t just walk into a place, waving a gun around, and expect the world to put up with that. It’s not acceptable behaviour’). It’s a sequence that’s highly reminiscent of the early sequences in Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) and its sequels, in which Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) demonstrates his coolness under pressure and his maverick approach to policing by dealing with minor crimes that are unrelated to the main plot (in the first film, a bank robbery; in Magnum Force, a plane hijacking; in Sudden Impact, a robbery at a diner). Such scenes became a paradigm of American cop movies during the 1980s: George P Cosmatos’ Cobra (1986) opens with its anti-hero Marion Cobretti (Sylvester Stallone) foiling an armed robber in a supermarket before being chewed out by his boss (Andy Robinson); in Hard to Kill (Bruce Malmuth, 1990), Mason Storm (Steven Seagal) demonstrates his martial arts skills in defeating a trio of hoodlums who kill the clerk in a convenience store.

As Quint, Jones is both good humoured and charismatic. He is a ‘freelance’ thief who has been hired by the FBI to break into a large corporation (the Lucky Dollar Corp) and steal evidence implicating them in a tax evasion scheme: there are more than a few subtle shades of the Watergate scandal in this premise. Like the anti-heroes of so many Westerns, Quint wants to make ‘one good score, then back off’ (in the words of Pike, in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, 1969); after the job for the FBI, Quint plans to retire. ‘You joined the Feds’, an astonished Iron John notes when talking to Quint; ‘They offer a real good pension plan, John’, Quint responds. Later, Quint tells Nina of his plans to retire: ‘As soon as my current obligations are up, I’m retiring’, he informs her. ‘What do retired thieves do?’, she asks. ‘They get away’, he answers. Meanwhile, the antagonist of the film is Ryland, played in a subtly sinister manner by Robert Vaughn. Ryland is the head of a well-heeled criminal gang whose members steal cars off the streets of Las Vegas before bringing them back to Ryland’s high tech tower, which essentially functions as a fancy ‘chop shop’ where the stolen cars are remodelled before being sold on. This depiction of the film’s villains as wealthy, corporate types was something that was paradigmatic within the 1980s and early 1990s, reflecting other action pictures of the era that featured bad guys who were ‘yuppies’ – such as Simon Wincer’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) and Craig R Baxley’s Dark Angel (1990).

Linda Hamilton is given a perhaps surprisingly complex and sensitive role. Nina is introduced turning down the sexual advances of a man in the restaurant in which Earl is trying to sell the Black Moon to his foreign client. Nina’s response to the stranger’s come-ons is firm and insistent, marking her from the outset as an independent and strong-minded woman. Soon, we see her stealing the Black Moon and realise that she is part of the gang of car thieves, and as the narrative progresses her subtly strange relationship with Ryland is teased out in the dialogue. Much like Anne Parillaud’s Nikita in Luc Besson’s later film La femme Nikita (1990), Nina was a youth on the street when she was picked up by Ryland, who recognised within her an innate talent for stealing cars (and, more importantly, escaping with them). In a scene that takes place fairly late in the story, we see Ryland watching a videotaped interview with Nina, which he recorded after their first meeting. Ryland brought Nina into his organisation, offering her opportunities for advancement which she has clearly accepted (her home is decked out in mod cons, including a motorbike which is installed in her living space). However, Nina is clearly dissatisfied with her position within Ryland’s organisation, and there is a suggestion that Ryland has taken more than a simple patrician interest in Nina: when Nina and Ryland come to loggerheads near the climax of the film, Ryland reveals that he has had one of his high tech video cameras installed in her bedroom, and he shows her a recording he has made of Nina and Quint having sex. The film’s fascination with video recordings and surveillance connects it with other 1980s pictures which show a similar interest in the relationships between videotapes and power – such as Atom Egoyan’s Family Viewing (1987) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend (1983). ‘Let’s see how you repaid me for everything I did for you’, Ryland tells Nina dryly when he realises she has betrayed him. ‘I owe you nothing’, Nina responds sharply. ‘I gave you a life’, Ryland tells her. ‘You gave me your life’, Nina says. ‘You grabbed at it’, Ryland reminds her. ‘I was on the street. I would have grabbed at anything’, she answers.

It’s difficult to watch Black Moon Rising and not think of KITT in Knight Rider (NBC, 1982-6) – from the sleek and stealthy black exterior with a red trim, to the high tech insides of the car (especially the panel of buttons giving access to the car’s unique features). It’s a distinctive car and far from innocuous. ‘What am I supposed to do with it?’, Ryland asks Nina when he sees the Black Moon for the first time. ‘Nothing’, Nina tells him, ‘It’s mine’. This causes a dispute between Nina and Ryland, with Ryland seeing Nina’s autonomy in taking the Black Moon as a form of resistance to his authority. ‘A car like this attracts a lot of attention. Did you ever think about that?’, Ryland tells Nina, adding that ‘This is a business: we don’t take trophies’.


