Monday, November 12, 2018

They're not sending their best


A bomb-based thriller that's too wacky for its own good, yet, perhaps, not quite wacky enough, Blown Away splits the difference between sobriety and absurdity somewhat awkwardly, if never quite so awkwardly that the good parts (which is to say, the cool parts) wind up lost.

Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Written Jay Roach, John Rice, and Joe Batteer
With Jeff Bridges (Lt. Jimmy Dove), Suzy Amis (Kate), Lloyd Bridges (Max O'Bannon), Forest Whitaker (Officer Anthony Franklin), and Tommy Lee Jones (Ryan Gaerity)

Spoiler alert: moderate

It's hard to know exactly what to make of Blown Away, except I'm bound to be well-disposed toward it, since as far as I can tell it's at least trying to be my favorite movie.  After all, essentially, it's little more than a delivery device for sequences of tension and suspense that have Jeff Bridges cutting wires and screaming "no!" a lot while Tommy Lee Jones acts maniacal in the background, and which usually end with ridiculously overwrought pyrotechnics, including one of the largest and least-safe explosions in cinema history.  Now, it doesn't achieve this aim—hell, I've only ever seen Blown Away twice, and those viewings have been separated by nearly a quarter century—but it's the thought that counts, so while I can't draw the world's shittiest pullquote out of my back pocket and tell you "it's a blast!" (for, in any abiding sense, it is not), Blown Away has the intention of being a blast, and often enough this intention shows up fully on the screen, which I gratefully acknowledge.

Sometimes, though, it doesn't want to be a blast.  Sometimes it wants to be a movie about the cycle of violence in Northern Ireland, something it uses almost exclusively (and perhaps tastelessly) as a springboard for nothing more profound or political than a comic book plot about a mad bomber running around Boston being almost supernaturally vengeful toward the man he believes has wronged him.  Yet it's the biggest something in the film, informing the setting, a whole lot of the soundtrack, and most of the characters, if not the casting.  Never the casting: the closest this movie ever gets to "Irish" is that the star of The Crying Game is in it in a secondary role, by which I mean that Forest Whitaker is in it, playing an African-American cop, whilst the leads are played by Anglos in Celtface, which wouldn't seem like it would be an issue... at least until you hear their accents.

Still, this is hardly Blown Away's most acute problem—only its funniest.  Its real troubles are to be found in a thoroughly thoughtless script and, I suppose, that vestigial appendage of a post-climactic thriller module.  And yet the former is often bound up badly with Blown Away's whole underlying Irish Thing, because that Irish Thing explicitly cages its bomb-defusing hero within a moral quandary that the movie never has much interest in exploring—not even as an ally to its suspense!—to the extent you wonder why Jay Roach, John Rice, and Joe Batteer bothered to write this particular dude this particular way.  You do not wonder so much why director Stephen Hopkins accepted what they wrote; for, as we know from Predator 2 (and that's if we want to keep things nice and only talk about his good movies), Hopkins' philosophy has always been to film whatever it is you handed him with a certain workmanlike competence and, occasionally, a flourish of absolute visual insanity.

So let's meet "Jimmy Dove," nĂ© Liam McGivney—and, to give the writers their credit where it's due, that assumed name is called out in dialogue with exactly the eyeroll it deserves.  Once upon a time in Northern Ireland, McGivney fell in with a band of violent Irish Republicans.  (Though, as the screenplay is remarkably eager to explain, not the Irish Republican Army, Provisional or otherwise, no doubt because the IRA and PIRA have enjoyed a massive consituency here in the United States, and so the one political point the movie seems to want to make, it only sort of inarticulately gestures at instead—namely that it has devised a scenario in which our nation reaps what it's sown, having spent decades passively supporting a terrorist campaign against our closest ally thanks to a politically-active community of Irish-Americans who love Ireland so much that they don't even live there.)   McGivney's mentor and teacher, too deadly for the Provos, was one Ryan Gaerity, who pushed the lad into making a bomb that, once Gaerity turned it against a street full of civilians, he tried to stop.  He didn't make it, and McGivney lost his girlfriend to the blast in the process.  Gaerity was arrested, but McGivney escaped, changed his name, and fled to the USA, where—in penance—he joined the Boston police as an apparently very busy bomb disposal expert.

