Judge Michael Rankins never drinks...wine.
"There's no honor among thieves. It's a myth."—Victor Spansky (Michael Caine)
Writer-director Bob Rafelson's Blood And Wine brings together a blockbuster cast—film legends Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine, rising stars Jennifer Lopez and Stephen Dorff, and two-time Academy Award nominee Judy Davis—in a dark, violent neo-noir thriller set in steamy southern Florida.
The chef recommends a robust Cabernet.
Facts of the Case
Miami wine merchant Alex Gates (Jack Nicholson, The Pledge) is living the American nightmare. Cash poor, with his credit cards maxed out or canceled outright, Alex struggles to keep up the appearance of middle-class success despite his collapsing finances—mostly for the benefit of his alcoholic wife Suzanne (Judy Davis, The Reagans) and his new mistress Gabriela (Jennifer Lopez, Enough), a sultry Cuban expatriate who works as a nanny for one of Alex's jet-set clients.
Alex's plan for getting himself out from under the morass he's made of his life involves stealing a costly diamond necklace from Gabriela's employers, with the help of an emphysema-wracked, chain-smoking, small-time thief named Victor Spansky (Michael Caine, reveling in one of his best roles of the past decade). As it turns out, heisting the jewels is the easy part; as Victor observes, rich people will "spend $1.3 million on a necklace with diamonds the size of chocolates, then they'll lock it in a tin box from Sears." For the hapless Alex, preventing his world from imploding after Suzanne and her beach-bum son Jason (Stephen Dorff, Blade) learn about the crime—and about Gabriela—proves infinitely more challenging than the theft itself.
The best-laid plans of mice and wine salesmen often go awry, as Alex Gates is about to find out.
In the annals of cinema history, a handful of director-actor combinations transcend ordinary collaboration to attain the status of legend: John Ford and John Wayne; Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant; Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune; Steven Spielberg and the Toms, Hanks and Cruise.
Somewhere beneath that lofty pantheon is the tandem of Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. The two men have made five films together (if you don't count the movie debut of The Monkees, Head, which Rafelson directed and he and Nicholson cowrote…and let's not). One, Five Easy Pieces, is a legitimate classic. The remaining four span the range from ambitious but spotty (The King of Marvin Gardens, the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice) to out-and-out disaster (Man Trouble, anyone?).
Blood And Wine falls into the middle range of the Rafelson-Nicholson oeuvre. It's not a great film, but it is a pretty doggoned good one—probably the two men's best joint effort after Five Easy Pieces. (Rafelson, in fact, has stated that he views Blood And Wine as the final chapter in a loose trilogy of otherwise unrelated films exploring similar themes, following Pieces and Marvin Gardens. I don't see that the three are much alike at all, but that's why I'm a reviewer and not a director.) Blood And Wine is far from a perfect film, but the opportunity to watch two giants like Nicholson and Michael Caine face off at the peak of their craft warrants forgiving its occasional missteps.
Indeed, the cast is the key reason Blood And Wine is worth seeing. Nicholson turns in a terrific performance, reigning in his natural tendency to scarf down the scenery and staying well within his character without resorting to the familiar Nicholson gimmicks. His Alex Gates is an amoral, self-serving man, yet still capable of both genuine love and ambivalence about (if not remorse for) his misdeeds. The relationships between Alex and the four other key players in the story feel deeper and more complex than the script calls for them to be, in part because Nicholson is so adept at conveying Alex's shifting allegiances and motives.
For his part, Caine equals Nicholson with his deft portrayal of the rapidly deteriorating Victor Spansky. Caine has played tough hoodlums like Victor dozens of times before, but rarely with such gusto and complete immersion in the role. It's a challenge for an actor whose face and voice are familiar as Caine's (hasn't he appeared in roughly half the movies made in the past 20 years?) to disappear into a character without extensive aid from the makeup department, but Caine embodies Victor so thoroughly that by the halfway point of the film, I'd forgotten he was Michael Caine. That's acting.
In one of her first major film roles—she would explode into stardom a year later in Selena—Jennifer Lopez shows flashes of the camera-romancing charisma we now know so well, in an underwritten part that doesn't overextend her talents. The future J-Lo surprises as a refreshingly natural actress who holds her own in her scenes with Nicholson (no easy task) and flat-out dominates those she shares with Stephen Dorff, who's the one weak link in the stellar cast. Dorff never quite finds the right note for Jason, Alex's reluctant stepson who's as close to a "good guy" as Blood And Wine can claim. We can almost see the mental gears grinding as Dorff feels his way through each scene, especially opposite the Mighty Jack.
The cast member I wanted to see more from is Judy Davis, given too few screen minutes as Alex's withdrawn doormat of a wife. Davis does so much with what little the script offers her that she emerges as one of the film's most memorable components, even though she's on camera far less than her four costars.
