No tears should be wasted on the once-proud but now nearly destitute MGM, which seems hell-bent on self-destruction. Still, the truth is harsh: The studio that once ruled Hollywood hasn't a clue any more.
That fact is driven home even harder than usual by the appearance of "Blown Away," MGM's big summer film and the recipient of most of its scant promotion budget. But "Blown Away" does nothing as well as "Speed," while telling essentially the same story -- the mad bomber and his mano-a-mano with a determined bomb squad officer.
Both feature flamboyant character actors as villains (Tommy Lee Jones and Dennis Hopper) and somewhat less interesting stars (Jeff Bridges and Keanu Reeves). Both lead with their best action sequences, wholly original tricks that they never succeed in topping. Both turn on elaborately conceived infernal machines that could only have been designed by Rube Goldberg.
But the differences are far more striking. "Speed" has no subtext. It happens entirely in the present, without regard to a larger world or any adult concerns; it is of the moment, pure action manipulation untainted by such arcane conventions as "character" or "motivation." I found it emptily exhilarating, like a really hot motel room shower, and emerged battered but not enlightened or improved.
By contrast, "Blown Away" is all subtext; every character has a past, a secret identity, a complex history. Moreover, the piece is lodged in a specific political-cultural milieu, transported from the old world to play out in bloody splendor in the new. In that sense, "Blown Away" is indeed conceived around ideas: Can a man escape his past? What is the nature of duty? Is blood thicker than water?
Yet if "Speed" didn't have enough subtext, "Blown Away" has too much. It's murky and hopelessly overdone, so that nothing is clear, nothing developed, nothing truly moving.
Bridges plays a Boston bomb squad officer named Jimmy Dove on the inevitable last day before retirement. We are introduced to him in a nifty sequence at MIT, where a spurned lover has rigged a device to the computer terminal at which his object of desire sits. She must type I LOVE YOU over and over or the bomb will detonate; meanwhile, the disk drive is filling, which itself will cause the bomb to detonate. It's Dove's last job to defuse this rancid valentine. That's the movie's cleverest sequence. It's over by minute three.
This introduces Dove nicely, but has nothing to do with the real story, which is the vengeful appearance of an IRA bomber named Ryan Gaerity (Jones) who's escaped from a British prison. Coincidentally in Boston, he sees the heroic Dove on TV after the MIT escapade and conceives a campaign of terror against him, for reasons that eventually become clear.
Tommy Lee Jones is a great actor and his vividness has enlivened no small number of otherwise unmemorable projects. This is the first time he's actually hurt one. Whose brilliant idea was it to make him an Irishman? Thus is his natural basso profundo twang, his best weapon, effectively neutralized, while the brogue never quite compels us to believe him. Lacking much character to play, he mainly rants and bays, like a banshee mourning a bad career move.
Meanwhile, the film welcomes us to Dove's world: his colleagues on the Squad, his uncle (played by his father, Lloyd Bridges), his wife and her daughter by a previous marriage (she's well-played by the radiant Suzy Amis, but really, did she have to be a concert violinist?), his house, his pubs and on and on. He's that movie trope, the sensitive policeman, who exists on celluloid and nowhere else. (Be honest: When someone's in your downstairs after midnight and you call the cops, do you want a "sensitive" guy showing up or a tough one?)
Soon enough the battle is joined, and one-by-one Gaerity is concocting elaborate booby-traps to strike at Dove through his colleagues. Thus two stories unfold simultaneously, the action plot (Who will be blown up next?) and the mystery plot (What links the two men?). I prefer my thrillers set in a real world like this to those set in a stylized world (such as "Speed"). But somehow "Blown Away" is too neurotic, too ornate, too dense. The director, Stephen Hopkins, can never find a clear line through the materials, being far too absorbed in the details.
Critics often profess to wonder why Bridges has never become a big star, but the truth is, he's not that interesting. He has little charm and his sense of world-weariness feels affected. He gives the illusion of depth, not the conviction of it. But he's far more interesting than his father, Lloyd, who plays a mentoring uncle. It's a sentimental touch that backfires, for few actors are as vapid and uninteresting as Lloyd Bridges.
Indeed, the bombs are far more interesting than any of the people. They're like elaborate toys or puzzles and seem to come out of the think tank at Mattel rather than the eccentric Jones. When they explode, Hopkins, to his credit, finds new ways to photograph them; they blossom like huge, deadly napalm mushrooms above the Boston skyline. But for all of that, the movie never begins to approach the one true masterpiece of bomb movies, Richard Lester's sadly underrated "Juggernaut," in which the mad bomber had placed his charges on an ocean liner plowing through seas too high to evacuate the passengers. Unbearable tension, unforgettable characters. Not so, sadly, in "Blown Away."
Starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Released by MGM