Blood and Wine

My endorsement of Twilight should be sufficient warning that I have a weakness for slightly flawed noirs that are rescued by old hands. In that honorable club, I would also place Bob Rafelson’s 1996 movie Blood and Wine.

The plot: Alex Gates (Jack Nicholson) is a failed wine shop owner, serial philanderer and aspiring thief. He is on thin ice with his long-suffering wife (Judy Davis) and has fallen through it entirely in the eyes of his stepson (Stephen Dorff). Alex wants to get back on top by stealing a diamond necklace from one of his wealthy clients with the aid of his beautiful young mistress (Jennifer Lopez) and an ailing professional thief (Michael Caine). But noir being noir, no sooner does Alex get the necklace in his hands than a twisty sinkhole of violence, envy, and betrayal opens up underneath his feet.

Let’s get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. Nick Villiers and Allison Cross’ screenplay has too many slow spots (especially at first), Judy Davis is miscast (Mimi Rogers, who was considered for the role, would have been better), Dorff’s performance is only so-so, and while Lopez is undeniably pretty she at this point in her young career didn’t have the acting chops to register like the femme fatales of yore. These weaknesses help explain this film’s poor box office performance and mixed critical reaction. Why then do I recommend it? Let me tell you a story.

By the mid 1990s, the legendary Sir Michael Caine was no longer getting many lead roles, and was contemplating retirement. He bought a restaurant in Miami and stopped reading scripts. But then a fellow aging giant, Jack Nicholson, reached out and said that he should re-invent himself as a character actor, starting with Blood and Wine. That Nicholson was persuasive was fortunate for movie goers more generally, and it was particularly so for this movie.

As soon as Caine comes on screen as a tubercular, bitter, cynical, dangerous, yet somehow sympathetic wreck of a man, Blood and Wine takes off. And Nicholson lights up along with him, allowing the two of them and Judy Davis (strong as usual despite this being an odd role for her) to carry us through this dark and complex tale.

There’s a certain type of ugliness that descends on some people in middle-age when they feel that life has unfairly not abided by their plans. All three of these top-rank actors gives us different shadings on this experience, be it rageful hurt (Davis), moral decay (Nicholson), or some admixture thereof (Caine). It also powers one exciting, extended sequence that ranks with the best in noir history. I won’t ruin it for you, but suffice it to say that it starts with a faked flirtation in a bar room and ends with Nicholson pawing through dying people’s pockets for loot rather than love, utterly reduced to his basest instincts.

The veteran actors’ weaving of gold from straw, coupled with Rafelson’s ability to give the viewer the sense that violence is always just around the corner, surmount the weaknesses of Blood and Wine. It’s a worthy entry in the noir genre, as well as a nice coda to Rafelson and Nicholson’s long cinematic partnership.

p.s. Years after making this movie, Lopez said that Rafelson shot a sex scene with her and Dorff that didn’t make the final edit. Rafelson’s characteristically un-Hollywood decision was a wise one artistically, because it puts the audience in the same emotional spot as Nicholson, being suspicions of a liaison but not really knowing if it happened.