With writer/ director Brian De Palma there's something else you can expect... Suspense. Also... Thrills. Also... Psychological Horror. Also... MORE RIP OFFS OF HITCHCOCK BEFORE NINE AM THAN MOST DIRECTORS RIP HIM OFF IN A LIFETIME. I say that as a fan of The DePalmanator, but kids, he might as well change the name of his production company to "The Alfred Hitchcock Fan Club". Actually, that doesn't sound so bad. At least it's credit where due.
Credit is due to De Palma for Blow Out, a film he both wrote and directed. Blow Out is a solid suspense thriller with a psychological, technological and political bend far more than worth your conspiracy theory buck. And... yeah, Brian-Boy does get his "Hitch-Homage" out of the way in the first five minutes.
We open with a very, very cheesy set up of a slasher wandering around my personal fantasy of what a Sorority House should be (minus the Slasher, of course). When said Slasher throws aside a shower curtain to dispatch a co-ed Psycho-style, she lets out a weak scream that says less "I'm going to die humiliated!" than "OH NO, Ash picked the Wrong Pokemon for his battle against SQUIRTLE!!!"
At this point I'm thinking De Palma's losing his touch. I'm wrong. This is the movie-within-a-movie that introduces us to Travolta's character Jack Terry. He's an ultra-cool Foley Engineer for some ultra-bad schlock-horror studio. Let's see, in the past two years they've produced Bloodbath, Bloodbath 2, Bad Day at Blood Beach, Bordello of Blood (hey, I liked that one) and now they're working on Co-Ed Frenzy. Everything's perfect but that damned scream! Jack gets hosed by the director (less Hitchcock than Fulci) and is forced to go out and gather some more sounds for this latest masterpiece of the bland.
The truth is, if nothing else, this is a pretty cool look at the inside of movies, how sounds are collected and mixed by the Sound Engineers (or at least how it was done around '81), and it just might make a few DVD Commentaries seem less dense to you film buffs. What follows is Terry's trek out to the woods with his super-sensitive microphones to collect a tape-load of sounds for a movie load of thrills. This time ol' Tony Manero's got just a bit more than the sounds of The Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive to worry about. This time the blow out of a sedan's tire causes a bridge-jumping crash that sends John (pompadour and all) into the creek to save a beautiful young lady (Nancy Allen's Sally) from drowning in a cheap Ford.
It so happens that there was someone else in the car... a Governor and Presidential Hopeful who is now deader than the Presidential Hopes of Al Gore. The political staff wants Jack to shut his trap about the fact that there was a girl in the car, Sally herself would prefer that he shut his trap about the fact that there was a girl in the car, and apparently a whole lot of other people are willing to forget she even existed, provided Jack shuts his trap. The problem is, Jack's a good guy, and he's worried about a little more than just the fact that the pre-Governator had his hand up her skirt when he crashed. Jack heard a boom before he heard that titular Blow Out, and he's pretty damned sure that someone's up to foul play.
If only he had some evidence... some way to prove that the sound of a Gun shot came before... the... sound... hey, wait a minute!
Soon, Jack finds himself embroiled in a groovy mystery that not even the Scooby Gang could survive. Soon his claims are discredited by a Zapruder-like film of the "Accident" from an alleged eye witness (Dennis Franz' sleazy Manny Karp) who claims there was no girl there. Soon his tapes are erased by some strange mystery man. Soon his life, as well as Sally's, is in Jeopardy... and he doesn't know the answer to the Daily Double.
But being in Film (Bad Films though they are), Jack knows a thing or three about how to crack this groovy mystery and he employs the tools to make it happen. Where this thriller is going is anybody's guess (this is not the same old predictable fare), but one man versus an entire conspiracy doesn't carry the odds one might find when betting on The Falcons versus The Patriots. Just who is involved and which side any given character is on are the unknowns that keep this thriller watchable.
John Travolta and Nancy Allen are fantastic in their performances. This is neither the gritty, tough-chick Allen, nor the sinister Prom Queen Allen we've seen before. Here she plays a helium high-voiced cutey who seems to be wearing her heart and history on her sleeve. Her depth betrays this seemingly two-dimensional character and makes this performance one of her best. Travolta's emotion is palpable and his weary and moody performance evolves the character of Jack into not only "the Good Guy", but also someone worth rooting for.
De Palma owes a debt to Hitchcock for this near-noir actioner. However, an even greater debt is owed to such films as Coppola's The Conversation and Blow Out's more direct forefather, Antonioni's Blowup. Derivative though it may be, De Palma isn't simply going through the motions here. He claims all of these elements for his own, like the adept collector that he is. De Palma's skills at structuring and foreshadowing, while never allowing his film to become predictable, are used to their best affect here. His use of long tracking shots and carefully mirrored blocking scenes (Jack Terry's reenactment of the recording session is a pleasure) make this one hard to look away from (and not just during the scenes of nudity).
Our director also handles a striking mixture of genres here as seamlessly as you like. Blow Out features one of the more thrilling (if unlikely) car chases since The French Connection. Travolta's desperate efforts to unravel this mystery amount to some excellent drama, and De Palma never allows the audience to get too wound up granting us even a little comedy (see Curt May's Phil Donahue-like Frank Donahue). Also, while not technically a "Horror Movie", John Lithgow's Burke amounts to much more of a psycho slasher than a hired operative. His maniacal acting, coupled with De Palma's dark directing make for some positively chilling moments that keep popping up all over the place.
In spite of the fact that critics and audiences have been increasingly favorable toward Blow Out over the years, Blow Out isn't quite perfect. For one thing, Blow Out feels dated. The use of then-ubiquitous, now-annoying musical cues almost makes me wish Jack Terry had done the sound for this flick. For a film that feels this smart, this often, it's hard to ignore so many bumps of implausibility and contrived plot points. Many of the action-oriented moments feel almost gratuitous and unlikely to succeed in reality, and some of the matting and even (occasionally) the acting comes off as just a bit cheesy. Further, with a morbid epilogue that almost poisons the surprise, twist ending, it's hard to sit through the credits of this film feeling terribly fulfilled.
But that's coming from this critic. If you're interested in a good, solid ride with a talented and smart director (not to mention a great cast), Blow Out is the film for you. Some truly unique moments of suspense keep the viewers riveted to their seats and wondering what's about to happen next. But keep in mind... this is the John Travolta film that Teddy Kennedy does NOT want you to see. Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Blow Out. It's one of De Palma's most thrilling, and hardest to figure out. In the Easter Egg category, watch the walls of Jack Terry's B-Movie studio for an enjoyable F/X-style montage of posters. Is De Palma saying that Ulli Lommel's The Boogeyman is the kind of movie that would rub elbows with the likes of Bloodbath, Bloodbath 2, Bad Day at Blood Beach, Bordello of Blood and Co-Ed Frenzy? If he's not... I am.
Hear you in the next reel!
In the "Not Too Distant Future"
Then Travolta could've asked Nancy Allen to introduce him to ROBOCOP!
The Future of Movie Reviews is a CLICK away!