[box cover]

Animal Factory

The 1997 novel Animal Factory was written by ex-con Eddie Bunker, the prison laureate who achieved cinematic notoriety after taking on the supporting role of Mr. Blue in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Adapting the novel into a screenplay, Bunker asked his Dogs co-star Steve Buscemi to direct the picture, which Bunker and Danny Trejo (another inmate-turned-actor) were producing. While a promising project, the final results went straight to video after a couple festival showings in 2000, even with the presence of name actors like Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Trejo, and Mickey Rourke. The film, about a young man (Furlong) who goes to jail and is mentored by a professional con (Dafoe) who protects his ass — both literally and figuratively — is meant to show what prisons are really like. For anyone who's seen the numerous HBO documentaries on prisons, or watched the HBO show Oz, or The Shawshank Redemption, or even just watched the Chris Rock special Bring the Pain, notions of constant threats of anal rape and violence in the American prison system are all too familiar — the only thing Animal Factory adds to the setting is volume. Though Dafoe gives a solid performance as the more-intelligent-than-most-film-cons Earl Copen, and Mickey Rourke has an excellent turn as a front-toothless transvestite, once you get behind the initial shock of a prison's brutality, there isn't much going on beyond the familiar machinations of a prison movie, and as the plot evolves into an escape attempt by Dafoe and Furlong, one can't help but feel that their talents are being wasted, even if their bond feels real. Furlong is also lamely required to stab another inmate who's been making advances on him (Tom Arnold) right before he's going up for re-trial, and one never senses why he'd be so hot and bothered about it — he could've been on the streets if he avoided the stabbing, and the sequence appears only to be there because one of the big fat obvious points of Animal Factory is that prisons turns criminals into animals. As Buscemi's second film, he shows that he's talented with actors — as he did in his first film Trees Lounge — and he doesn't get in the way of his cast with flashy camerawork. But the setting doesn't play to his strengths, and he seems trapped in the story. Animal Factory is worth seeing for the actors, but overall it's a mixed bag — if you didn't know already that going to jail is a bad thing (unless you like being anally raped), there's nothing new here. Good anamorphic transfer (1.78:1), Dolby Digital 5.1. Also included are interviews with Buscemi, Dafoe, Furlong, and Rourke, but the audio commentary by Bunker and Trejo is disappointing. Keep-case.

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