Brian DePalma has been (sometimes correctly) accused of manufacturing little more than brilliant pastiche (which is another way of damning him with faint praise). I confess to be as guilty as anyone of this practice, finding films like Dressed to Kill slick, fun, but ultimately less works of art than of skillful post-modern artifice.
Blow Out is a haunting exception. Yes, it has clear antecedents in Antonioni's Blowup and Coppola's paranoid classic, The Conversation. But it is unfair to judge Blow Out by its similarities to these films. One need only pay minimal attention to realize DePalma has his own goals in mind. No mere retread of the standard paranoid political thriller, Blow Out is a bravura exercise in nuanced, multi-layered story telling.
Low budget movie soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) is in the right place at the wrong time - while out recording some nature sounds for a B slasher flick (in which DePalma seems to poke fun at some of his own earlier work), he catches the sounds of an auto accident. In an incident reminiscent of Chappaquiddick, a car driven by a presidential candidate suffers a tire blowout and careens off a nearby bridge. The candidate dies, but Terry manages to rescue his "lady friend", a party girl named Sally (Nancy Allen). Key to the story is his recording, which seems to contain a double-bang - perhaps the blowout preceded by a gunshot? Naturally the story leads Terry into a web of intrigue featuring slimy political operatives, corrupt cops, and nefarious CIA henchmen.
Blow Out's visual style has drawn criticism from some quarters as being too flashy. Ridiculous! The camera movements are precise and deliberate; designed to communicate story points with great efficiency. The visual technique draws no more attention to itself than anything directed by Scorsese. Raging Bull (released about the same time) is far more "flashy" and nobody complains about it.
The DVD itself lacks any special features, but the film transfer is vivid and detailed, with good color fidelity (essential, since the art-direction is a major "star"). It is also double-sided, with a pan-scan presentation on one side, and enhanced widescreen on the other. Don't even bother with the pan-scan; DePalma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's compositions are edge-to-edge, making full use of the Panavision frame.
Blow Out is not perfect. Some of the dialogue is contrived and sophomoric. Assassin Burke's (John Lithgow) golf pants in one scene make him look silly when he should seem sinister. But, on balance, John Travolta's solid performance and Brian DePalma's skilled direction more than make up for such lapses. With Blow Out DePalma reaches deeper than usual - with a disquieting sub-plot about guilt, unrequited love, and the futility of seeking redemption. Its conclusion is the punch line to a bitter, existential joke. Read closely, it's a scathing commentary on the Hollywood film industry itself, and the vampiric way it often feeds on very real, sometimes very sad, lives.