I see you got your degree from Fenian University?  I've never heard of it, but you seem legit.

This "Dove" has made a life for himself these past twenty years, courting a violinist single mom, Kate, and defusing many, many explosives (such as the one we see in his cool introduction), and therefore saving many, many lives.  At this point he's ready to hang it up and concentrate on just having a family.  But what he doesn't know is that Gaerity's just blown his way out of Irish Terrorist Prison, and crossed the ocean to Boston, too—where he spies, upon the evening news, the face of the man who betrayed him, lo so many years ago.  Gaerity does not, of course, decide to let bygones be, and on Dove's very wedding day, Gaerity sets up a bomb to assassinate Dove's replacement, letting him know by implication (and, soon enough, quite explicitly) that his past has come to haunt him.  Now back on the force to catch Gaerity before the bomber can either kill all his friends, kill his family, kill him, or reveal his secret, Dove and his teammates race against time to stop Gaerity from striking again—which he does, over and over, drawing upon resources that seem to be conjured from out of nowhere, and with the kind of amazing impunity that's rather convenient for this kind of thriller, even if it stretches credibility a little.  Or a lot.

In fact, Blown Away's sloppier than it even needs to be on this count, including one scene where the movie has Dove and his pseudo-partner/pseudo-antagonist, up-and-coming bomb disposal officer Anthony Franklin, actually find Gaerity's hideout in an abandoned casino boat, then get distracted and just leave.

In fairness, it would have ruined the batshit climax.

But, mostly, it's still fun to watch Gaerity teleport to wherever it is he needs to go in order to menace Dove most effectively, whether that be his home—he kills our guy's dog!—his wife's family's beach house, or a second-story room in a schoolhouse overlooking one of his more creative murders, with stage glass windows that can artfully explode behind him as he stares at a point several inches to the right of the camera.  Despite its cultural impact, there weren't a ton of movies that directly ripped off Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear, but Blown Away is one of them, from its plot—an old enemy who's a dark mirror of the hero gets out of prison to threaten him physically and psychologically alike—to the game attempt the film and Tommy Lee Jones make to render that enemy a personification of disproportionate consequences, a chaotic nemesis so self-evidently malign that when Dove screams that Gaerity "never cared about the cause!" and only ever joined to blow stuff up, it feels like the screenplay's overenunciating what's been obvious from the first scene. I'm sure, of course, that "Cape Fear with huge explosions" explains what I meant when I said Blown Away wants to be my favorite movie.

And there's a lot to admire about Blown Away's physical dismantling of Dove's happiness.  Less so, however, the psychological: while it puts in an obvious effort to make its thrills as thrilling on the interior as they are on the exterior, it just doesn't ever get there, in part due to the mish-mash of a "family life" it establishes for Dove—never better than in an early scene, where Dove's stepchild asks him if the way his replacement died hurt, and he tells her, after considering whether the answer he wants to give is actually true, "no"—and this is also thanks to a screenplay that is convinced that putting Kate in extremely vague peril is the same as giving her a character.  Hopkins' directorial choices, amplified by the screenplay, don't always help matters, either, especially a black-and-white, stuttery slo-mo flashback that would've been better-delivered as a plain-jane prologue or just cut out of the movie entirely (I mean, it is related in exposition something like five or six times).  It's never, I think, Jeff Bridges' fault as an actor—he brings a lot of Bridgian charm and looseness to the role early on, before things get heavy, which helps sell Dove as a person whose travails are worth caring about, from which point he plays "heavy" adequately enough—though it's also clear that whatever the fuck he thought he was trying to do with his accent when he reveals his secret name to his bride, it was prudent that somebody told him to stop.  Mostly, though, it's down to a story that's afraid of wrestling with the fact that the longer this goes on, the more it really is Dove's fault.  It's much too willing  to absolve our boy of guilt (it has at least three whole dialogues where other characters explicitly do so).  Hence Blown Away, a movie about guilt, featuring a personification of its protagonist's guilt, is somehow not completely aware that "unprosecuted murderer" is not the most unproblematic hero we could possibly have, and nothing here feels like redemption because, as far as Blown Away's concerned, Dove was redeemed before we were ever introduced.

