The Best Movie You Never Saw: Blown Away
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine. This week we’ll be looking at BLOWN AWAY...
THE STORY: A mad IRA bomber (Tommy Lee Jones) escapes prison and travels to Boston, where he stalks his former protégé (Jeff Bridges) who now has a new identity and is a member of the police bomb squad.
THE PLAYERS: Director: Stephen Hopkins (PREDATOR 2, JUDGEMENT NIGHT, THE GHOST & THE DARKNESS, LOST IN SPACE, TV’s 24). Writers: John Rice, Joe Batteer, and Jay Roach (yes, THAT Jay Roach). Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Lloyd Bridges, Forest Whitaker, and Suzy Amis (TITANIC). Score by Alan Silverstri (THE AVENGERS).
THE HISTORY: BLOWN AWAY was supposed to be the sleeper hit of 1994. It had all the ingredients. Tommy Lee Jones had just won the Oscar for playing U.S Marshall Samuel Gerard in THE FUGITIVE, and this would be his first full-on bad guy part since UNDER SIEGE – which was an unlikely megahit towards the end of 1992. It also had Jeff Bridges in full-on action hero mode for the first time in his career. While Bridges is now regarded as a beloved character actor, twenty years ago he was more of a heartthrob, but for the most part he avoided big action parts. This was primed to be the movie that would make him a Harrison Ford-style hero.
"My character is changed by his experiences of colonialism, racism and imperialism….But when I started using those terms; I emptied the room right quick. That language wasn't popular with the writers or the producers. Instead, (my character's) motivations were left purposely vague and ambivalent." – Tommy Lee Jones
At the time, movies about bombs were curiously in vogue. Opening on July 1st, 1994, BLOWN AWAY was the second of three movies about bomb-makers/the bomb squad, sandwiched between SPEED and THE SPECIALIST. If anything, SPEED was to blame for BLOWN AWAY’s middling performance at the box office. You see, no one expected SPEED to become a hit. Keanu Reeves was strictly B-list at the time, no one had heard of Sandra Bullock, and it was director Jan De Bont’s first movie. In fact, the biggest star in the cast – at the time – was Dennis Hopper. No one expected much from it, while BLOWN AWAY seen as a potential summer blockbuster.
When SPEED opened to boffo box-office and largely excellent reviews, BLOWN AWAY was all but doomed. Opening just a few weeks later, critics savaged it, mocking Tommy Lee Jones’s attempt at an Irish accent and complaining that the carnage was nowhere near as inventive as it was in SPEED, which – to be fair – it’s not. Rubbing a little salt in the wound for Bridges was the fact that he was originally courted to play Reeves’s part in SPEED (as per the IMDB). In the end, BLOWN AWAY eked out about $30 million at the box office, well below the $50 million budget. It didn’t help that it had to compete with THE LION KING, and later TRUE LIES and FORREST GUMP, all which went on to make hundreds of millions. Worst of all, in week four, SPEED still managed to top it over opening weekend (as did the now obscure Alec Baldwin superhero flick, THE SHADOW).
WHY IT'S GREAT: I’m not going to make a case for BLOWN AWAY being a classic. In fact, in the pantheon of action flicks released in 1994, it’s not even close to being the best, with SPEED, TRUE LIES and even CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER all cleaning its clock. I saw this theatrically with my folks opening weekend in 1994, and as a twelve-year-old I liked it well enough, but it’s only been in recent years that I really started to appreciate it. The reason for this is simple – action movies have gotten horrible. What was initially only a mediocre nineties action flick now seems like a kind of mini-masterpiece given how low the bar has been set. If BLOWN AWAY was released now, people would be tripping all over themselves raving about how stripped-down and raw it is (although a scene where a dog is murdered would have never made it passed test audiences).
While readers that remember seeing BLOWN AWAY when it was new will probably think I’m way off-base celebrating it, I honestly believe that our younger readers, who know Bridges most for his grizzled character roles in movies like TRUE GRIT will get a big kick out of seeing him in action hero mode. Lean-and-handsome, even if he was in his mid-forties when this was made, Bridges did indeed make for a likable hero, with his Jimmy Dove being a solidly complex action hero for the time. He feels like an everyman, with him lacking the burliness of most action stars of the era.
The hero/antagonist relationship is deeper than usual, with it established that Dove was once the protégé of Jones’s Ryan Gaerity and in love with his sister – only to have betrayed him once he got wind of the fact that a bombing Gaerity was planning was designed to inflict maximum collateral damage. While he helped foil this attack, Gaerity wound-up in jail, with his sister dead, while Dove high-tailed it to Boston and started a new life with the help of his Irish cop uncle (Lloyd Bridges – Jeff’s real-life dad - superb in a juicy character part).
“I loved acting with my dad, Lloyd Bridges, in Blown Away. He enjoyed the process so much. His joy was contagious. Everyone had more fun and took their work up a notch when he was on set. – Jeff Bridges
If the movie has any failings it’s that buddy-cop angle with Forest Whitaker’s hot-shot rookie also feels artificially antagonistic at first; although a scene where they work together to diffuse a bomb in Forrest’s earphones is top-notch. That said, the conflict between the two does drive home the fact that Bridges’s Dove is markedly different from most action heroes of the era, being more of a responsible type desperate to avoid any loss of life at all – making him feel more like a real cop. I also like the low-key romance with Suzy Amis, with them marrying early in the film and her and her daughter being jeopardized in the big chase finale. Sure, it’s a cliché, but it works.
Director Stephen Hopkins does a solid job orchestrating the action. Always an underrated action director, BLOWN AWAY was one of several good movies he made during this era. PREDATOR 2, while lacking the bigger-than-life aspect of the original, was a fine B-movie, while JUDGEMENT NIGHT was a slick thriller (with a great soundtrack). His next movie after BLOWN AWAY, THE GHOST & THE DARKNESS, was probably his best, although sadly it never quite found the audience it deserved – a fate shared by many of his movies.Hopkins has a knack for pulling off impressive shots, such as a really cool one where Bridges observes an explosion that claims the life of his Bomb Squad colleagues from the balcony of his hotel room, and another where he allows a “Bouncing Betty” to explode during his mano-a-mano showdown with Jones.
The score by Alan Silvestri is a little too bombastic for my tastes (although I typically really like his work from this era), but Hopkins manages to work in some classic U2 tracks which underscore the Irish-aspect of the plot, even though Bono and the boys were probably shocked by Jones’s accent – which I’ll admit is not good.
BEST SCENE: One of the coolest things about BLOWN AWAY was the way we were allowed to observe Jones as he made the bombs. This added an extra layer of suspense as whenever the bomb squad would try to diffuse one of his bombs; we knew they were only decoys that would set off a deadlier blast. While I have no idea whether any of the chemistry here is even remotely feasible, director Hopkins directed the various “assembling the bomb” scenes with finesse, with this one memorably scored to U2’s “With or Without You”, juxtaposing Jones building the bomb and the tortured Bridges surveying the carnage he’s inadvertently having a hand in.
SEE IT: BLOWN AWAY is widely available on DVD (it was one of the first films released in that format), Blu-ray, iTunes, streaming and more.
PARTING SHOT: Again, BLOWN AWAY isn’t some kind of unheralded action classic. But, it is a superior thriller with a terrific performance by Jeff Bridges in an atypical part for him. While it may have paled alongside SPEED or TRUE LIES in 1994, twenty-two years and hundreds of subpar action movies make it seem far better now than it did then. As such, it holds up really well and is a totally obscure little film well-worth checking out.
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