Blow Out (1981)
Blow Out (1981)

Genre: Mystery and Political Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

Release Date: July 24th, 1981 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Brian De Palma Actors: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, John McMartin, Peter Boyden, Curt May, John Aquino




here’s somebody out there!” As scantily-clad college girls in a dormitory go about partying, having sex, dancing, showering, and even pleasuring themselves, a killer with a knife stalks them from room to room, ready to slash them to bits. But it’s all just a sequence from a low-budget exploitation movie called “Coed Frenzy,” for which Jack Terry (John Travolta) must design the sound effects. And one of the actresses has a terribly unfitting scream, which must be dubbed over due to its excruciating amateurishness.

As Jack sets about working on sound recordings, the much-awaited Liberty Day celebration in Philadelphia looms, gathering crowds and support for the very popular Governor McRyan and his upcoming bid for the presidency. When a routine sampling of sounds at night on a nearby bridge captures the screeches of a blown-out tire, resulting in a car careening through the railing and into a creek below, Jack dives in to rescue the only survivor, curly-haired Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), dazed in the back seat. At the hospital, police question the young man, who swears he heard two bangs at the scene: one unidentified sound – perhaps a gunshot – prior to the tire exploding. But it hardly matters; the man in the car who didn’t make it was McRyan himself, whose death could be quite scandalous if it’s discovered that he was with a mistress. “It’s better the governor died alone,” says campaign advisor Lawrence Henry (John McMartin), pleading with Jack to forget about everything that happened that evening.

With Brian De Palma at the helm, the basic setup is sure to deviate into something far more complicated and conspiratorial than just a novel way for a man to meet an attractive young woman. Indeed, with similar hallmarks to the slasher at the start, shadowy figures set about covering up what might have been a stealthy assassination plot. Though Jack could easily dismiss the incident, he happens to have plenty of technology at his disposal, allowing him to become a sleuth, piecing together clues from various bits of reporting to get to the bottom of the crime. Of course, as a potentially damaging witness – and a man in the wrong spot at the wrong time – Jack is a liability for powerful, corrupt political stooges.

“Nobody wants to know about conspiracy! I don’t get it!” After “Dressed to Kill,” it’s not surprising that De Palma would once again attempt to make a modernized Hitchcockian thriller, abounding with familiar framing and camera angles (and even colors), suggested violence, professional killers, frame-jobs, crooked city officials, innocent bystanders caught up in deadly intrigues, and devious plans gone terribly awry. Yet his approach is more derivative than in the vein of an homage, and his pacing is way off the mark. Rather than keeping up the suspense with a steady influx of information and twists, there’s plenty of downtime for Sally to act exceptionally ditzy (or just plain stupid); for light and unconvincing romance; for extensive details on the process of moviemaking itself; and for John Lithgow to steal some seemingly unrelated scenes as a patriotically-dressed whacko. Plus, many of the paranoia themes resemble cop dramas rather than political thrills, flip-flopping the genre instead of maintaining a consistent tone.

Ultimately, the biggest problem is that everything feels too lengthy; the scenes and various interactions carry on too long, until all the tension dissipates. Even the climax is shot so oddly that hours pass to allow for the day to transition into night – despite the fact that it’s a chase sequence – further dulling the immediacy of the protagonists’ plight. And the conclusion, though designed to be bleak, is just plain laughable.

– Mike Massie

  • 3/10