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ONE WAY or another, Clint Eastwood has been making "The Rookie" for two decades. In 1971 it was called "Dirty Harry," and it was one of the best movies he ever starred in. He played the scabrous, head-busting veteran cop, and Reni Santoni (a great trivia question) played the raw shavetail who learns how to rough up the world Harry's way.

In 1976, the story got a snappy little feminist twist in "The Enforcer" when Tyne Daly played the young, inexperienced cop inducted into Dirty Harry's Grand and Malevolent Order of Headbashers.

And why not? It's an oldie but goodie at the movies: the wily, disheveled and profane vet who takes the eager, uptight whippersnapper in hand and dries off the wet spot behind the ears. In other words, Clint Eastwood could make movies like "The Rookie" in his sleep -- produce it, direct it, star in it, polish the camera lens if necessary, and all during an afternoon snooze.

"The Rookie" looks as if he may have done just that. He doesn't play Harry Callahan in this, but he might as well have. He plays a cop named Nick Pulovski, and he's still a veteran and a jaw-buster. Charlie Sheen plays Ackerman, a nervous rookie who, in no time at all, learns the fine art of street-corner fascism from the master.

If it isn't the worst movie the squinting avenger has made in 20 years, it's certainly well up there in the running with "Pink Cadillac" and "Heartbreak Ridge." Just as "Heartbreak Ridge" was a dubious tribute to the eternal valor of the American military expedition in Grenada, "The Rookie" is an ode to the cops who withstand the daily savageries of the auto theft squad.

Oh, all right, homicide and drug enforcement get all the glamour press. But I suppose it's at least theoretically possible that a consummate Neanderthal and vigilante like Clint the Cop could be chasing Porsches and Jaguars and "Beemers" into the nearest chop shop.

You don't have to be an industrial analyst or Hollywood agency insider to psych out why "The Rookie" was made. Undoubtedly, it was launched to prove to the coastal moneybags and powers-that-be that, despite Eastwood's conspicuously escalating ambitions and commercial unconcern in such disparate and admirable movies as "Bird" and "White Hunter, Black Heart," he still knows how to make a .44-caliber cop buddy film to reconvene the faithful and woo them away from all those "Lethal Weapon" clones.

Give the old boy his due -- or his "propers," as Arsenio Hall always tells us they say in the patois of the ghetto. The boomings, bashings, chases, conflagrations, gunfights and fisticuffs aren't too bad (one of the explosions set off earthquake rumors in the environs of the L.A. film set).

And there's a sick but memorable sex scene between Sonia Braga and Eastwood in bondage that involves a razor blade and her threat to use it in a most injurious way if his carnal performance isn't up to standard. It's a scene with just about everything the low-minded could want -- blood, bondage, Braga and videotape, too.

But the script by Boaz Yakin and Scott Spiegel is utterly dreadful, a hackneyed, godawful piece of junk that never should have wormed its way up through the subterranean ooze of episodic network television.

Almost all their attempts to come up with Clint's brand of terse little one-liners are hideous groaners.

When buildings aren't being burned and blasted and when a few hundred thousand dollars worth of cars aren't being trashed, it's as stupid as any Eastwood film in memory (yes, that includes his orangutan movie "Every Which Way But Loose").

For every decently written scene (a bit of blistering billingsgate, for instance, which our boy Pulovski reserves for unleashing live on the nightly news), there are 15 floating across the movie's surface in lead canoes. And when lines are as bad as some of these are, Clint the director is no help. Amateurism, unfortunately, is contagious.

Raul Julia plays the sadistic leader of the auto theft ring. He snarls and smirks a lot, with little evident pleasure in either case. Braga -- a sensitive and affecting actress when allowed to be -- plays his henchwomen. She wields an AK-47, a .45 automatic and, when all else fails, a razor blade and a mean karate chop. In other words, she's not the sort of woman one would be well-advised to ask, "You come here often?"

Pulovski/Clint has been on their case for months. His new rookie partner hasn't even been in East Los Angeles, let alone worked there. But when Clint/Pulovski is kidnapped and held for $2 million ransom, Ackerman the rookie decides to kick butt and come to the rescue no matter where it takes him.

For some reason, almost everyone in this movie seems to have a tattoo -- Sheen, Braga, the wet-lipped bartender at the local bikers' beer hall.

Should Eastwood have run scared and made such a calculated and contemptuous attempt to construct a crowd-pleaser?

I dunno.

Still, to quote a famous tattoo: "Death before dishonor."

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