I am not, as a rule, easily swayed by advertising. But back in the winter of 1985 I remember walking through – oh how appropriate – the labyrinthine corridors of the London Underground and stopping dead before a poster for a film I'd never heard of by a director whose work I did not know. On it was the image of a blonde haired punk in a tuxedo holding a neon tube. A punk with a really interesting face, and one I was not familiar with. This was back when Christopher Lambert was still being credited as Christophe, a year after Greystoke (which I hadn't seen) but good few months before Highlander made him a star. It was a contradictory, vaguely surreal image, one that spoke of the film's likely unconventionality without revealing a thing about it's content, something the title also did nothing to illuminate. Worked for me. This was, for this curious film fan, Subway's first hook. I'll get to the second in a minute.
The film itself kicks off in similarly enigmatically fashion, with the same dinner-suited Lambert so absorbed in his search for appropriate driving music that he initially fails to register that his car is being repeatedly rammed by four similarly dressed goons in the Mercedes that's rolled up behind him (in a gag reference to the director's debut feature, Le dernier combat, the gleefully selected music soon stutters to a halt with the tape gets chewed up). It'll be some time before we find out who these men are and why they are after our boy, who goes by the distinctly non-Français name of Fred. In an effort to shake them off, he dives into the Metro and takes refuge in the hidden depths of a station's substructure, where he discovers and soon becomes part of a ragtag underground community that have made this their home.
And herein lies the second hook. I've always had this thing about the underground railway system, which I'm sure stems from childhood trips to London and the unshakable belief that just about anything could be living down in those dark tunnels. I briefly outlined this peculiar fascination in my review of the hugely entertaining Hungarian comedy thriller Kontroll, and returning to Luc Besson's second feature after a gap of several years I was rather pleased to find that the concept of a subterranean community of social outsiders was still an appealing one, and a solid basis for an inventive and offbeat entertainment. Whether the film lives up to this initial promise is another thing entirely and one that will definitely be a matter of individual viewer opinion.
Appealing it may be, but realistic it's not. This is an urban fantasy, one in which those who live in the subway enjoy a safe and clean existence, play music and dance at night in the brightly lit station, raid the bar after the staff have gone home and sleep without fear of arrest or rodent invasion. If you want to check out the harsher realities of such an existence then I heartily recommend Marc Singer's extraordinary documentary Dark Days, whose rat-infested shanty-town stories have no place in the cinema du look, a movement whose flagship film, Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 Diva, also chased its lead character into the Paris Metro.
The community members are an engaging enough bunch, but like the post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabitants of Le dernier combat, they are identified largely for what they do rather than who they are. Thus we have a quick-on-his-skates purse snatcher known as The Roller (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a drumstick-tapping hulk named The Drummer (Jean Reno – who else?) and an opportunistic flower seller who's listed in the cast as, you've guessed it, The Florist. Only three key characters are given names, Fred's co-leads being the elegant but irritable Héléna (Isabelle Adjani) and world-weary transport cop Inspector Gesberg (Michel Galabru), whose contempt for his two immediate subordinates extends to sarcastically naming them Batman and Robin, names they both respond to and identify themselves by. Gesberg initially knows nothing of Fred's activities and is primarily concerned with nailing the repeatedly elusive Roller (an element that Kontroll adapted in serial fare dodger Bootsie), at least until visited by Héléna, whose home has been robbed by Fred – a professional safe-cracker – and who is now being blackmailed by him for the return of important documents procured in the theft.
It's a neat enough setup, most engagingly handled, with the back story unfolding in conversational snippets and sequences staged in part for their character value or sense of fun. A highlight sees Fred follow one of the Roller's victims into the security office and casually stand by her as she makes her complaint, his body language and cheerful demeanour misleading the cops into believing that he is her partner, a trick borrowed from Hitchcock's 1941 Mr. and Mrs. Smith but nicely sold here on Lambert's jovial performance.
Not everything works so well. Having established the characters and his subterranean subculture, Besson then seems uncertain quite what to do with them. That Héléna and Fred will become romantically involved is to be expected, but Hélén's rejection of her husband's social position and its trappings feels shoehorned in, and her dinner party rebellion thus provides none of the pleasures such a scene usually would. Fred, meanwhile, suppresses his subversive streak to bring together the subway's musical talents into a rock band and arrange for them to play for an unsuspecting public in place of a Brahms concert, a conventional expression of rebellion that predictably has even the old traditionalists jigging to the music with party-down smiles on their faces. This also requires an appreciation for the band's Euro-rock songs, the iffy nature of their English language lyrics more obvious to an English speaking audience, particularly the clumsiness with which the climactic message is delivered – as an assassin trains his weapon on his potential victim and burgeoning love looks set to be destroyed by a bullet, the band belts out a chorus of "Guns don't kill people – people kill people!" No shit, Sherlock.
But for all its sophomore uncertainties, Subway is still an enjoyable and sometimes energetic work in which the Besson style to come is pretty much in place, particularly in the focus on characters who live outside of the norms of society, in the use of arresting wide shots, tracks and steadicam work, and in some perfectly timed editing, my personal favourite being a gorgeously judged cut from the blowing out of birthday candles to a hypnotic, drifting, front-of-train trip into the station. It may be, for my money at least, the one early Besson film that doesn't quite click as a whole, but its still smart, imaginative and a good deal of fun, enough and to make you relieved it was never regurgitated by Hollywood.
Although a more recent work than the monochrome Le dernier combat, Subway fares slightly less well in its high-def incarnation, and indeed is pictorially the weakest of this crop of Blu-ray releases of Besson's work from Optimum, all of which have been licensed from French distributor Gaumont. Now when I say weakest I'm actually doing the transfer a serious disservice, as at it's best it's still a rather lovely thing to behold, with bright colours (the blue of the trains and station furniture is rich without feeling over-saturated), a strong contrast range and solid black levels, while the sharpness and detail, while not quite up to that of the standard-setting Le dernier combat, are still considerably better than even an above-average DVD transfer. There is the suspicion, however, that two different film stocks were used for different scenes and/or shoots, resulting in some noticeable shifts in picture quality, sometimes from shot to shot. I'm presuming the decision to use a faster stock was taken to make use of the available fluorescent lighting in wider shots, and that a more grain friendly slower stock was used when the lighting could be supplemented. I may be way off on this, but it would certainly it the bill.
Surprisingly, the PCM 48 French soundtrack is 2-channel mono, which presumably is how it always played on its initial release. This is not a problem, as the clarity and punch are equal and frankly superior to that of a good many more recent stereo and even surround tracks, with the music in particular coming over well. Great news if you dig the songs, then.
Only the original French Trailer (1:57), which does a reasonable job of selling the goods.
Subway was the first Besson film to build a cult following beyond home shores, and if you're part of that then you'll doubtless dismiss my complaints above and get excited at the prospect of seeing the film on high definition at last. As you should. It's not the best transfer in Optimum's Luc Besson Collection, but that's only because the others are so damned good, and it still looks a lot better than you've likely ever seen it outside of the cinema. No real extras, but fans should be happy enough with the picture and sound quality to complain too loudly.