Its embarrassing, I imagine, to be upstaged by a bus, but that’s exactly what happened to the underrated 1994 summer thriller, “Blown Away.” Released a few weeks after the monstrously popular and somewhat similar, mad-bomber-on-the-loose adventure, “Speed,” “Blown Away” suffered in comparison and saw its thunder stolen by Keanu Reeves vs. Dennis Hopper, a movie stealing Sandra Bullock, lots of crashes and lines like, “Pop Quiz, HOT SHOT!”
I like both movies, though the grimmer, larger in scope and soulful “Blown Away” holds up just fine and has the edge. Stephen Hopkins’ adequately hyped, fourth of July contender and basic cable staple offers Jeff Bridges vs. Tommy Lee Jones, some of the then-biggest explosions ever staged for a film, and a surprisingly somber subject matter. The thrust of the story is that Bridges’ gung-ho bomb disarming expert (is there any other kind in movies?) was once a participant, then a defector, of the “troubles in Ireland.” Jones, as the mad bomber who trained Bridges, is a one-man IRA, aiming to punish his escaped protégé, who now lives in Boston with a wife and child.
Aside from films like the terrific, little-seen “Michael Collins”, most American films use the Irish Republican Army and the issue of Irish terrorism as an easy way to add exotic flavor and a murkily crafted back story for a villain. “Blown Away” has the same problem that plagued the Harrison Ford/Brad Pitt drama, “The Devil’s Own”: the intentions are good and the issue is treated seriously but the need to entertain and give us Good Guys and Bad Guys softens the screenplay’s need to create morally complex characters and questions. Bridges, who sports an on-again/off-again Irish accent, is mostly the “hero” of the piece, though some scenes suggest a darkness that isn’t fully explored. Jones adds tragic dimension to his stark-raving lunatic character and mostly succeeds, bringing pathos to a really despicable villain.
If the politics don’t stick, the value placed on the lives of the characters and the suspense of who will live and die, does. This is one of the few movies containing the “should I cut the blue wire or the green wire” moments, where you won’t know how it turns out but you’ll care who walks away. Some of the fiery explosions on display are simply awesome to behold, though a few of them enhance tragic outcomes. Most action movies don’t flinch when human lives are lost or a massive destruction is inflicted, but Hopkins’ movie both understands the visual allure and horrible aftermath of chaos.
Perhaps it was too somber to succeed as a summer attraction and yet, it does. The cat and mouse game played by the two leads builds to a physical confrontation that feels mythic in size, as the world seems to be igniting around them. The scene where turning on household appliances that may contain a bomb trigger is playfully hair raising. Even the last scene, the only one that closely mirrors “Speed,” literally mixes fireworks and impressive stunt work.
This is Bridges when he was known as “The World’s Most Underrated Actor,” not the Oscar winning uber-Dude we know today. Pairing him with his father, the late, wonderful Lloyd Bridges, is reason enough to see this. The same is true if you’re a fan of Jones, though this is one of his most over-the-top performances. Coming off of his Oscar-winning turn in “The Fugitive,” Jones had a banner year in 1994, starring in this, “The Client,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Blue Sky” and “Cobb.” Each of those turns showcase a richly versatile actor, though only one of those movies has him singing along with U2, while creating an explosion out of a child’s toy.