Film Reviews

Blood simple

If we take Bob Rafelson at his word, Blood & Wine completes a trilogy about family relationships that started with the director's two crowning achievements, 1970's Five Easy Pieces and 1971's The King of Marvin Gardens. Those two films are so often pointed to as evidence of the brilliance of American moviemaking at that time--and they're still shining examples of what happens when an intuitive storyteller and a game actor (Jack Nicholson) work together to effect blistering emotional curiosity on-screen--that it may seem that Blood & Wine was doomed before it started.

Let's face it: Hardly anything about movies in the '90s, no matter the subject or talent attached, feels like movies from the '70s. That era's counterculture edge is now so much posturing indie twaddle. So while a fractured family is once again at the heart of this latest Rafelson-Nicholson collaboration, the much-anticipated reteaming discloses more cracks than in the characters, an effort not as thick as blood or as rich as wine.

This time, the tale Rafelson (with Nick Villiers and Alison Cross) has come up with focuses on a jewel heist masterminded by Nicholson's financially strapped Miami wine merchant Alex Gates. Living a delicately lavish existence that includes a Cuban mistress named Gabriella (Jennifer Lopez) and the status accoutrements of plying a trade that attracts connoisseurs and millionaires, Alex is forever burned by turmoil at home and in his pocketbook. His shut-in wife, Suzanne (Judy Davis), is becoming less tolerant of him by the day; his sea-loving stepson, Jason (Stephen Dorff), has always hated him; and the money is running out. Tempted by a million-dollar necklace in the safe of one of his wealthiest clients, Alex makes plans to lift the jewels with the help of his dryly evil, safecracking chum, Victor (Michael Caine), fence them in New York, and run off with Gabriella.

Rafelson gets the caper over with early on because he has bigger things in mind, such as the chaos that ensues when Alex's wife and stepson get in the way. What started out snaky and sunny--a midlife-crisis heist comedy, practically--quickly turns ugly when a fed-up Suzanne lashes out at Alex and, after a brutal fight, leaves him bloodied and unconscious. She and Jason take off in reactive terror with Alex's suitcase, unaware of the bundle of ice zipped up in a side pocket. Bent on recovering their swag at any cost, Alex and Victor desperately try to track them down. Meanwhile, Suzanne and Jason regroup and ponder whether they can start a new life that doesn't involve looking over their shoulder for traces of Alex. Oh, yeah--and Jason starts hankering after Gabriella, who, he believes, shares his desire to run from what can't be solved or reconciled.

This is a dysfunctional family yarn in which differences are dealt with not in words but in blows. And in an age when a heist-crime-gangster-pulp-modern noir film tiresomely comes along once a week, Blood & Wine distinguishes itself primarily by the very thing you would think would come off as rote and routine: its violence. In interviews, Rafelson has harped on the thrill-ride nature of bloodletting in today's cinema, so he has made violence the one aspect of his new movie that demands attention. The confrontations here are severe and include everything from domestic violence to a car crash, a bar brawl, head punches, and being crushed by a boat. When compared to the gaspingly shocking single act of violence that irrevocably concludes the relationship between brothers Nicholson and Bruce Dern in The King of Marvin Gardens, it appears Rafelson is trying to end his trilogy with more of a facile bang than he realized.

One would hope that in being so diligently attuned to the sheer nastiness of his characters, more heft and substance would have been heaped upon the parts in between, such as the roots of this family's bottled volatility. But alas, no. Though paced well when it comes to threats of impending brutality, the movie is sorely missing the sting of a genuinely knotty family drama, a disintegration from within. Rafelson can't even decide if his movie is more about Alex's fall or Jason's escape. By the end, you're likely to think it's about who'll actually buy it first.

As for the cast, nobody really gets to rise above the unseemliness, but Caine and his bronchially challenged sociopath manage to create an indelible image of pudgy menace, and Nicholson is always good for a warped crack or two. Blood & Wine may not be Man Trouble, that dispiritingly sorry attempt by Rafelson and Nicholson five years ago to--well, I'm not sure what they were attempting. But more than 25 years after they first cornered the market on interfamilial indifference, sadly, they've made their own family reunion creatively tepid.

Blood & Wine.
Jack Nicholson, Stephen Dorff, Michael Caine, Jennifer Lopez, Judy Davis. Written by Alison Cross and Nick Villiers. Directed by Bob Rafelson. Opens Friday.

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Robert Abele