Movie Project #2: Blow Out [1981]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Blow Out [1981]

Blow Out [1981]
Director: Brian De Palma
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery
Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow
Runtime: 107 minutes

I don’t watch the news. It’s too depressing.

Frequently cited as one of Quentin Tarantino’s top three favorite films, Blow Out is a gripping thriller that has built up a bit of a cult following since its 1981 release. Last year, the movie was treated to an expansive Criterion Collection package, which was a big reason why I became so interested in seeing this.

John Travolta stars as B-movie sound technician Jack Terry, a man who has worked on such classic titles as Blood Beach, Blood Beach Two, and Bordello of Blood. One night, while he is out recording frogs, owls and other night sounds, Jack witnesses a horrific car crash. One of the car’s tires blows out, sending the vehicle and its inhabitants plunging over a bridge and into the river below. Jack frantically dives in to help, and pulls out the girl trapped inside, Sally (Allen). The other victim, later found out to be a governor and presidential hopeful, is not so lucky, and he dies on scene.

Initial signs point to this being a “freak” car accident, but Jack, being a sound guy and all, is positive that he heard a gunshot before the blow out. Revisiting the audio from the evening seems to confirm this, and now he wants to dig deeper and try to figure out just who the hell shot out the tire.

Blow Out [1981]

Now here’s where shit gets real: there was another person at the river that evening, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz). He recorded the entire incident on film, and he begins shopping his photos around to all sorts of tabloids. With some particularly helpful prior knowledge, he was at the scene to make a quick buck. He didn’t shoot the gun, however.

That was Burke (Lithgow), an assassin who was hired as part of a greater political conspiracy. The plan (allegedly) was never to have him murder anyone, but Burke decided to take things to another level on his own. Now he is hot on the tail of Jack and Sally, with plans to kill both of them and finally cover up this political scandal once and for all.

If Blow Out sounds like a film with deep layers embedded with conspiracies, well, it is. There are obvious allusions to real life events such as Watergate, the JFK assassination and the Chappaquiddick incident. There are so many ideas in place, and all of them are covered remarkably. Just as Jack Terry methodically edits sound for B-movies, director Brian De Palma carefully crafts a film that connects on many different levels.

Blow Out [1981]

Part of the film’s brilliance also lies heavily on John Travolta’s shoulders. This may very well be his finest performance, as he is extra charismatic as a regular guy who just so happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. Much can be said about John Lithgow’s icy cold take as the assassin/serial killer, a role he would expound upon even more nearly 30 years later in TV’s Dexter. Nancy Allen is passable at best, but she does not detract from the film’s quality.

There were moments during the second act where I felt the film was kicking its tires a bit (pun intended?), but the epic conclusion really renewed my sense of appreciation. The ending, draped in patriotic symbolism, is one that I will never forget.

With its grandeur release from Criterion, Blow Out has much deservedly reached a new generation of fans (myself included). Fans of crime, mystery and thrillers ought to give this a watch.


17 thoughts on “Movie Project #2: Blow Out [1981]

    • Eric says:

      Wow, I’ll have to check out Phantom of the Paradise then. I have actually only seen three (?) De Palma films so I have a lot of catching up to do.

  1. 3guys1movie says:

    Sweet review Eric, I probably have not seen this since I rented it on VHS. Going to add it to my ever growing must watch list. Travolta has been is so many terrible movies lately it will be nice to see him again in something decent.

  2. Max says:

    That finale is creepy. I also have the Criterion Blu-ray and its how I saw the film for the first time. I love how he solves the murders using his sound techniques.

    • Eric says:

      Yeah, I had heard people mention how great the ending of this movie was, but I wasn’t really expecting something of that magnitude. Definitely something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

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