Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Blow Out (1981)
Studio Line: MGM - Murder has a sound all of its own!

John Travolta (Pulp Fiction, Face/Off) stars in this riveting mystery/thriller filled with powerful performances, intense action and an "engrossing web of suspense and intrigue" (Blockbuster Entertainment Guide). Written and directed by master filmmaker Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible), Blow Out is a heart-stopping adventure hailed by Rolling Stone as "an American moviemaking triumph!"

Jack Terri (Travolta) is a talented audio technician who makes his living by recording unique sounds for horror movies. But when he accidentally tapes an automobile crash that kills a presidential candidate and injures his young mistress, Sally (Nancy Allen), Jack is hurled into a mystery far more terrifying than any of his films! Soon he and Sally must fight to stay alive as they uncover an explosive political conspiracy that will send shockwaves to the highest levels of government.

Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Peter Boyden
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround 2.0, Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 16 chapters; rated R; 108 min.; $19.98; street date 8/28/01.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B/D-

It’s funny how some movie-going experiences stay with you. During the summer of 1981, my father and I went to a local multiplex for a double feature of Blow Out and… I can’t remember what. I maintain some vague impressions of the latter flick, but I doubt I’d be able to name it to save my life. Nonetheless, I remember the trek, and I know that I took home a positive impression of Blow Out, which was the first Brian De Palma film I’d seen in my then-young life.

Actually, I think I took in a TV showing of Carrie by 1981, but that shouldn’t really count; as my recent viewing of the film indicated, that flick required substantial editing to appear on commercial television, which really must have made it a different experience. As such, Blow Out stands as my first experience with the director’s work.

It was a positive start. In later years, I rarely cared much for De Palma’s flicks, but I really enjoyed Blow Out. A loose remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 hit Blowup, it tells the story of Jack Terri, a sound effects engineer who works on cheesy slasher movies. Jack seems too talented for this milieu, and he is, but we’ll need to wait until midway through the film to found out how he ended up in such a place.

After our introduction to Jack and his world, we see him as he attempts to gather new material. He goes out to a bridge and tapes environmental sounds. In the midst of this session, a car careens off the bridge and heads into the drink. Jack dives in and attempts to save the inhabitants; although it’s too late for the driver, he manages to extricate a woman, Sally (Nancy Allen).

As it happens, the deceased person was a very prominent politician, and his handlers are eager to cover up the details of the accident so his dalliance with Sally the floozy won’t sully his reputation or harm his family. However, Jack has other concerns, as he feels convinced that the event wasn’t caused by a simple tire problem. He seems sure that a gunshot preceded the blow out, and he tries to prove this. Eventually, he annoys the wrong people, and much of the film shows Jack and Sally as they attempt to stay one step ahead of danger.

At its heart, Blow Out offers a fairly conventional thriller, but the audio angle helps spice up the action. This isn’t a tremendously original move; it alters the Antonioni flick only in that Blowup used a photo at its core, while Blow Out has an audio tape. Still, the suspense generated as Jack tries to prove his impressions makes the movie fairly exciting and compelling.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take too long for Jack to convince himself - and us - that he heard what he thought. From there, we learn more about the film’s conspiracy, though the story stays with Jack’s point of view for the most part, which means we don’t find out too much about this aspect. Whatever the case, the film seems more conventional from that point, especially as Jack and Sally develop a predictable love affair.

While the second half of Blow Out offers few surprises, De Palma stages the action effectively enough to maintain interest. The movie also benefits from an unusually deep performance by Travolta. On the page, Jack is a fairly thin, cliché character, but Travolta helps bring him to life with depth and reality. The personality seems much better developed than it actually is, as Travolta creates a fairly winning role.

Unfortunately, Allen’s Sally takes away from some of those positives. She adopts an extremely annoying Betty Boop voice for the part; I suppose she thought it’d add a regional believability to Sally, but I didn’t buy the intonations as anything other than silly affectations. Allen stays with a cartoony tone in other ways, and she never makes Sally very sympathetic or interesting.

Nonetheless, the combination of Travolta and some compelling action are enough to make Blow Out a reasonably entertaining experience. It didn’t impress me now as much as it did 20 years ago, but I still think Blow Out seems generally exciting and fun. It’s not a classic, but it offers a good thriller.

The DVD:

Blow Out appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. The movie offered a rather erratic presentation that flopped between strengths and weaknesses, but it ultimately seemed decent as a whole.

Sharpness was one of the biggest variables. At the start of the movie, the image looked very blurry and unfocused. While it progressed, the picture seemed to become crisper for the most part, but definite instances of softness still interfered at times. I’d say that most of the film looked fine in this regard, but the weak scenes will stand out to you strongly; when the movie seemed fuzzy, it was very fuzzy. No significant examples of moiré effects or jagged edges appeared, but some mild edge enhancement did occur at times.

Print flaws caused a few concerns, but they seemed to be fairly minor for a 20-year-old flick. Some light grain cropped up through the movie, and I also witnessed some speckles, grit, and blotches. However, the remained acceptably modest throughout the film, and they caused few significant problems.

Colors looked fairly vivid and accurate, though they never seemed particularly special. The movie offered a reasonably natural palette, and the tones came across as reasonably vibrant and clean. Some red lighting appeared a bit strong, but as a whole, the hues were fine. Black levels also seemed to be fairly rich and deep, while shadow detail was slightly heavy and thick at times, but it usually appeared acceptably opaque but not excessively so. Blow Out could be a frustrating experience as it varied from very clear and distinct segments to some muddy and blurry pieces. Overall, the movie merited a “C+” for picture, but it was an inconsistent “C+”.

Much less frustrating was the Dolby Surround soundtrack of Blow Out. It provided a fairly interesting affair that complemented the film. That made sense, since the movie so prominently featured a motion picture sound effects guy, I suppose. In any case, the soundfield offered a surprisingly broad and engaging spectrum of sound. Music showed good stereo separation, and effects spread accurately and distinctly across the front. Localization seemed to be solid, as elements appeared in appropriate places, and they blended together cleanly. The surrounds added a good sense of reinforcement to the package; they didn’t present much individual information, but they seemed to accentuate the mix well.

Audio quality showed some signs of age, but it appeared reasonably positive. Dialogue sounded a little thin and reedy, but I thought the speech was relatively natural and distinct, and I discerned no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music seemed a little thin and flat, but it demonstrated acceptable fidelity, and I heard some loose but full bass response as well. The latter elements also showed up for the movie’s effects. They lacked terrific highs, but they were fairly accurate and deep, as the low-end added a nice kick to the package. Bass could have been better defined, but it seemed strong for the era. A little hiss slightly marred the presentation, but overall, I thought Blow Out offered a pretty fine auditory experience.

Although MGM’s concurrent releases of De Palma’s Carrie and Dressed to Kill provide some solid extras, Blow Out sits as the poor relation. All it includes is the movie’s theatrical trailer. The absence of supplements seems disappointing but not surprising, though it does appear strange that all three of the DVDs list for the same $19.98.

That lack of relative value causes some concern, but I still think Blow Out is a reasonably compelling program. The film suffers from De Palma’s usual lack of creativity, but it works better than most of his retreads. The movie maintains a decent level of suspense, though I feel it gives away some of its secrets too easily. A good lead performance from John Travolta makes the movie more successful. The DVD offers erratic but generally decent picture with quite solid sound and virtually no extras. Blow Out seems a little underfeatured and overpriced, but it should at least merit a rental.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.8181 Stars Number of Votes: 11
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