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Nicholson's latest falls far short of Five Easy Pieces

If we take Bob Rafelson at his word, Blood & Wine completes a trilogy about family relationships that started with the director's two crowning achievements, 1970's Five Easy Pieces and 1971's The King of Marvin Gardens. Those two films are so often pointed to as evidence of the brilliance of American moviemaking at that time -- and they're still shining examples of what happens when an intuitive storyteller and a game actor (Jack Nicholson) work together to effect blistering emotional curiosity on-screen -- it may seem that Blood & Wine was doomed before it started.

Let's face it: Hardly anything about movies in the '90s, no matter the subject or talent attached, feels like movies from the '70s. That era's counterculture edge is now so much posturing indie twaddle. And this latest Rafelson-Nicholson collaboration is no better than other films of this decade: The movie is thinner than blood, less intoxicating than wine.

This time, the tale focuses on a jewel heist masterminded by Nicholson's Alex Gates, a financially strapped Miami wine merchant. Living a lavish existence that includes a Cuban mistress, Gabriella (Jennifer Lopez), and the status accouterments of plying a trade that attracts connoisseurs and millionaires, Alex is constantly burned by turmoil at home and in his pocketbook. His shut-in wife, Suzanne (Judy Davis), is becoming less tolerant of Alex by the day; his sea-loving stepson, Jason (Stephen Dorff), has always hated him; and the money is running out. Tempted by a million-dollar necklace in a client's safe, Alex plans to lift the jewels with the help of his dryly evil, safecracking chum Victor (Michael Caine), fence them in New York and run off with Gabriella.

Rafelson gets the caper over with early because he has bigger things in mind, such as the chaos that ensues when Alex's wife and stepson get in the way. What started out snaky and sunny -- practically a midlife-crisis heist comedy -- quickly turns ugly when a fed-up Suzanne lashes out at Alex and, after a brutal fight, leaves him bloodied and unconscious. She and Jason flee with Alex's suitcase, unaware of the necklace zipped in a side pocket. Bent on recovering their swag at any cost, Alex and Victor desperately try to track them down. Meanwhile, Suzanne and Jason regroup and ponder whether they can start a new life that doesn't involve looking over their shoulder for traces of Alex. And -- oh, yeah -- Jason starts hankering after Gabriella, whom he believes shares his desire to run from what can't be solved or reconciled.

In an age when a heist/crime/gangster/pulp/noir film comes along once a week, Blood & Wine distinguishes itself primarily by the very thing most likely to seem routine: its violence. The confrontations include everything from domestic violence to a car crash, a bar brawl, head punches and being crushed by a boat. When compared to the gaspingly shocking single act of violence that irrevocably concludes the relationship between brothers Nicholson and Bruce Dern in The King of Marvin Gardens, it appears Rafelson is trying to end his trilogy with a facile bang.

One would hope that in being so attuned to the nastiness of his characters, Rafelson would have heaped more substance on them, examining, say, the roots of this family's bottled volatility. But alas, no. Though paced well, the movie sorely misses the sting of a genuinely knotty family drama, a disintegration from within. Rafelson can't even decide if his movie is more about Alex's fall or Jason's escape. By the end, you're likely to think it's about who'll die first.

As for the cast, nobody rises above the unseemliness, but Caine and his bronchially challenged sociopath create an indelible image of pudgy menace, and Nicholson is always good for a warped crack or two. Blood & Wine may not be 1992's Man Trouble, Rafelson and Nicholson's sorry attempt to -- well, I'm not sure what they were attempting -- but more than 25 years after they cornered the market on interfamilial indifference, sadly, they've made their own family reunion creatively tepid.

Blood & Wine.
Directed by Bob Rafelson. With Jack Nicholson, Jennifer Lopez, Stephen Dorff, Michael Caine and Judy Davis.

Rated R.
100 minutes.

 
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