'Blood & Wine' oozes sleaze

March 14, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Their great movies may be decades behind them, but god bless Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, who still make good movies.

"Blood & Wine" is just that: Pretty good. It's nothing that will haunt as did their seminal previous collaborations "Five Easy Pieces" or "The King of Marvin Gardens" but something that feels dark, troubling, entirely professional.

The film, a caper-driven film noir set in the upscale Florida merchant class, has a '70s feel to it, as if Rafelson, who did his best work back then, has said to hell with the racier editing rhythms and advanced pyrotechnics of the '90s. It takes its time, moves decisively from motive, not coincidence or contrivance, gives each character a believable psychology, and just gets twistier and twistier while never quite losing so much contact with reality that it becomes pastiche.

It does cover some new territory: Not Florida, but a far more intimate domestic climate where people in a family hate and betray each other but cannot quite -- that residual hesitation called conscience, one supposes -- bring themselves to the point of killing.

Nicholson, tubby and avuncular, his lizardy dark eyes beaming greed under the most educated eyebrows in the human zoo, plays an upscale wine merchant whose business is foundering and has devoured most of the life savings his poor wife (Judy Davis, not hysterical but crushed) has poured into it. Nicholson, meanwhile, has been siphoning off some of that money to finance an affair with a wealthy idiot's Cuban maid (Jennifer Fernandez). He may love her, he may not, but he certainly has a use for her. He's planning to boost her employer's million dollar diamond necklace with the help of a drunken Brit ex-safecracker (Michael Caine, never more dissolute) who keeps hawking up blood.

Now let's add a complication: Davis' son (Stephen Dorff) hates ++ his stepfather for what he's doing to his mother, hates his job (in the wine shop) and is looking for ways to get out, get even and get rich. Then he meets Fernandez, and falls in love. All these contrary, destructive forces are more or less liberated by the heist itself, in which Nicholson and Caine, pretending to repair the humidifier in the wine cellar, bluff their way past security guards and take down the safe. Caine's first move in the post-job celebration is to photograph Nicholson with the handful of ice, which he'll ultimately use for leverage.

What a nasty place this is. What misanthropes the makers of this film are! True to unrevisionist noir nihilism, they believe all human activity is folly fated to violent failure and that happy endings are the business of movies, which they seem not to notice they're making. But credit to all of them: no whiff of vanity enters the project anywhere. The cast plays the cards it was dealt by the script.

Nicholson, for example, is straight out of James M. Cain -- a fetid, greedy little charm dog in country club sports clothes (love the silky polo shirts!) who likes to travel first class with his mistress while his wife's checks bounce. A man of many weaknesses, his greatest is that he thinks he's strong. His only saving grace is that, smarmy as he is, he really doesn't mean to hurt people, merely to escape them.

Caine, meanwhile, hasn't been this malevolent and cheesy in years. Conspicuously exiling his charm, he's a desperate sweat-manufacturer in cheap shirts, violent and mean-spirited and deeply ugly. I like that in a man!

And Davis, restraining the impulse to camp-up, which marred her performance in the far weaker (and more weakly directed) "Absolute Power," gives the wife and mother a brittle, nervous surface but a surprising inner strength. Amazing.

In fact, everybody in this movie is first class -- oh, except one.

Yes. Stephen Dorff is here, too, in another role that Kevin Bacon must have turned down. His is the one weak spot in the perfect chemistry of the assemblage. He seems somehow insubstantial, lacking in strength, with his spindly arms and wild-boy hair. Against three real heavyweights, he never quite seems believable.

To pay the movie the highest compliment, I can only say that it feels as if, like Nicholson and Rafelson's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," it was adapted from a novel by Cain. It has that clammy sense of noir doom to it, ugly and bracing. See it, be depressed, and come out happy in the wondrous, liberating knowledge that there are people on this earth far scuzzier than you.

'Blood & Wine'

Starring Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine and Judy Davis

Directed by Bob Rafelson

Released by 20th Century Fox-Searchlight

Rated R (violence and sexuality)

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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