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Sharks Out of Water

Blood & Wine
Made in the Miami Shades: Aging schemer Alex Gates (Jack Nicholson) takes femme fatale Gabrielle (Jennifer Lopez) for a spin.

The predators close in on Jack Nicholson in 'Blood & Wine'

By Richard von Busack

THE THIRD collaboration between director Bob Rafelson and actor Jack Nicholson--following Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)--is a disappointment: They should be capable of more than a midlevel detective story in the style of John D. MacDonald. This isn't bad imitation MacDonald (it's not The Dreadful Purple Screenplay), but it's basically pointless, a B movie with a capital B.

The film exists mainly to zero in on its opening and closing image: a gasping gaffed shark. The first time, it's an aquatic beast waiting for a coup from a stick loaded with a shotgun shell; the second time, it's Nicholson himself, puffing and immobilized on a ruined wharf.

Nicholson plays Alex Gates, a shady Miami dealer in fine wines. Burdened with a bad marriage and a worse gambling problem, he schemes to burglarize the house of one of his customers with the help of a cockney safecracker (Michael Caine) who is dying of some unspecified respiratory disease. Gates' involvement in the robbery is very personal, since he's having an affair with the rich victim's nanny, Gabrielle (Jennifer Lopez.)

At this point, Gates' plan has so many scattered monkey wrenches that it looks like the aftermath of an earthquake in a tool factory. To make matters even worse, Gates' hot-headed son-in-law, Jason (Stephen Dorff), gets inadvertently wrapped up in the mess through his own attraction to Gabrielle.

Nicholson is a man in sunset, but he still flashes his trademark reptilian charm in a stiff dance he does with Lopez. He may not sweep a table clean of dishes with his arm as quickly as he once could, but Nicholson still knocks them all over.

Since Blood and Wine takes place in Miami, it displays all the colors of a roll of Lifesavers, but the supporting cast doesn't support. They don't make them more stolid than Dorff, and Judy Davis is squandered as Suzanne, Gates' furious wife. Suzanne is a blockheaded, limping harridan, though there is a chill in seeing her after she's been slapped, with a Hitler mustache of blood under her nose.

The film seems artificial; it's balanced not on the carrying out of a crime but on the moral dilemma the crime poses. Since most of us (more's the pity) never really have the opportunity to sell out our loved ones at any price, it's hard to take Blood and Wine as anything more than a diversion. Logic is never the long suit in film noir, but the combination of the highly unlikely and the almost too realistic is an uneasy one.

Still, Nicholson, glowering, is a grim sight, the embodiment of corruption. And Caine makes the approach of death look truly sordid. Watching him sweating and bloody-mouthed reminds me of George Orwell's essay "How the Poor Die": "People talk about the horrors of war, but what weapon has a man invented that even approaches the cruelty of some of the commoner diseases? 'Natural' death, almost by definition, means something slow, smelly and painful."

Blood and Wine (R; 100 min.), directed by Bob Rafelson, written by Nick Villiers and Alison Gross, photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel and starring Jack Nicholson.

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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