If you haven't seen Ride With the Devil, you're in good company. By 1999, director Ang Lee had built up considerable buzz with Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, but his next project—a Civil War epic with Southern sympathies starring a pre-Spider-Man Tobey Maguire—failed miserably at the box office, garnered not a single Oscar or Golden Globe nomination, and quickly became a nominal footnote in everyone involved's career. But many of those who did see it, either during its first run or on home video, came away fans, and their devotion has been vindicated by the issue of a new director's cut on Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray. Now you have a chance to see what you missed: a lost contemporary classic.
In fact, the only false note in Ride comes in the opening scene, during which various guests at a wedding get a bit too explain-y while setting up the conflict between the Southern slaveholders of Missouri and the pro-North Kansans next door. Jake Roedel (Maguire) is a first-gen German immigrant, so everyone assumes he sides with the Union, yet he runs off with his best friend Jack Bull (Skeet Ulrich) and other young Missourians to join the rebel guerrillas known as bushwhackers. Their campaign soon grows desperate, and Jake finds himself protector of Jack Bull's mistress, Sue Lee (singer/songwriter Jewel in her first and last dramatic screen role), and companion of Holt (the phenomenal Jeffrey Wright), a freed slave who, because of personal loyalties, fights with the Southern side.
There are horseback pistol battles and a fairly epic recreation of a bushwhacker raid on Lawrence, Kan., but what Jake and Holt engage in as the war progresses is as much an internal struggle as an external one. Barely grown when he puts his young life on the line for the Southern cause, Jake finds himself enduring the anti-German prejudices of his fellow bushwhackers, most especially the volatile Pitt Mackeson (a baby Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, overacting like a baby guerrilla might), and questioning his pledge. Likewise, Holt slowly but inexorably comes to understand the limits of his ostensible freedom and, as Jake's friend, comes to redefine it.
Lee gets some visual mileage out of pans of riders picking their way through the green brush of the trans-Mississippi South, but he works no special razzle-dazzle here. Ride seems almost old-fashioned with its courtly period dialogue and stately pace, yet Maguire gives a thoroughly modern performance as an inchoate young man who rides off to a troublesome war and finds it's not what he expects. In a recent interview included on the extras menu, the sorely underused Wright calls Holt his favorite role, and it's not hard to see why. From a silent background presence, the character emerges to rival Jake for the film's center and soul, and it's all the better for the rivalry. The 20 or so minutes of footage added back to this version—mostly grace-note scenes standing apart from the plot—don't add much; fortunately they don't detract from the subtle, haunting excellence that was already there.
Speaking of contemporary classics, Kino International recently released Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels (1995) and Happy Together (1997) on Blu-ray, and this is good news even if you don't have a player yet. The mercurial visual style Wong crafted in the '90s in collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle has always been dicey at best on home video; watching their expressionist mix of film stocks and filming styles on VHS was a pointless exercise. Seeing these films on Blu-ray, most especially the fairly phenomenal transfer of Happy Together, is as close to a clean print in a theater as you, or these films, are going to get anytime soon.
Fallen Angels is the more outgoing of the pair, as a hitman (Leon Lai) stalks the streets of Hong Kong enabled by his beautiful fixer (Michelle Reis, rocking a bangs-in-the-eyes style that's still as fresh as next week). He relies on her for everything, including cleaning his apartment, but they never meet. He wants to keep it that way; she doesn't. She lives in an apartment building managed by a man whose son, an eccentric young mute played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, nurses his own secret crush when he's not breaking into businesses at night to run them himself. Wong and Doyle shot the film using wide-angle lenses, further isolating these lone urbanites in the middle of the frame and creating indelible moments when they do connect.
Happy Together, on the other hand, is perhaps Wong's masterpiece. Ho (HK superstar Tony Leung) and Lai (the late Leslie Cheung) are one of those couples that are always breaking up and making up. They go on vacation in Argentina to reboot their faltering bond only to break up again, seemingly for good. Stranded in a foreign country, each the only person the other knows, they can't leave each other alone, yet they can't stay together. Wong finds a metaphor for the sweeping power of love and its pettiness in the contrast between the mighty Iguazu Falls and a cheap plastic lamp that apes it. Likewise, the film toggles between the insufferability of putting up with another person and the loneliness that drives us to risk it. It's as romantic as a tango and as clear-eyed as a morning after.