Blow Out

Blow Out

Blow Out is a 1981 Brian De Palma movie with John Travolta in the lead role as a sound man working on low budget horror movies in Philadelphia. He happens to be in the right place at the right time (wrong place at the wrong time?) to record a political assassination that is being made to look like it was an accident. He pairs up with a girl who was involved in the killing but possibly in an innocent way. He quickly figures out at least vaguely what he’s up against, and must investigate and get more evidence so he’s not dismissed as a kook, while at the same time somehow staying alive since the bad guys know about him.

The film is intended to be reminiscent of Antonioni’s Blow Up, which I haven’t seen. It also makes numerous references to recent (at the time) American history, though to what end I’m not sure. That is, I suppose I could go through and say, “Oh, that’s kind of like Chappaquiddick, there’s a reminder of the JFK assassination, this part involves tapes like Watergate, here’s the Bicentennial celebration,” etc., but so what? Does the movie somehow give us more insight into those events? Is the movie more entertaining because of the vague resemblances to those events? Not that I can tell.

Most of the way I liked this better than Sisters, the other DePalma film I have written about so far. Actually they’re similar in a lot of ways, with some of the same good points and bad points. It’s just that Blow Out’s good points are a little better, and its bad points are a little less weak.

Travolta is a more compelling character than anyone in Sisters. It’s suspenseful finding out with him what peril he’s in and seeing how he deals with it, kind of like No Country for Old Men (just far less intense and far less good). I enjoyed the technical aspects when he is examining sound, film, and photos to derive clues.

The story is less confusing than in Sisters, and more inherently interesting.

Technically it’s a well put together film, as is Sisters. That is, it keeps you engaged and wanting to figure things out, as a thriller should. It’s well-paced, well-shot. The acting is mostly fine, albeit a little hokey here and there, like there’s just a touch of satire. It pushes the right buttons to get you excited when you’re supposed to be excited.

At a certain level, though, I still found this film to ultimately be a disappointment. There are just too many implausibilities that pile up. It seems like with decent characters, a decent story, and De Palma’s ability to maintain suspense and stage gripping action scenes, there should be some way to put it all together to create an entertaining movie without so much that’s frankly ridiculous.

For one thing, while Travolta is very believable in terms of how he interprets things and how he reacts, the movie chooses to make the girl a contrasting figure who’s skeptical that anything much is really going on. But the problem is she’d have to be a blithering idiot to underreact the way she does.

The climactic murder or attempted murder is one of those incredibly inefficient killings by a supposedly professional killer that keeps the suspense going as long as possible but seems like something out of Austin Powers.

The big chase scene is probably what most people would regard as the best and most memorable scene, and I agree there’s a real skill to how it’s choreographed and everything, but it’s also the single most absurd sequence in the movie. There is less than a 1% chance that many, many, many people wouldn’t have been killed if someone really drove like that. And there’s an implausible lack of consequences.

It’s like when Peter Griffin blows up a good portion of Cleveland’s house and sends Cleveland crashing to the ground in his bathtub. It’s not just that in real life you’d expect Cleveland to be hurt or killed, but that you’d also expect there would be some sort of ramifications for blowing up a good portion of a house. But instead, by the next scene they’ve moved on with their lives, the house is rebuilt, and they seemingly have forgotten it ever happened.

OK, that’s just a cartoon. But that’s the problem—so is this.

I didn’t find the ending all that satisfying. It’s not too confusing, I’ll give it that, but I experienced it as a semi-dud.

Overall, Blow Out is at least as entertaining as the average thriller, maybe a little more so. I suppose if you can interpret the implausibilities as just kind of De Palma’s winking style where he’s not trying to be all that realistic, then it’s a worthwhile film. I rank it somewhere around the middle of the movies I’ve written about so far, which puts it a bit above Sisters.

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