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At Close Range (1986)

Twilight Time
Blu-ray Disc Released: 9/8/2015

All Ratings out of




Review by Stephanie Long, Posted on 9/11/2015

One way a movie can catch my attention is by adding “based on a true story”. I’m not sure what it is, but the idea that something that is entertaining enough to be a film actually happened in real life always captures my imagination. Pair that with the fact I was 16, self-important, and felt that I had to prove I was an adult because I would only watch “high dramas”, and you have my first viewing of a film I can still remember in very vivid detail. When At Close Range first came out in 1986, I remember the advertising highlighting it was based on a true story, and since it had “real” actors like Sean Penn and Christopher Walken, I couldn’t wait to see it. The mark of a good film is that I saw this as a teenager and was so taken in by the acting and the story in the film that I forgot it was based on a true story; instead, I felt like I was watching the real-life events themselves.

At Close Range tells the grim story of Brad Whitewood, Jr. (often referred to as “Little Brad” in the film) played by a buffed up Sean Penn. Brad lives the small town life of a poor teenager cruising the downtown square on weekends and keeping his little brother Tommy (played by Penn’s real-life brother Chris) out of too much trouble with his friends. He meets Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson) one night as he is cruising and an immediate attraction occurs between the two of them. Things get interesting when Brad’s absentee father (played by Christopher Walken) shows up out of the blue to drop off money for his ex-wife, much to the surprise of Little Brad. Seeing his dad “Big Brad” after a long absence happens to come right at the time when Little Brad gets into a fight with his mother’s latest boyfriend which causes Brad, Jr. to seek out his father for a place to stay for a few weeks. Reconnecting with his father and seeing that the rumors he has heard growing up are true, his dad is a successful crime boss conning local businesses and stealing anything and everything, Little Brad decides he wants to be a part of his dad’s family business, convincing his brother Tommy and friends Tim (Keifer Sutherland), Aggie (Stephen Geoffreys), and Lucas (Crispin Glover) to join as well. However, a life of crime leads to situations Brad Jr. is not comfortable with, motivating him to look for a better life with Terry away from the family business. Unfortunately, getting away from a life of crime is never as easy as getting into it.

At Close Range is one of those dramas that is slow, methodical, and almost documentary-like in style. It is based on the true story of Bruce Johnston, Sr. and his son and brothers who were a crime gang outside of Philadelphia in the 1970s, but the movie, under the direction of James Foley, feels like it is capturing the events in real time. The tedium of living in a rural, poor area as a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood with little education or good job prospects to elevate himself beyond a certain life style is so well captured in the film because it does not try to romanticize it or overplay it to validate any decisions Brad Jr makes. It just shows it as it is for so many who live such an existence, which in turn heightens the tension as the film goes along because the viewer realizes Brad, Jr. and his friends have few real options of escaping such an existence. The viewer knows that the life of crime they start to engage in will inevitably lead to negative consequences, and as these consequences begin to be slowly realized as the film progresses, the watcher’s anxiety builds for each character’s fate in this fascinating story.

Obviously, Sean Penn is an actor most people can agree is truly talented. I never watch Penn in a role and think “Wow, he is doing a good job acting”. He brings an intensity to the character of Brad, Jr., and makes you feel sympathy for his character because as “tough” as his character is, Penn shows his vulnerabilities as well in his protection of his brother, Terry, and his friends. He makes Brad, Jr., a character who could be unsympathetic, more multi-dimensional by subtle expressions and changes in his tone of voice that convey that he is underneath it all an abandoned child who wants his father’s approval, and to be worthy of his girlfriend Terry. Pairing Sean Penn with Christopher Walken as his father is a true casting coup, and Walken does not disappoint as Brad, Sr. He is on target as a controlling, narcissistic leader of a crime family. Walken has an odd cadence of speech that has been famously mimicked by many over the years, and it seems particularly noticeable in this film as his accent is slightly off. However, it still works since Brad, Sr. is such an odd personality. He also delivers some great dialogue in the movie and he can convey an intense anger just through his eyes as a sense of imminent danger and doom radiates from him with just that look alone. The final scene between just these two superb actors near the end of the movie is an intense dramatic showdown that warrants viewing the film just for that scene alone. The supporting cast of note includes R.D. Call and Tracey Walter as Brad’s brothers Dickie and Patch, and David Starthairn as gang member Tony Pine. The chemistry between both gangs, Big Brad and Little Brad’s, is genuine and helps the film feel as if the director showed up and filmed the actual events as they happened and not a scripted telling of a true story.

In addition to the able direction of the film is the score which features the Madonna song “Live to Tell”. The song, melancholic and reflective in tone, highlights the events in the story throughout the film with just the instrumental version played. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray Disc does not have an extra about the actual family, or the music video for “Live to Tell” which I know I watched on MTV nonstop because it showed clips from the film. The movie pairs the song with some very interesting shots of key events in the film making them more memorable for most viewers, even thirty years later for some (like this reviewer). Overall, this little gem of a movie which was lost in the Sean Penn-Madonna love story at the time, is worth rediscovering because every detail in the film is so well-done from the acting, to the directing, to the score itself.

At Close Range urges you to avoid getting too attached to most of the characters on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Twilight Time. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 33 Mbps. The image is sharp and mostly clear, showing only a fine sheen of grain at times and just a few defects from the source materials. The colors look good, most notably reds and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is good, as the image never goes soft and we don't have any trouble seeing textures, but the picture is somewhat flat in some shots. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.1 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. There are lots of opportunities for stereo action in the film and this track takes advantage of them. Scenes involving crowded bars or cars passing by allow for detailed audio effects illustrating movement of sound from speaker-to-speaker and sounds occurring off-screen.

The At Close Range Blu-ray Disc contains only a smattering of extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director James Foley and Film Historian Nick Redman. Viewers can choose to listen to Patrick Leonard's score (which is basically "Live to Tell" played over and over again) on an isolated track. The extras are rounded out by a THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2015 by Mike Long