John Travolta plays a Foley engineer recording wind sounds for a low budget horror movie. A nearby car blows a tire and crashes into a lake. Travolta captures the audio on tape, only to discover he’s stumbled upon a far-reaching conspiracy executed by a sinister John Lithgow.
Writer/director Brian De Palma steals the concept (and title) from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. He shifts the location from 1960s London to 1980s Philadelphia, and the medium from film to audio tape. This provides the scaffolding upon which he constructs a terrific paranoid thriller, lead by standout performances from Travolta and Lithgow.
Travolta wins us over early with his ample charisma. His journey from detached bystander to invested participant mirrors our interest in the film. Opposite him, Nancy Allen plays a ditzy version of her character in Dressed to Kill. This proves the film’s weakest link. The incidental dialog between her and Travolta strains the ear as much as her behavior in the film’s third act strains credibility.
This would seem De Palma’s blind spot. In the films he’s written, the set pieces shine, but the rest suffers. Blow Out continues the trend. De Palma proffers several memorable sequences, including a fireworks-laden finale, but the characters are only as strong as the performers. Travolta and John Lithgow imbue their roles with ample charisma, but Allen has little room to shine. The script regulates her to a plot device to spur action from the other leads.
But Blow Out shines despite these shortcomings. Travolta and Lithgow are great and the story’s message of false narratives, corruption, and fake news proves relevant. Perhaps too much so. De Palma makes a resonant point that conspiracies needn’t be intentional, but once begun, have a strong self-preservation instinct.