THE UNDERNEATH Pulls Off A Laid Back Heist

Before Steven Soderbergh gave us classics like Out of Sight, The Limey, and the Ocean’s trilogy, he gave us this Texas-set caper.

The Underneath hit Blu-ray on Feb 16th from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

As a precursor to Steven Soderbergh’s excellent, crime/caper films Out of Sight, The Limey, and the Ocean’s trilogy, 1995’s The Underneath serves as a fine blueprint. It’s a Texas-set, economical thriller that does everything viewers expect from Soderbergh. Meaning, it’s slickly directed, paced like a racehorse, with the breezy confidence of a grand entertainer. Right up front I should admit that these kind of crime movies are my cinematic catnip. This was my first time seeing The Underneath and I enjoyed the hell out of it. What can I say, I’m an easy mark.

The Underneath is a remake of the 1949 noir Criss Cross, which itself was based on the 1934 novel by Don Tracy. The plot revolves around a man returning home with the hopes of re-connecting with his ex-wife and gets himself tied up in a scheme to rob an armored car along the way. The bones of this story hold up nearly a century after they sprung from Tracy’s mind. The trappings can change with the times, but betrayal, love, and crime is a cocktail that doesn’t age.

Peter Gallagher stars as Michael, a guy heading back home to Austin for his mother’s wedding. Michael used to have a happy life with his wife Rachel (Alison Elliott). Michael is, and was, a degenerate gambler, chasing his next score until things eventually went belly up. Michael left town in the middle of the night to get away from his problems, and the mess is still waiting for him. So much of the fun is derived from watching Michael the landmines waiting for him. There’s the scorned Rachel, her club-owning tough guy new husband Tommy (William Fichtner) in one corner; in the other there is Michael’s cop brother David (Adam Trese) and mom’s new man Ed (Paul Dooley). Every person presents a different challenge to Michael, and he’s the kind of guy who’s destined to always do things the hard way.

Soderbergh’s script, which shares a credit with Criss Cross writer Daniel Fuchs, balances two timelines that mirror each other: the gambling problems that forced Michael to leave and the new scheme he’s hatching. The two threads are one in the same, a drawstring waiting to snap shut on Michael. The juxtaposition re-enforces that Michael is the kind of guy who thinks the best way out of hole is to dig deeper. He’d be easy to dismiss if Gallagher’s performance were less confident. No matter what happens, Gallagher plays it with a baseline level of coolness that is inviting. He’s always in control of the character and each scene, so when we finally see Michael sweat it feels more significant. For all of Michael’s confidence, however, it’s Rachel who keeps escalating the stakes of the story. Elliott plays Rachel as a woman with her guard up, but she lets us see how Rachel really feels with just a few stolen glances. It’s magnetic work that syncs up with Gallagher’s in a way that makes me want to see a movie with just those two characters going back and forth.

The Underneath isn’t quintessential Soderbergh, but it is an informative stepping stone to the films that would catapult him to the A-list. Previously available on DVD and tucked away as a special feature on the Criterion set for Soderbergh’s King of the Hill, Kino Lorber spruces the film up for this Blu-ray release. The film looks and sounds as sharp as if it were made today. The Blu-ray is short on special features, save for a commentary track by critic and film historian Peter Tonguette. One of the topics that comes up often is Soderbergh’s critiques of the film in the years after its release. Tonguette spends a great deal of time separating looking Soderbergh’s work through the lens of his first four films (sex, lies, and videotape, Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath) and then everything else. The bulk of Soderbergh’s thoughts underneath boil down to his perception of the film’s slowness and self-serious tone. Soderbergh proves to be his own toughest critic, as Tonguette (and myself) has a sunnier outlook on this film. Even though it’s a one-sided conversation, it’s an interesting ongoing dialogue throughout the commentary. There are a few dry spots, which seems inevitable when one person is carrying the conversation, but all in all Tonguette is a good host and with enough quality tidbits about The Underneath and discussion of Soderbergh’s filmography.

The Underneath is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

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