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The Deer Hunter begins with three friends, Michael (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) leaving behind their small town of friends and family to do their military service in Vietnam.

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During their tour, the friends are captured and forced to play Russian roulette with the other prisoners of war for the twisted entertainment of their captors. Managing to escape, Michael pulls his friends to safety only to be split up from them and believing them to be dead.

Returning home, Michael struggles to deal with his experiences and when he hears that Nick may still be alive, he travels back to Saigon to find his friend.

I hadn’t seen The Deer Hunter in ages. It was always a movie I kept meaning to buy, but through a history of feature-light editions or being put on the ‘to buy’ list while other more pressing releases took my money I never got around to revisiting the multiple Oscar winning classic and I sure as hell wasn’t watching it on TV with adverts, as it’s long enough as it is.

Watching it again, I was immediately drawn to the almost forgotten style of seventies filmmaking where everything is just allowed to play out. In today’s modern filmmaking, you’d probably lose half of the first act with Steven’s wedding and the boy’s drinking sessions, but it’s really what makes the impact of The Deer Hunter so believable. The wedding alone gives you a real insight into this small town. You know how Michael feels about Linda (Meryl Streep), you know the dynamics of the group of friends, and you know who’s going to fare well in Vietnam before these characters have even left the country.  

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That said, this isn’t all about subtle insights, The Deer Hunter still has the lion’s share of moments that shine. Walken's jump over the glass at the wedding (and pretty much all of Walken in the first half—who wouldn’t want to be this guy’s buddy?) The ‘this is this’ standoff between Michael and Stanley (John Cazale), the calming moment after the friends go hunting and John (George Dzundza) playing the piano... In a large catalogue of movies depicting the Vietnam War there’s something uncomfortably real about how simple Michael Cimino’s direction of the scenes plays out. The soldier throwing the bomb down to the hiding prisoners has always been disturbingly real and of course the whole of the first Russian roulette scene comes loaded with tension (and makes the Revels advertising campaign spoofing it feel in very bad taste).

The dedication to the whole here means that scenes don’t really need to be about anything specific, but all of these glimpses come together for a final act that devastates. Where this story takes us and how our characters end up is just as realistic and harrowing as it has always been and the performance from De Niro as well as the powerhouse of a cast around him show in spades why they've been so highly acclaimed since. The Deer Hunter is a movie that more than deserves its high regard in the world of film and even though it's only the second time I've seen it (I feel almost ashamed admitting that) I'm glad to report that its impact was as powerful now as it was in my youth.

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Having never seen the movie on DVD I'm can't say for sure how much of an improvement the HD version is over the previous SD editions. Judging by reports the DVD editions were a mixed bag depending on what release you went with, but by what I've seen here The Deer Hunter looks pretty damn good without coming with the bells and whistles of that a full restoration might provide.

Looking over an old review on DVDactive for the old DVD special edition it sounds as if everything that was good about that is enhanced here. The image is pleasantly clean, adequately detailed and even if it’s not a patch on the modern movie Blu-ray’s out there it does a great job at showing off the thirty one year old movie.

Other than a fine layer of grain (which is almost un-noticeable to be honest) and the odd bit of dirt the transfer is clean, handles black levels well and despite having a fairly mundane colour palette (all intentional of course) the HD transfer shows off seventies filmmaking well, capturing all of its qualities and charm.

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In all honesty the 5.1 mix here is almost entirely pointless. In fact the 2.0 option is barely even used either, with the majority of the audio sitting in the centre speaker. Dialogue can often feel low with music or harsh sound effects jumping up a few notches too high creating an unbalanced and sometimes harsh audio experience in places.  

Obviously much of this is the charm of The Deer Hunter and no one likes an overhauled mix that makes your memory and the feel of the movie feel like it has been abused, so fans can sit pretty knowing this still sounds like it should but audiophiles who are visiting The Deer Hunter for the first time may find the seventies sound recording a little abusive in places with all of the elements battling to be heard a lot of the time.

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The commentary by director Michael Cimino is actually a great companion piece to the movie. Loaded with questions from a supporting film critic, Cimino recounts many great stories about his movie and the many actors who supplied their first big roles (Walken and Streep—they’ve done pretty well for themselves since haven't they). He gives lots of detail about technique as well as the how the craft has changed since and all in all this was a fine commentary for a fine movie.

‘Presentation By Mickey Rourke’ (02:37 SD) is a weirdly over edited little piece with the actor showing a brief glimpse of his admiration for the movie and ‘Vietnam War: Unseen Images’ (47:36 SD) is a French documentary showing some grimy footage of the mess that was the Vietnam War, and for people out there who are interested in the subject provides a warts and all look at some of the conditions and events.

‘Realising The Deer Hunter’  (23:31 SD) is a good little making of detailing the history of how the movie got made all presented with interview footage of Cimino with his sunglasses and burning cigarette. ‘Shooting The Deer Hunter’ (15:31 SD) and ‘Playing The Deer Hunter’ (15:38 SD) is much in the same style and features cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond talking about his work and John Savage recounting his experience as a member of the cast.

Lastly there’s the harrowing Trailer (03:03 SD), BD Live and of course Optimum provide a nice book style bit of packaging.

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The Deer Hunter is a classic and it’s been treated with much respect by Optimum here. The extras are great, though sadly missing many of the main cast’s input, the audio isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes but besides all the slight negatives the transfer does a solid job and is a fine addition to the HD catalogue (and my own movie collection, finally!).

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.