It may be, too, that none of the supporting characters feel like they have any existence outside of being props in Dove's drama, not just Kate: while it's a perfect casting coup to place Lloyd Bridges as Dove's American father figure, he's really just another Oirish cartoon; meanwhile, Dove's relationship with Anthony is so oddly bitter there's never a chance for any miniature buddy cop movie to blossom between them, yet never quite at-odds enough to feel like an interesting secondary conflict, and their relationship's denouement feels like it comes right out of nowhere, wholly unearned.

That leaves us with TLJ, the biggest cartoon Oirish of all (and disregarding the accent, you can draw a straight, downward-sloping line though Gaerity to Two-Face in Batman Forever, just one year hence).  Yet to some extent that even works—Gaerity is a cartoon figure and deserves a cartoon performance, even as much as he deserves a cartoon villain's lair (I rather adore John Graysmark's grotty, slanted production design on Gaerity's beached casino boat, which turns every shot into a Dutch angle by default).  The approach only ever fails, then, when it runs afoul of Blown Away's occasional desire to retrench into mawkish seriousness, and while Jones plays each and any of these moments rather well (his tears of regret for blowing up a fellow Irishman are, as far as anybody could possibly tell, entirely genuine), they don't add up to any coherent character.

But, for all my grousing, coherence (or character) is not what Gaerity or Blown Away is about: they're about ludicrous Rube Goldbergian deathtraps, starting with a bomb that bounces an explosion off a metal plate in order to kill the defuser in the "safe" place Gaerity knew he would stand, and only getting more elaborate, baroque, and implausible from there, culminating in a wacky series of tubes that Gaerity has expressly modeled after a child's toy, which he overpaid for at the same flea market he overpaid for a bootleg cassette of U2 hits.  (Which brings up the soundtrack, and Blown Away's 90s time-capsule appeal: it's substantial, with no fewer than three U2 needle-drops—none of which, incredibly, is "Sunday Bloody Sunday"—but one of which is the magnificent and perfectly-chosen "With Or Without You," set to a pretty stunning calm-before-the-storm crosscut montage of Dove collecting evidence from yet another friend's death scene while Gaerity prepares his explosive "masterpiece.")  Anyway, Hopkins' innovation with the bomb sequences was to use macrophotography to place cameras inside the mechanisms themselves, and these scenes are always special: Gaerity's supervillainy ensures they have a lot of intricate moving parts to be entertained by, and, because nobody is actually important here besides Dove and Gaerity, you know some of them are going to die (albeit not as many as you'd prefer).  As much as I like the macrophotography, though, probably my favorite thing here is just a De Palmian split-diopter shot of Whitaker silently freaking out in the corner of the 'Scope frame and Bridges even-more-subtly freaking out in the midground while he works, both faces in preternaturally sharp focus as they count down toward doom.

This is as much to say that the movie is pretty effortlessly watchable even at its most stilted (though that final bomb-from-beyond-the-grave sequence runs like a deflated tire, which just underlines how central Jones' borderline-bigoted, fuck-the-Irish-nationalists performance always was).  It rarely succeeds at anything human, frankly, but it does succeed at being a movie about crazy bombs, and trying (and often failing) to stop them from going off, and that is the half of Blown Away that matters most.

Score: 7/10

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