Jack Nicholson does a big favor for his old friend Bob Rafelson by starring in Rafelson’s Blood & Wine. Without him, this noirish, very ’70s-style jigsaw puzzle of a story would attract a strictly B-grade cast — Brian Dennehy in the lead, perhaps. But with Nicholson doing alumnus work for the director who knew Jack in Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Rafelson’s psychologically murky drama about Alex Gates, a Miami wine merchant with a secret plan, in cahoots with a seedy safecracker, to fence a big-ticket diamond necklace, attracts an unusual assemblage of heavier-weight costars: Judy Davis (Absolute Power) as Alex’s hard-drinking, neglected wife; Michael Caine as Victor, his coconspirator, dying of lung disease but determined to pull off one last heist; Jennifer Lopez (Jack) as Gabrielle, his young Cuban mistress; and Stephen Dorff (I Shot Andy Warhol) as Jason, his angry stepson who, unaware of her relationship with Alex, is also drawn to Gabrielle, thereby allowing for plenty of Rafelsonian exploration of the fraught bonds between fathers and sons.
In fact, the real filial tenderness takes place between Nicholson and Caine. The two old curtain chewers display a real affection for one another as buddies linked as fellow losers, even if one is a ”respectable” businessman and the other a lowlife who coughs up blood. In his tenderness toward Vic, Nicholson awakens from the slack leering and menacing he lays on everyone else here. Davis doesn’t have much to do besides lash out grimly; Dorff has plenty to do (Jason intercepts the necklace and plays a busy cat-and-mouse game with Alex) but conveys no particular conviction about why he’s doing it. Lopez is used as a place marker rather than as a real girl.
Blood and Wine is being pushed as a kind of companion to Five Easy Pieces. It isn’t. Still, there’s one resonant reminder of young Jack: In one scene, Alex flings a tray around with the same rude table manners that made ”hold the chicken” a famous setup over a quarter century ago.