Video

Black Moon Rising fills a little over 27Gb on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc. The 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec and is in the 1.78:1 screen ratio, which would seem to be near-as-dammit to the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio (presumably 1.85:1). The 35mm colour photography is served well by the presentation, which is based on a new 2k restoration that utilises, as its basis, a scan of a 35mm interpositive for the picture. Detail is largely excellent, with an impressive level of fine detail being present in close-ups. Some minor damage is present: for example, in the scenes in which Earl and his team test the Black Moon in the Nevada desert, some debris and scratches are present. (This manifests itself as black marks on the image, indicating debris/scratches on the interpositive itself rather than being sourced from the negative.) There’s also a very bold vertical scratch in a shot about 13 minutes into the picture. Colours are rich and consistent, with naturalistic skintones and salient primary colours. Contrast levels are good, with defined midtones. There’s a sharp curve into the shoulder, resulting in highlights that sometimes ‘bloom’ very slightly. The encode to disc is fine and carries the presentation in a manner that retains the structure of 35mm film.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.



Audio

Audio is presented via a choice of (i) a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track; and (ii) a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. The former offers more sound separation and is very atmospheric, whilst the latter is a little more ‘punchy’ in terms of its bass in particular. Both tracks are clear with dialogue being audible throughout. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided, and these are easy to read and accurate.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary by Lee Gambin. Gambin’s commentary offers a good sense of context to the picture, with Gambin discussing the origins of the production in Carpenter’s spec script and considering how the picture was pushed into production on the coattails of the commercial success of The Philadelphia Experiment. Gambin reflects on the picture’s relationship with other 1980s action films and considers the contributions of some of the key cast and crew.

- ‘Black Moon Ascending’ (33:48). Director Harley Cokeliss reflects on his career, how he followed a path through an enthusiasm for photography to a career in filmmaking. Cokeliss talks about his studies at the London Film School and discusses his first work as a director, the documentary Chicago Blues (1970). Cokeliss reflects on his work for the BBC and what he learnt from this before examining his work on fictional features, including That Summer! (1979), which led to Cokeliss working with the second unit on The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1981). From here, Cokeliss considers some of his subsequent films, including Battletruck (1982) and, of course, Black Moon Rising.

- ‘Thief in the Night: Producing Black Moon Rising’ (14:27). The film’s producer, Douglas Curtis, discusses how Black Moon Rising came to be greenlit following the success of The Philadelphia Experiment. Curtis reflects on the casting of the picture and talks about what Tommy Lee Jones brought to his role, including some notable changes in the wardrobe for Quint. He also talks about the cars used in the film and how these were acquired.

- ‘Sound of Speed: Composing Black Moon Rising’ (7:53). Lalo Schifrin is interviewed about his score for the picture; Schifrin’s comments are cut against an interview with Daniel Schweiger, an actor who also writes for Film Music Magazine.

- ‘Carpenter’s Craft’ (17:43). Critic Troy Howarth narrates a video essay that focuses on John Carpenter’s screenplay and how this was adapted for the finished picture.

- ‘Making Black Moon Rising’ (11:41). This archival promotional featurette from the time of the film’s original release introduces the picture and includes some behind the scenes footage that is interspersed with interviews with the actors and key crew.

- Alternative Hong Kong Sequences (12:12). Taken from the Hong Kong version of the film, the sequences here utilise different music cues and sound effects.

- Alternative Workprint Opening (4:25). Taken from a VHS copy of the workprint, this footage features the film’s opening sequence sans the onscreen titles and with a different title card to that featured in the final edit of the picture.

- Trailers and Radio Spots: Trailer 1 (2:01); Trailer 2 (1:04); Teaser (1:30); TV Spot 1 (0:33); TV Spot 2 (0:33); TV Spot 3 (0:33); TV Spot 4 (0:33); TV Spot 5 (0:33); Radio Spots (0:31).

- Galleries: Production Stills (1:40); Behind the Scenes (10:20); Posters and Home Video (2:00); Lobby Cards (1:40); Storyboards (16:51); Annotated Script (18:11).

Overall

Black Moon Rising is no great shakes: in many ways, it’s a bag of clichés from the opening sequence (in which Quint foils a liquor store robbery in a Dirty Harry style) onwards. (In one of the most overused lines from 1980s action pictures, Quint even asserts, after successfully raiding the Lucky Dollar Corp headquarters, ‘I’m getting too old for this’.) Quint heads up an unlikely group of outsiders in his assault on Ryland’s headquarters, leading to a game of cat and mouse that takes place within the belly of the beast. Even the car feels derivative (of KITT, of course). However, despite this Black Moon Rising is an entertaining picture, in large part thanks to the charisma of Tommy Lee Jones, who carries the film on his broad shoulders: according to the interview with Cokeliss on this Blu-ray release, Jones decided on his own wardrobe of black jeans and leather jacket (in the original script, Quint was dressed more smartly), something which helps to define his character to a greater extent. The supporting cast are equally good, especially Linda Hamilton. Robert Vaughn is given little to work with but is usual dependable self. The picture also benefits from some solid photography: though most of the dialogue scenes are admittedly shot rather flatly, the photography comes alive in the action sequences, particularly in the climactic assault on Ryland’s headquarters.

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation of the film is very good; there is some noticeable damage here and there but it is all organic, and the presentation as a whole is pleasingly filmlike. It is supported by some excellent contextual material, including – in particular – the career-spanning interview with Cokeliss.

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