Pros: Well-done suspense, performances (especially Travolta).
Cons: Nancy Allen typical damsel in distress in spots.
(Note: This review originally appeared in a slightly different form on Epinions.com)
Brian De Palma is one filmmaker who has often been popular with fans. But critics tend to be split on his work. Some rave over it, yet others complain that he’s often derivative of Hitchcock. Yet he has managed to make a few films that both critics and fans agree on. Chief among those films is 1981’s Blow Out.
The film is a sort of homage to Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up in both title and subject matter. However, De Palma manages to infuse it with enough originality that it stands on its own. The film is an effective combination of paranoia thriller, political thriller and commentary on images and sound.
John Travolta stars as Jack Terry, a sound technician for a Philadelphia film studio that specializes in making low budget sleaze-o films. We see one of those sleaze-os in the first few minutes. It’s awful and at first we think this is just another lame exploitation film. Then we see that De Palma has fooled us. The sleaze-o is one that Terry is working on and his producer is not happy with the sounds of the screaming co-eds that a masked slasher is about to fillet. Around him we see hints of other things, most notably a TV news report about an upcoming election.
Fast forward to later that evening. Jack’s out by a lake in a rural area recording some natural sounds. A passing couple comments on the weird man with the recording equipment. Then a car goes by a split second before a tire gives out and the car plunges into the lake. Jack promptly jumps in and saves one of the passengers, Sally (Nancy Allen). Immediately upon arriving at the hospital with the young woman he saved, Jack is informed that the other person in the car (and who’s now dead) is the leading candidate in the current presidential race. They urge him to keep quite about there being a woman in the car with him as they don’t want a repeat of Chappaquidick. Upon making sure Sally’s okay Jack takes her back to her house. He then goes back home and listens to the audio recording he was making up until the accident. He hears something just before the tire blow out that sounds suspiciously like a gunshot. So he starts to dig around and uncovers a trail that leads to a conspiracy.
When Travolta performances from the late 70s/early 80s are thought of, it’s easy to bring up Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy. But in some ways, Blow Out tops all three of those. Terry begins the film as a man who’s cynical yet still has ideals. The events of the film chip away at those ideals and by the end of it, he’s struggling to hold on to what’s left of them. Travolta does a gradual slow burn throughout the film and that works. This performance definitely is in the upper echelon of Travolta performances.
Unfortunately one can’t say the same for Nancy Allen. She’s not awful. But there are times where she gratingly comes close to the typical damsel in distress role as Sally. However, there are good performances by John Lithgow as the chilling hitman Burke and Dennis Franz as a sleazy photographer who may know more than he’s letting on.
De Palma’s direction works well for the script that he wrote here. He doesn’t go over the top as he would in his 1983 remake of Scarface, he lets the suspense build gradually and that works well. The ending is also effectively disquieting.
While it may not have the subtlety of its influences, Blow Out is an effective thriller that’s more intelligent and way better made than most Hollywood thrillers. Definitely give it a look if you’re tired of un-thrilling ones.