|Glass Shield, The|
|Written by Paul Lingas|
|Tuesday, 12 February 2002|
“The Glass Shield,” an 11-year-old crime drama from writer/director Charles Burnett, is raw around the edges, partly by design and partly because it feels slightly amateurish. Rereleased by Miramax under the auspices of a Collector’s Edition DVD, the film does have an interesting premise and some decent writing, but mostly feels somewhat poorly executed. Ice Cube is now featured as a major player in both the trailer and packaging, but in reality he has one of the smallest roles in the film. It’s too bad that this DVD feels less like a collector’s edition and more like an afterthought.
The film surrounds what is ostensibly an L.A. County Sheriff’s office and the corruption that slowly becomes uncovered by a couple of young minority officers. One of them, J.J. (Michael Boatman) is the first black officer in the department, but he, along with Fields (Lori Petty), the only female officer, is clearly considered by his colleagues and superiors to be merely window dressing. Trying to fit in at the department, J.J. backs up one of the other officers when he arrests Teddy (Ice Cube) at a gas station. Teddy is accused of an unrelated murder that he clearly did not commit, but J.J. and Fields must uncover the corruption at the department that would put this innocent man behind bars. It is unclear just why the rest of the department feels the need to get this man, besides the fact that he’s black and that they “need to solve the murder” of a white woman.
At one point the main witness is murdered, theoretically by one of the corrupt detectives, Baker (Michael Ironside), but there is little indication as to exactly why this was necessary and, even though the culprits are hinted at, the clues are so flimsy and transparent that it leaves the viewer with a feeling of irritation that results from unfinished business. Too many things are at play here, from the death of a former inmate, who we never see, to the obvious but not blatant racism within the department, the city council conspiracies and bad cops, to J.J.’s personal struggles with his fiancée. Some of these story aspects are interesting and others are so seldom addressed or mentioned that they are nothing more than a distraction, an attempt to make it seem as though this is a script and a film with many nuances and subtleties. Unfortunately, though there are two or three main throughlines that hold interest, they get pushed aside at times to make way for what is really an indulgence.
At its heart, “The Glass Shield” is an overly slow and sometimes melodramatic film with a less than satisfying ending. The trailer makes the film seem much more exciting and dramatic than it really is and, as noted above, it falsely gives the idea that Ice Cube plays a major role. The film itself is somewhat interesting as far as racial cop dramas go and is reasonably well written, but the direction often feels pedestrian. Some of the acting is absolutely wooden, while at other times it is very nice. Michael Boatman does an average job as the conflicted J.J., but there are a few instances, most notably in the final scene, where his acting is absolutely forced. Burnett often uses ill-advised camera angles, like during a fight scene where it is clear that the actors are pulling their punches. The editing is also sometimes awkward, contributing to this stagy acting style that comes and goes. The absolute worst performance by far is by Natalia Nogulich, who plays the judge in the case. It is very difficult to have a completely effective character drama when the acting level comes and goes. It must be said to have been an admirable effort, but with a less than satisfying result.
Though the DVD claims to have hours of bonus features, this is only true when considering the two hours of the film with accompanying audio commentary as inclusive in that boast. In fact, without the commentary, there are only about 23 minutes of bonus features. A conversation with Charles Burnett is nice for the short amount of time that it runs, which is even shorter than the interview with the composer. Don’t the DVD makers think that the writer/director should have more time in the special features than the composer? He mainly discusses a lot of attitudes that he is both trying to discuss and change in Hollywood films, but seems to get cut off before the interview gets really interesting. Film Scoring with Stephen James Taylor is a brief 10-minute discussion with the composer where he talks about a few different scenes and what he did for them. The interview is shot in a very amateurish way, the focus going in and out. Only amateurs use auto-focus in interviews. Ultimately, this is not that exciting, as it focuses more on how the composer made some of the sounds, rather than anything particularly compelling or new about film composition. The audio commentary is pretty good, in that they discuss at length why they did certain things. It is interesting and actually informative to listen to the filmmakers talk about why they made certain choices and how some of those choices turned out. Part of what makes it interesting is that the film clearly isn’t as good as the filmmakers intended it to be; the flaws become more impactful as a learning tool when accompanied by the commentary, particularly because Burnett is very open about what he wanted, why, and whether or not he felt he achieved it.
On a technical level, this DVD is on the lower side of ordinary in every way. I’d give it a C- if I was a teacher and assuming that a C was completely middle of the road, which today means a crisp but unremarkable transfer with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. While the transfer looks pretty good, it also looks kind of old, and there are some compression problems with the left side of the letterboxing. It essentially looks like the left side of the image is getting bent at times, probably because when they did the video timing, they played around with the image a bit, sliding around the negative in order to reframe a few shots. I’ll add a small lesson here, in that the area of the film negative is always slightly larger than what ends up being projected and also what ends up being on the video transfer. Thus, if the filmmakers so desire, they can actually move the image up, down, left or right to slightly, and I mean slightly, reframe a shot. A sometimes consequence is that the side of the image can appear slightly bent or smooshed. That’s the end of that lesson. My final note on the image is that it appears flat and lacking in texture, though I blame the majority of that on the cinematography. The sound mix is like much of the film, slightly amateur in its design and otherwise unremarkable. The Dolby 2.0 mix certainly doesn’t hide this fact and we should be thankful that we don’t have to listen to this film in 5.1, because that would just draw unwanted attention to a sound mix that really makes me want to yawn.
“The Glass Shield” is a serviceable police drama with easily seen potential and an unrelenting penchant for not following through on that potential. This “Collector’s Edition DVD” really adds little to the film, besides an honest audio commentary that should provide a few lessons to aspiring filmmakers.