Back on terra firma after the misstep of “Man Trouble,” Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson team for the seventh time in “Blood and Wine,” an amusingly caustic, straight-up serving of film noir staples spiced with star charisma. Despite some kinks in the climactic stretch, this old-fashioned story remains a sleekly packaged entertainment. Genre pics of this type rarely strike commercial gold, but this one could muster decent midrange business.
Rafelson has stated he regards the film as the conclusion of an informal trilogy about dysfunctional families that began with “Five Easy Pieces” and continued with “The King of Marvin Gardens.” Nicholson has played, respectively, son, brother and father in the three pics. While this latest study is a far less nuanced, more conventional entry, it nonetheless fits as a darkly cynical take on the fragility of both the family unit and the American dream.
Nicholson plays Alex Gates, a wine dealer to the wealthy denizens of the Florida Keys. His taste for luxury and extramarital philandering has consumed his profits and the finances of his embittered wife Suzanne (Judy Davis) and distanced his stepson Jason (Stephen Dorff). Angling to get on easy street, Alex plots to steal a client’s diamond necklace, bringing in ace safecracker Victor (Michael Caine) as his partner.
Alex’s lover, Gabriella (Jennifer Lopez), is the client’s comely Cuban nanny, who is to unwittingly aid in the robbery; despite her abrupt dismissal, the theft goes as planned. But things come unglued when Alex attempts to leave for New York to sell the rocks, and Suzanne steps in to stop what she believes is another routine weekend of infidelity.
In a stunning explosion of violence (the first of several in the pic), harsh words turn to hard blows as Suzanne takes to Alex with a hefty walking stick. She leaves the bludgeoned Alex out cold on the tiles, hightailing it from Miami to Key Largo with Jason, who has begun making moves on Gabriella, unaware of his stepfather’s connection to her. Alex and Victor easily track down the runaways and their sudden appearance causes mother and son to bolt in a car chase that is by far the thriller’s best action set piece, ending in a car crash. The sequence culminates in a potently disturbing scene in which Alex weeps over his injured wife while pawing her body and combing the wrecked car for the jewels. The accident leaves everyone attempting to get the upper hand in an eventful series of double-crosses and reshuffled allegiances. However, Gabriella’s lack of more concrete definition, along with an overblown crescendo of bone-crunching violence, contributes to a slight slackening of narrative tautness in the closing act.
What drives the material and makes it compelling are the sharp, often playful characterizations, rather than the familiar plot machinations by scripters Nick Villiers and Alison Cross (working with a story by Rafelson and Villiers). Nicholson and Caine, in particular, are enormously enjoyable.
While Nicholson sports a little too much of the evil glint in his eye that has grown progressively more maniacal from “The Shining” on through “Wolf,” he can do the odious but curiously sympathetic cad like no one else. Reaching for a cigarette even after coughing up blood, Caine milks the caricature of the thuggish, morally bankrupt Brit slob for all it’s worth. Davis is memorable in her too-few scenes as a boozy, emotionally bruised woman with a reserve of strength that makes her boil instead of break.
More than holding his own in his many faceoffs with Nicholson, Dorff follows his head-turning stint as Candy Darling in “I Shot Andy Warhol” with equally strong work here. Juggling Gabriella’s smoldering and soulful sides, Lopez also delivers, but her character veers awkwardly between the cliches of an ambitious Latina spitfire and a basically honest immigrant anxious to carve out a better life.
Providing able backup to Rafelson’s slickly tooled direction are Newton Thomas Sigel’s limber but unobtrusive camerawork and production designer Richard Sylbert’s understated use of the warm colors characteristic of Florida architecture.