'Malice' and 'Blown Away' Are Two '90s Thrillers With Popcorn Niche Appeal
Star casts and noirish action make for fun nostalgia viewing.
MaliceDirector: Harold Becker
Cast: Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman, Tobin Bell
US DVD release date: 2015-06-15
Blown AwayDirector: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Forest Whitaker, Lloyd Bridges, Suzy Amis
US DVD release date: 2015-07-14
When people complain about the way big-budget spectacle has squeezed out mid-level adult-targeted movies, they're not – or shouldn't be – referring to either high-quality auteur-driven movies or high-toned awards bait (which may or may not overlap with the former). Movies for adults (and adventurous teenagers) that don't involve superheroes do get made, by people like Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and many more.
The kind of movie that doesn't turn up as often in multiplexes, actually, is more like Malice or Blown Away, two mid-'90s thrillers recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber under their "studio classics" label. Kino, known as an arthouse label, is able to do this because these films' original studios and/or current rightsholders don't seem to consider them interesting enough to bother releasing in the format, much less make the modern-day equivalent.
It's understandable; neither movie was particularly successful in its day, and neither movie is particularly excellent, either, though Malice comes closer on both counts. It boasts a shockingly high-profile team of screenwriters: credit goes to Scott Frank, whose named has appeared on several stellar adapted screenplays (Out of Sight; Minority Report) and his own fine noir The Lookout), and Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for The Social Network and is in the news again for his work writing Steve Jobs. All of this talent to devise what is, essentially, a noir-ish contraption movie with some snappy dialogue and some admirable red-herring work.
Bill Pullman plays Andy, a college dean whose old high-school buddy Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin), now a cocky and charisma surgeon, rents a room in the home Pullman shares with his wife Tracy (Nicole Kidman). A campus rapist, emergency surgery, and a hospital lawsuit all figure into the twisty plot.
Back in 1993, Pullman experienced both a banner year and a series of on-screen humiliations: he was left by Jodie Foster in Sommersby, by Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, and plays something of a patsy in Malice, although at least he gets to be the nominal hero in this one. Still, the movie-star reveal goes to Baldwin, as does the movie's most famous monologue that ends with Jed rejecting the idea of a God complex. This bit is inimitably Sorkin, and he so rarely rolls around in the genre mock that the (comparatively mild) sleaze of Malice has a real novelty to it, especially when it's fusing '90s-style "erotic thriller" overtones with remnants of '60s and '70s film culture: George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft have brief roles, and the movie was shot by the overqualified Gordon Willis, casting his signature deep-dark shadows over many scenes.
This enjoyable if inconsequential movie also catches its then-contemporary cast at a crossroads: Baldwin before both his fall from movie-star grace and rebirth as a terrific supporting and/or comic actor; Kidman before her ascension to Hollywood royalty; Pullman, well, pretty much at peak Pullman.
Blown Away (1994)
Blown Away, too, features a star whose career would shift over the next several decades: Jeff Bridges, in a still-atypical action-hero role, plays a former Irish terrorist now a bomb-squad hero called Jimmy Dove, whose past comes back to haunt him when Ryan Gaerity (Tommy Lee Jones) finds him in Boston and starts blowing stuff up. Technically, this makes Blown Away a Boston crime movie, from a time when Boston crime movies were not in vogue; now they tend to be less outsized than this one, at least in terms of pyro (at the time of its release, the film was purported to feature the largest real explosion over staged for a movie).
Blown Away is even more '90s than Malice, especially for the way future Oscar-winner Bridges receives taunting phone calls from then-recent Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones, whose work in Under Siege and The Fugitive got him plenty of bad-guy gigs. His mad bomber here is like a warm-up for the ridiculousness of his Two-Face performance in Batman Forever, though he adds at least some baseline humanity here that's sadly and crucially left out of his Bat-villain turn (there's no reason that Aaron Eckhart, rather than Tommy Lee Jones, should be the definitive on-screen Harvey Dent, but there but for the grace of Christopher Nolan he goes).
Both Bridges and Jones are given the bizarre opportunity to act both haunted and zany; Bridges cracks wise while sweating through bomb defusements, while Jones dons a variety of wacky disguises and, in a delightfully blatant Irish stereotype, bumps The Joshua Tree in his bomb lab. The bombs themselves have a neat combination of MacGyver and Rube Goldberg sensibilities, which distracts from the fact that this is essentially another serial-killer story, with plenty of wife-and-kid endangerment for extra stakes.
Blown Away was directed by Stephen Hopkins and Malice was directed by Harold Becker. Neither of them have particularly storied careers, and neither has directed a feature in a while, though Hopkins gets plenty of work on TV. Hopkins in particular, who provides a sometimes-sparse commentary track on the Blu-ray, is the kind of unfussy craftsman who looks a little more classical now, canted angles and all, than he did at the time. Hopkins may be aware of this quality; as the movie fades out to the tune of an incongruous power ballad, he cracks: "Is this a '90s film ending or what?"
In the end, the competent, sometimes silly, decidedly R-rated craftsmanship of Blown Away or Malice doesn't necessarily stand on its own as exceptional filmmaking. Neither movie is quite as good as any number of even a second-tier recent fanboy effort like, say, Ant-Man. But the kind of movies these two so handily represent are scarce enough today to create nostalgia. If we got more movies like, say, Jack Reacher or Focus, older movies like Malice might not seem so attractive in retrospect (well, apart from Kidman and Baldwin; they will always look attractive in this movie). As-is, their popcorn appeal has become a niche.