Blood and Wine
Reviewed in Summer 1998
Director: Bob Rafelson. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Stephen Dorff, Michael Caine, Jennifer Lopez, Judy Davis, Harold Perrineau, Jr. Screenplay: Alison Cross, Bob Rafelson, and Nick Villiers.

Photo © 1996 Fox Searchlight Pictures
Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson sends this movie out like a hissing flare from the island of the nearly-forgotten, and if justice had prevailed, moviegoers would have answered the call. Blood and Wine would probably have been a wholly run-of-the-mill and fairly disposable thriller had it been made in the 1940's, notable only for its startingly smart use of its talented cast in atypical roles that nonetheless utilize all of their strengths. That is to say, the story in whose service all of these savvy professionals are working is not particularly vivid or unique, and yet in today's movie market, when no thriller is complete without an explosion, a "plot twist," or any number of other crowd-friendly red herrings, Blood and Wine makes the daring gesture of outlining a scenario among five principal characters and following the inevitable demise of most of them, unable to alter their essential personalities to accommodate the demands of an increasingly high-stakes squabble over a stolen $3 million necklace.

Nicholson plays Alex Gates, a Florida wine merchant who, shall we say, has not aged so gracefully or tastefully as his endless bottles of spirit. Worse, no one seems to appreciate him much. He is married to a woman named Suzanne (Judy Davis) whose sharp-tongued criticisms cannot be staved off even by his own physical outbursts. Still limping from the effects of one of his outlashings, she demands his pity and regret even as she needles his pride and punctures his bubble-headed excuses of "business trips" and "professional obligations" when everyone knows he is conducting an affair but is too cowardly to ask for a divorce. Perhaps her disillusion has grown through observation of her son Jason (Stephen Dorff), who rejected his stepfather's cock-and-bull and deflected even his friendly advances from the outset.

So it's almost from desperation, we imagine, that Alex takes up jewel-thievery: there's gotta be something in his life he can still enjoy and do well. Even with a bumbling partner like the alcoholic, emphysemic Victor (Michael Caine), Alex orchestrates the lifting of a valuable necklace from a rich client's home when all of its inhabitants save the housemaid have left on vacation. It helps in his plans that the housemaid, Gabriela (Jennifer Lopez), happens to be his latest fling. In an interesting and untraditional screenwriting gesture, however, Rafelson and his collaborators do not dismiss the relationship between Alex and Gabriela as mere middle-age bravado on his part or pragmatic materialism on hers; sure, his wife thinks he's a loser and her family needs any extra money she can find, but the affection between these characters could be perfectly genuine.

Inevitably, the volcanism of Alex's family life flows into his professional (mis)dealings, and the necklace winds up in the unwitting hands of Suzanne and Jason, who aren't aware of this particular branch of Alex's extra-curriculur activities and assume upon discovering the necklace that it is some costume-jewelry cast-off from one of his young flames. Suzanne and Jason, then, don't really want the necklace they have found; Alex and Victor, of course, want the necklace terribly, especially after having taken such extreme pains to acquire it, but have no idea where Suzanne and Jason have fled after a violent night in the Gates estate. Then, somewhere on the periphery is Gabriela, who increasingly harbors some flickering fondness for the younger Gates, but who plays her loyalties and needs with a strict poker face as long as she can.

Rafelson's pictures have always emphasized the committed performances of talented actors, and Blood and Wine is no exception. Nicholson, as Roger Ebert also remarked around Oscar time, shows a far broader range and slinkier ability here than he does in the soft-shoe As Good As It Gets; with Mike Nichols' underrated Wolf, this role marks his best work of the '90s. The younger actors also fare well, Lopez mounting a great slow burn (even when stuck with a theeck, coochie-coo "Latina" accent) and Dorff for the first time relaxing enough on screen to nail the sexy scruffiness he keeps botching in his other projects by trying too hard. The crisp elegance of these performances is matched by the taut but moody camerawork of Tom Sigel and the slyly eclectic score of Michal Lorenc. Nothing in Blood and Wine is revolutionary, unless the rediscovery of simple, classic storytelling is itself a seismic event in the banal, uninflected cycle of Bruckheimer pyrotechnics, Tarantino mimics, and new-style blaxploitation flicks that currently comprise Hollywood "suspense" fare. This picture, despite its fundamental familiarity, is the kind that at least in 1997 makes everyone involved with it look good, and quietly sends the message that there's plenty of talent milling around Southern California just waiting for tighter, truer material. Grade: B+

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