Speaking of the script—conceived by Rafelson and Nick Villiers, and cowritten by Villiers and Alison Cross—it's a decently constructed bit of nasty business that throws a few obvious twists at the viewer without becoming labyrinthine. The real strength of the piece is its crackling dialogue, lines from which I'll still be quoting in casual conversation weeks from now. The plot doesn't deliver anything film noir aficionados haven't witnessed a hundred times over, but Villiers and Cross keep the suspense going and the characters intriguing enough that, with a sterling cast and a sure-handed director in Rafelson, the movie can't go far wrong. Rafelson uses the lush South Florida locale to its best advantage, aided by atmospheric camerawork by the always excellent Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) and a tasty score by Polish composer Michal Lorenc.
If viewers have a problem appreciating Blood And Wine, I'll predict that it's because the film has no real protagonist or avatar for the audience. Every one of the main characters is unlikable, devious, self-serving, and manipulative. There aren't any heroes or heroines in this crew. But for this observer, watching these circling sharks slowly devour each other made for an entertaining afternoon at the movies. If you have the steel, and the stomach, you too may find this one of the better genre flicks you'll see this week. If not, well, there's always Anger Management.
It's a puzzle why a movie with so many high-profile stars has languished in the Fox archives for so long before receiving its just DVD due, but Blood And Wine proves worth the wait. This fine package combines a quality audiovisual presentation with a bonanza of supplemental content, headlined by an exceptional commentary by director Bob Rafelson. The picture quality is consistently warm, well-balanced, and clear, if occasionally somewhat dark (then again, this is film noir, right?). The markedly poorer deleted scenes reveal just how much restoration was done to bring the main feature up to current standards. The soundtrack is adequate but sounds a bit flat, and fails to make full use of the surrounds during the few scenes that would have lent themselves to such support.
Rafelson's commentary proves fascinating. It is scene-specific in the best possible sense for a full-length commentary—Rafelson takes cues from what he sees on the screen, but instead of lapsing into play-by-play, uses each scene as a launching pad for some unique insights into filmmaking. He's a low-energy commentator with an unspectacular speaking voice, but Rafelson has plenty to say and presents his thoughts cogently and accessibly. He makes the second viewing a compelling journey, even if he does devote an inordinate—and borderline embarrassing—amount of time to expressing his admiration for Jennifer Lopez's callipygian derriere. (Then again, I can't fault the man for stating the obvious.)
A menu of eleven scenes comes complete with focused commentaries by various members of the production team. At various points we hear stars Nicholson (heard on seven scenes), Caine (five scenes), and Dorff (six scenes), producer Jeremy Thomas (two scenes) and film historian Stephen Farber (three scenes). Most of these comments—for which the various speakers were recorded separately, then edited together—add considerably to our understanding of the actors' approach to the project and their roles in it, and of the film in general. These scenes can be selected individually or viewed in sequence via a "play all" option.
The same participants appear in a series of seven featurettes about the making of the film. These short interview clips can also be accessed singly or played as a group. Judging by the relative ages of the actors, I would surmise that these interviews were compiled recently, rather than at the time of filming. More perceptive observations and recollections abound. Single-screen text bio sketches of the interviewees are also available.
Eight deleted scenes are preceded by a brief introduction by Rafelson. The DVD producers took a novel approach to this group of outtakes—each deleted scene has its own title card, and we are led into each by the footage from the finished film that would sequentially come before it. In this way, we have context for each deletion, and can reach an informed opinion about whether the edits were appropriate. (They were, in most cases.) Unlike the main feature, the deleted scenes are unrestored, and suffer from overexposure, unbalanced color, and numerous source print defects.
The film's theatrical trailer (which, like most trailers of recent vintage, gives away far too much of the plot) can also be seen here, along with a horribly aged preview of the Debra Winger / Theresa Russell thriller Black Widow.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Bob Rafelson spent a sizable chunk of Blood And Wine's modest ($26 million) budget building an animatronic shark that appears for a couple of seconds in the opening scene. This has to qualify as one of the most gratuitous wastes of money ever, in an industry conspicuous for its gratuitous wastes of money.
The next time you want to throw a few G's down a rathole, Bob, please consider a donation to the Judge Rankins Foundation.
For all of its noir aspirations—although director Rafelson admits he's not much of a film noir fancier—Blood And Wine is basically about the seamy underbelly of human relationships: between adult family members, lovers, and coconspirators. With an incredible ensemble of talented players at his disposal, Rafelson squeezes far more juice out of this Key lime than one might expect.
Fans of modern noir, of gut-punching crime drama, or of stars Nicholson, Caine, and Lopez—all of whom show their slickest chops here—should find their bliss amid the Miami heat.
Not guilty. The film, that is. All of the characters in Blood And Wine are most definitely guilty, but are dismissed with time served. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Bob Rafelson
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