Review: Mean Guns (director’s cut)

Kimberly Warren as "D."

There’s a theory that silent-era filmmakers were just on the verge of perfecting movies as a legitimate art form when sound came in and took away the primacy of the image. Suddenly what people said became just as important, if not more so, than what they did. A purely visual medium entered into an uneasy symbiosis with the spoken word.

Occasionally, though, you run across a film that fully embraces its visualness. Not something like The Artist, which recreates the silent era, but a modern film that nonetheless tells its story in primarily visual terms. The real test is to imagine watching it without hearing the dialogue; if you can still follow the story, then it’s awfully close to pure film.

Christopher Lambert as Lou. And an example of the brilliant widescreen photography.

Mean Guns, released in 1997 and starring Christopher Lambert and Ice-T, is just such a movie. Taking advantage of a location (the soon-to-open Los Angeles County Jail), the film has a group of cold-blooded killers brought together, locked in and given the weapons to kill each other.  The prize for the last three survivors: a suitcase full of money, and their lives.

The film’s first DVD release was a full-screen, pan-and-scan version. I once read that the reason so many modern action scenes are so hard to follow, is that this generation of filmmakers grew up watching full-screen versions of films shot in a widescreen aspect ratio. They internalized the chaos that comes when you chop off half the image, and that’s become the new standard. Certainly doing that to Mean Guns both added a level of anarchy the director never intended, and needlessly muddled a story that was crystal clear in its initial execution.

Now director Albert Pyun has released his widescreen cut, and it’s a revelation. This is a staggeringly visual movie that takes full advantage of the geometric shapes and reflective surfaces available in the brand-new facility. Further, the film is brilliantly cast with distinctive actors who don’t all look alike, a problem in way too many contemporary movies.  You’re never in doubt who’s onscreen, their spatial relationships are clear and the nonstop action scenes breath and pulse with life.

The visual style that's totally lost in the pan-and-scan/fullscreen version.

I was astounded to rewatch this film in its correct aspect ratio and realize that it is, in fact, an action masterpiece. I don’t use that term lightly, either; I’d put this on an equal footing with George Miller’s The Road Warrior and Walter Hill’s The Warriors, two films that could also lose their dialogue tracks and still be completely watchable. This is a movie worth tracking down and diving into.

Oh, and did I mention it’s scored with mambo music?

You can get the widescreen version directly from Pyun’s production company by e-mailing

7 Comments on “Review: Mean Guns (director’s cut)”

  1. Wow. The Road Warrior and The Warriors. That’s high praise.

    I note that the pan-and-scan version is what is currently available on Netflix. How did you hear about the newly-released Widescreen version?

  2. Alex, you captured the reason Albert wanted to release his widescreen version of the film. Thanks so much for that.
    Yes, the movie holds up when you subtract the sound.
    I’m going to listen to the sound alone. I suspect it could make darkly comedic radio show.

    Cynthia Curnan

  3. Alex, this review was exceptionally written and I am now even more excited to receive my copy of “Mean Guns” after having to watch the Pan & Scan version for so many years!

  4. Alex, I don’t remember if you’re a Buffy fan or not, but the bit about silent films and art and “if you can follow the story without hearing it” reminded me of the episode “Hush.” If I remember correctly, in that 42-43 minute episode, 32 minutes have no dialogue because the entire town has lost their voices (well, there’s a few lines of dialogue from a tv news report).

    I’ve seen academic papers on how well it was done and comparing it to the old silent movies. Just thought I’d share.

    Your review, while I’d never heard of the movie Mean Guns, made me think, and I like that. 🙂

  5. Any chance that you could share the audio commentary here on the review? I would love to hear it.

  6. Great review and completely on point. The Director’s Cut is a revelation. Mean Guns is an amazing action film filled with interesting characters. The ensemble cast features some amazing talent. You’ve got Christopher Lambert and Ice-T along with Pyun mainstays like Thom Mathews and Yuji Okumoto. What’s not to love. The cinematography is the true star and this version lets you see it the way it should have been seen from day one.

  7. Those were some excellent and truly novel insights, about a movie I thought I already knew, loved, and understood pretty well.
    Look forward to seeing the Director’s Cut at some point — hope they didn’t lose any of the phenomenal Tony Riparetti soundtrack in the process.
    What he did in the mambo idiom was beyond brilliant, and added so much to an already amazing movie.

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