House of Blu-ray

First skirmish in the Blu-ray Conflict: martial arts vs. illegal arms. (As with the HD DVD roundup in our previous issue, this is a fair fight, so all ratings are relative to other high-definition discs, not to standard-definition DVDs. All discs were screened using an unmodified Samsung BD-P1000 player.)

Not unlike the present-day struggle for dominion over the high-def disc, House of Flying Daggers (Sony; Movie •••½, Picture/Sound •••½) is a fracas between factions for control of a mighty province. But like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this film is really all about love and wirework, with oodles of gorgeous imagery - all the better to help Blu-ray Disc sales.

Before you've even had a chance to be staggered by the beauty, though, you'll be knocked out by the sound. It's so spacious and clear and loud. (Make sure to switch over in the pop-up menu from Dolby Digital 5.1 - the default on all these Sony discs - to 5.1-channel uncompressed PCM.) The dynamic range is astonishing, with the tinkling of crystal-bead curtains standing out against the sound of drums and swords. That pounding percussion is so boomy that the floor vibrates, yet individual beats still have a snap to them. Check out Chapter 3, where dried kidney beans are bounced against pig skins so that our heroine (Ziyi Zhang) can echo the movement in dance while a band whacks out a tune on ancient bongos. Above this racket, you can hear not only the beans but also the swish of silk.

The visuals here and in many more scenes are gorgeous, with a contrast range that brings out all the richness of color in compositions and reveals every intricate tone in the costume patterns. That said, I'm still disappointed with Dagger's high-def picture; it's often soft and lacking in detail. True, the picture is a substantial improvement over that of the standard-def DVD edition, but it doesn't produce the same roundness and solidity in objects and figures that I've seen on most HD DVD discs so far.

But getting back to that sound ... I was stunned by the stillness of the quiet scenes, in which every footstep, cricket, and rustle of cornstalks can be heard distinctly. I was also ravished by the martial arts scenes, such as the fight in the bamboo forest, where characters go through amazingly choreographed moves against a background of every shade of green imaginable.

The completely surrounding music swells to massively loud levels - but without any distortion or drowning out of the crisp smacks of the staffs. As an audio format, Blu-ray is blue-ribbon.

Lord of War (Lionsgate; Movie •••, Picture/Sound ••½) is an entertaining, satirical morality tale about a likable arms dealer (Nicolas Cage) plying his trade in picturesque combat zones around the world. The filmmakers put a great deal on the screen with only a small budget, but the Blu-ray Disc does betray the modest means. Although there are deep blacks in Cage's expensive suits, whites could be brighter - and overall, images tend to be a little dull and dingy. Skin tones are rather blotchy and inconsistent, and there's a general flatness and lack of detail in faces.

All the Lionsgate Blu-ray Discs offer Dolby Digital EX or DTS-ES soundtracks. They're much better than those of the standard-def DVDs, with Lord of War's flyovers more powerful, bassy, and directional. What's lacking is the expansiveness and distinctiveness of Sony's uncompressed PCM. Also, voices are a tad muffled.

I'm not going to talk much about extras, because no new ones have been included on any of these discs. But I will say I'm surprised that War doesn't even have the commentaries, deleted scenes, and featurettes from the DVD. Isn't one of the major selling points for high-def discs all that space for extra extras? Go figure.

First blood goes to Daggers and Sony.