Lowdown: A white man getting into trouble in black Bronx is an opportunity for everyone else.
Brian De Palma may be a controversial director, but he sure can make a good film when he's firing on all cylinders. In my opinion, he's one of those old style directors that really control the artistry of the film media, an old school art that has virtually disappeared in this world of sticking to the formula dictated by accountants so money can be earned at a seemingly low risk and/or relying on digital effects. It's the De Palma way of doing things that got mortally wounded when blockbusters such as Jaws and Star Wars started to come out.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is a 1991 release from De Palma, and if you're asking me he's still very fine tuned indeed there. He tells a story narrated by a fresh out of Moonlighting Bruce Willis, a drunk but very successful writer whose ass is being kissed all over. Willis' success, it seems, might have had something to do with the demise of Tom Hanks' character, the main figure in Bonfire, whose story is flash backed to us by Willis.
Tom Hanks plays a successful Wall Street trader who makes a million before lunch but is still unsatisfied with his beautiful wife and huge upper east side apartment; he wants more. More, in this case, is an affair with Melanie Griffith. One night, while driving her in his Mercedes, the pair take a wrong turn and end up in The Bronx, surrounded by blacks. Things go wrong, and in a moment of panic Griffith hits & runs a black guy. Hanks wants to go to the police but his mistress won't let him.
The black community starts to become angry, stirred by a cynical priest. The Jewish district attorney (played by the excellent F.Murray Abraham from Amadeus), wishing to become mayor, looks for the rich owner of the Mercedes, knowing such a "victim" would earn him the black vote. A would be lawyer wishing to acquire a position of power with the district attorney stops at nothing to find this victim and victimize him. Eventually it's Willis, a lowly reporter, that ties the knots and pins Hanks to the hit & run, unleashing a chain of greed and power lust in a dog eat dog society where no one is human or humane and appearances are the only thing that matter.
Aside of the wonderfully witty plot and well developed characters, Bonfire relies heavily on its cast. And an excellent cast it is! On top of the previously mentioned figures there's a Morgan Freeman that's adding his share as the only decent person in New York that can see things for what they are.
More than anything, though, Bonfire is a tour de force of a director at his best. There are virtually all of De Palma's trademarks here: the long opening shot with no cuts, split screens (both obvious and hidden), clever camera work, and tons of cynicism. Interestingly, the nudity that's a De Palma trademark is missing from Bonfire; a shame, if you ask me. Still, The Bonfire of the Vanities is thus an entertaining film that appeals to cinema buffs, too.
Memorable scene: It's hard to pin a specific scene. There's the long uncut opening scene, but De Palma does it better later in Snake Eyes; therefore, what took me over was the scene where Morgan Freeman stops the roller coaster of shams and calls things the way they are. On one hand, it's a redundant scene, because he's only stating what should be very obvious to the viewer; on the other hand, the fact the world listens and still goes on as before is one of the more important points the film is trying to make.
Technical assessment: This DVD features only a very compressed stereo soundtrack that sounds more like mono and features cheap sounding eighties like music. The picture is even worse, with a transfer that seems to have been made off a cinema copy rather than a master.
Overall: An excellent film let down only by technicalities. 4.5 out of 5 stars.