(Movie review written in 2002)
Director Roger Michell's prior films indicate a talent for staging comedies ("Notting Hill") and period pieces ("Persuasion"). The director was originally going to helm "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" when he suffered a heart attack. After a recovery process, he became attached to "Changing Lanes", a film different from anything the director has done before. The film is an old-fashioned thriller; lively, intense and thought-provoking.
The film's set-up is not terribly complex, but the movie does a fine job branching out. Ben Affleck stars as Gavin Banek, an star lawyer who is heading to the courthouse as the movie opens, set to deliever a batch of papers that will settle an arguement between his firm and a charity over control of finances. At the same time, Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson, in an often amazing performance) is heading to court to a divorce hearing, trying to prove to his ex-wife that he has been approved for a loan that will be used for a house for his family. If he doesn't succeed, his wife and children will move to Oregon.
Both are on the freeway and are involved in an accident. Both men are rushing, but it's only Doyle who wants to do the right thing and exchange information before they go on their separate ways. Gavin, on the other hand, decides simply to give Doyle a blank check and run, with his only response being "better luck next time" as he drives away, with Gipson standing on the highway, accompanied only by a flat tire and a drizzle on an overcast day.
Neither succeed in court: Gipson arrives late for his hearing, which has already ended. Banek, on the other hand, has left the most important paper at the scene of the accident, which Gipson picked up. Banek finds out that not only will the lost paper possibly cost the firm millions, he might also go to jail. He turns to his ex-mistress (Toni Collette) for help; she turns him to a fix-it (Dylan Baker) who manages to turn off Gipson's credit.
Gipson fights back and sends Banek a page of the document with a simple "better luck next time" written across it. The film then throws the two into a chess match that opens out into the streets of New York City - just when it seems that one side or the other will put the chaos to an end, the other takes things a step further and more intense in their desire for revenge.
The script, by Michael Tolkin and Chap Taylor, is intelligent and explores the characters in great detail. Unfortunately, there are also a couple of instances where I didn't believe the film's events, but I managed to bypass these moments and consider them more an instance of the screenwriters really not having too many other options on how to push the story along from that point.
The film is not action sequence after action sequence, but I imagine it could have been in this day and age. Thankfully, director Michell has chosen cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who employs several different styles to bring the audience closer into conversations - there are a few great scenes of handheld camera use that are not afraid to look right into the eyes and emotions of the characters. The story's pace could have been slower, but the performances bring the intensity and the camerawork - as well as expert editing and David Arnold's chilly, electronic score - add the urgency.
The performances are uniformly excellent. I expect no less than an excellent performance from Samuel L. Jackson and he provides one here, giving the character depth and offering his usual remarkable range, from great subtle moments to intimdating rage. Affleck's performance is his finest work, displaying charm, fear and intelligence. His performance really pulls the audience into the think-fast nightmare that this character must go through. The supporting cast is equally impressive; Sydney Pollack is fierce as Gavin's friendly-on-the-outside boss, Amanda Peet is sharp and commanding in her few scenes as Gavin's wife, William Hurt is excellent as Doyle's AA sponsor, Collette is smart and makes a solid impression in her few scenes, while Baker is entertaining.
"Changing Lanes" isn't flawless, but it's awfully close. Aside from a few little concerns about a moment or two in the plot, this is an intelligent and often powerful thriller that contains marvelous performances. One of the best films so far this year.
VIDEO: "Changing Lanes" is presented by Paramount in 2.35:1 (1080p/AVC) on its Blu-Ray debut. The presentation isn't reference quality, but it is a solid improvement over the DVD edition. Sharpness and detail vary at times, but some moments (especially some close-ups) show an above-average amount of fine detail (hair, pores) and some scenes on the streets of NYC show more detail in the backgrounds. While sharpness and detail can be a tad inconsistent at times, the Blu-Ray does look more well-defined than the DVD and most scenes do look enjoyably smooth and clear.
Although a few light specks and debris are occasionally seen on the print used, this issue is seen infrequently and doesn't cause any real distraction. A few light instances of edge enhancement are also seen, but only briefly. The film's color palette, largely subdued and chilly with the exception of the law offices, was beautifully rendered. Black level remained accurate and natural; while flesh tones remained slightly pale, they appeared that way theatrically, as well. Overall, the Blu-Ray was a very nice improvement over the DVD.
SOUND: The film is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The film's soundtrack is largely a dialogue-driven affair, although some aspects of the audio open the film's sound outward a bit more into the room. The surrounds occasionally offer some subtle ambience on the street scene, but the majority of the film has the rear speakers reinforcing David Arnold's tense, cool electronic score. Dialogue, score and sound effects remained crisp, clear and natural sounding. While not a terribly active soundtrack, it's an effective one, nonetheless. The Dolby TrueHD presentation did offer slightly cleaner, more precise audio than the Dolby Digital presentation on the DVD, but the differences between the two presentations weren't major.
EXTRAS: The main supplement is a full-length audio commentary from director Roger Michell, who provides a very good - if somewhat low-key - discussion of the film's production, talking about what it was like to do a very different film than he'd previously helmed. Other topics touched upon include some obstacles the production had to face, the film's screenplay and working with the actors. Rounding out the DVD are: a short featurette with the film's two writers, who discuss the characters and themes; 2 deleted scenes and an extended scene; the film's theatrical trailer (HD) and a 15-minute "making of" featurette.
Final Thoughts: A frightening, powerful, thought-provoking, well-written and marvelously acted thriller about morality, "Changing Lanes" still stands out as an outstanding effort from all involved. The Blu-Ray edition boasts all of the extras from the DVD, as well as moderately improved video quality and slightly improved audio quality. Highly recommended.
The Film A