Alas, Boston's Jeff Bridges movie isn't The Big Lebowski, it's something much less special. But it was a big deal at the time, shooting very prominently in recognizable locations during much of the summer of 1993. And it has the most god-awful of all god-awful Tommy Lee Jones performances!
1994. Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Written by Joe Batteer & John Rice. With Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones, Forest Whitaker, Suzy Amis, John Finn and Lloyd Bridges. Cinematography by Peter Levy.
IT WAS THE MOST expensive, complex and certainly loudest production to have ever come to Boston at the time. But Blown Away, the 1994 Boston bomb squad thriller, is a dud. Alas, sometimes even a raft of local locations can’t improve a run-of-the-mill action-thriller.
Since the story unfurls as one of those “this time it’s personal” action movies, the big failing is in the lead characters. Blown Away is neither Jeff Bridges’ nor Tommy Lee Jones’ shining moment. Bridges is always dependable for a certain level of performance—save for in The Vanishing remake—but he never totally connects with Jimmy Dove, the Irish revolutionary turned Boston bomb squad cowboy who must confront his past. Next to some of the other characters Bridges played during this very fruitful period for him, which includes The Fisher King, Fearless and The Big Lebowski, Dove is very forgettable. Less forgettable but more dismissible is embittered mad bomber Ryan Gaerity (Jones). Jones has a tendency to overdo his roles, but never has he chewed as much scenery as he does here. I don’t care if the character is half-insane.
So you can appreciate the stunt work during the climactic fight scene between Dove and Gaerity on a decrepit boat docked at East Boston’s Border Street Pier, but it’s hard to really get into the action because you don’t care about the characters. Blown Away was produced by the same people behind the Chicago-set firefighters film Backdraft and, like its predecessor, it’s very conventional stuff that feels as if it were written by a computer that formulaically inserts emotional baggage, dangerous situations, relationship trouble and occasional good times into the script. If it’s not the strained “old country” backstory that links the two lead characters, it’s the “retired” guy pulled back into danger. If it’s not the periodic tragedies—how many times does poor Jimmy have to run towards someone’s imminent death and not be able to get there in time to help?—it’s the repeated use of Dove’s musician wife (Suzy Amis) and stepdaughter (Stephi Lineburg) as objects in jeopardy. If it’s not the ominous music that cartoonishly accompanies Gaerity’s every move, it’s the fact that, despite the expected “inside” view of the bomb squad, many of the suspense scenes culminate in that old cliché, the snipping of the wire. I mean, c’mon, the heavy kills the hero’s dog in Blown Away (the writers couldn’t do any better than that?).
Some of the action works well. There’s genuine suspense in the rather playful sequence in which the wife and stepdaughter unwittingly turn on appliances that may or may not be rigged with explosives, and in the scene in which Dove tries to defuse the rigged headphones of bomb squad colleague Anthony (Forest Whitaker). In fact, most any time Whitaker is onscreen things are interesting. Although making this “new guy” character a real Boston townie might have upped the amount of local color here (since there’s no such character in the movie), Whitaker supplies a needed energy, and Anthony’s quest to discover what’s behind the bombings gives the plot a little nudge. Cocky Anthony and wizened Dove are initially suspicious of each other, but a mutual respect develops between the two and theirs turns out to be the only genuine relationship in the movie. The lack of connection among its characters is a reason why, arriving a scant month after Speed, Blown Away was a real also-ran as a “mad bomber” thriller, lacking the cleverness or chemistry of its competition.
For all the Boston locations on display, this is not a movie in which the city becomes a character in the story. It’s not that specific. But there’s an impressive cross-section of the city here, from movie-familiar Longfellow Bridge and Fenway Park to the Charles River Dam Bridge and Charlestown (including the St. Francis de Sales School). In Cambridge, there’s the Harvard-Epworth Church and M.I.T. The movie also ventures to Gloucester’s Wingaersheek Beach (for one of the sillier Jones sequences). Because so much of the action takes place outside, only some of it—including the Dove-Gaerity fight climax and the backyard scenes—was filmed in a studio back in Los Angeles. The best area locations mix the different looks of Boston, especially the Copley Square exploding-van sequence, with the action framed by such structures as Trinity Church, the John Hancock Tower and the ornately decked-out top floors of Boylston Street office buildings.
►Locations: Back Bay, Charlestown, Beacon Hill, East Boston, Boston; Cambridge; Gloucester.
►Accents: Problematic stuff. John Finn, as the bomb squad captain, is the cream of a poor crop. Bridges struggles with his dialogue, sometimes flattening out his a’s in a quasi-Boston accent, other times talking in a more generic dem-and-dose workingman’s voice and occasionally in a faded Irish accent; it’s as if no one quite decided what this Irish native who moved to Boston and has tried to lose his accent should sound like. No one else in the bomb squad tries to sound local: sometimes they’ve even been given character names designed to excuse them from an accent, like Cortez (Chris de Oni) or Bama (longtime Bridges comrade Loyd Catlett), while Forest Whitaker, who was the last person cast in the movie, said in interviews that his character, who was written as Italian-American in the original script, was (like the actor) from New York. On the non-Boston front, Jones’ Irish brogue is totally over the top but, for better or worse, the actor plays everything about him that way. Jeff Bridges’ dad Lloyd, playing his uncle here, does a more convincing brogue.
►Local color: It’s a change from the norm, with so many pre-Good Will Hunting movies interested in only one sort of Boston: academic/medical, ethnic neighborhoods, etc. But the variety within Boston spices Blown Away. Another nice juxtaposition place a runaway-car action sequence on staid Beacon Hill’s Joy Street.
►Off the set: Blown Away had a very reverberating effect on some of the neighborhoods where it filmed, especially East Boston. When the moviemakers took an old tuna boat named Sarah, refitted it, renamed it The Dolphin, used it as the villain’s lair and blew it up on the East Boston side of Boston Harbor, the 24 pounds of gunpowder, 1,700 feet of depth cord and 540 gallons of gasoline turned out to be even more explosive than imagined. Despite the predictions of reverberation consultants, evacuation of the two blocks closest to the blast, mass boarding-up of windows and the distribution of 4,000 pairs of earplugs, the production received over $100,000 in insurance claims from East Boston residents, along with countless complaints. The evacuees put up at the Ramada complained about the pizza dinner served to them, Al’s Shoe Store put up a sign in its broken window saying “Blown Away Blew Us Away” and the East Boston Chamber of Commerce lamented that no local window-replacement companies were hired for the cleanup. The explosion really was something. I was standing on the opposite, Charlestown side of the Harbor and could feel the heat when the crew set it off. Bridges, Jones and Whitaker were, of course, nowhere near the scene at the time.
►Don’t blink!: Look for future Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the classroom training scene.