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PUTTING IT TOGETHER
THREE MOVIES IN SEARCH OF A CONNECTION

READERS OF this column may wonder how films are grouped for review. Sometimes it's obvious: the last works of a recently deceased Greek director, for instance, or three movies about oversize insects terrorizing mild-mannered New Yorkers.

But how to explain this week's contenders: the best-known independent feature of last year, an assembly-line thriller and the oddity Ted Turner attempted to torpedo out of existence?

Don't look at me. I opened the mail one Tuesday, and there they were. Rest asssured I am not the sort of person to run from a difficult situation, so here goes:

"Crash" and "Breakdown" are about bad things that happen to cars, and "Sling Blade" is about a guy who fixes them.

Or how about this: "Sling Blade" and "Breakdown" share a cast member (J.T. Walsh) -- while "Crash" concerns a woman who wears a cast (Rosanna Arquette).

Try this on for size: I didn't hurry to see "Sling Blade" when it was in the theaters because it looked as if it would be around forever. "Crash" left so quickly, I didn't even realize it was here.

And "Breakdown"? Well, that one was on my list, too, but on the way to the multiplex I ran into a little car trouble and ended up fighting for my life with a gang of local yokels who kidnapped my wife, stuffed her underneath an 18-wheeler and attempted to deplete my vast bank account before I thwarted their nefarious plan.

Only joking. But the creators of this rickety Kurt Russell vehicle (no pun intended) were probably deadly serious when they concocted its farfetched plot, conveniently summarized in the above.

The best thing about "Breakdown" is its trailer, which seemed to advertise a much more interesting movie, one full of moral ambiguity and head-scratching twists.

The actual film, on the other hand, offers up a "hero" (Russell) so obnoxious that I found myself rooting for the bad guys even before they arrived on the scene.

Russell plays a hotheaded New England yuppie dolt stranded with his wife in an unfamiliar land; his response to even the smallest mishap is to insult the natives until they threaten to shoot him.

It's essentially a humorless variation on "Green Acres," when you get right down to it. But this time around, the Eva Gabor character disappears with a friendly-seeming truck driver.

Here's yet another connection between two of these films: Both "Breakdown" and "Crash" begin with life-altering automobile accidents.

But where Kurt Russell finds himself embroiled in a bargain-basement criminal conspiracy, James Spader winds up enmeshed in a far wackier, though equally illegal and unsavory, underground subculture.

Spader plays James Ballard, the fictional creation of writer J.G. Ballard, whose revered sci-fi novel is the basis of David Cronenberg's latest film.

To say that "Crash" is classic Cronenberg is not to imply that it's a particularly good movie. But all the elements that made works like "Videodrome," "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers" so compelling are here, too: the uniquely horrific treatment of sexual energy, the assertion that violence is a force for transformation, the jet-black humor.

A character in "Crash" puts it best: Cronenberg's recurring subject is "the reshaping of the human body through modern technology."

The speaker is Vaughn, played by Elias Koteas -- every bit as creepy and fascinating here as he was in Atom Egoyan's "Exotica." Vaughn stages reconstructions of celebrity car wrecks; fresh from his success with James Dean, he yearns to tackle Jayne Mansfield next.

He's at the center of a close-knit group of automobile enthusiasts. But this crowd isn't satisfied with the occasional mall-parking-lot classic car show, or even a demolition derby -- unless they can somehow work their way inside the mangled metal for a little afternoon delight.

Sex and cars: How American can you get? "Crash" is social satire, obviously -- though maybe not obviously enough for the Kurt Russells of the land, who steered clear of it.

Mogul Ted Turner found the movie appalling and tried to block its distribution. Normally, that in itself would seem to guarantee a box office sensation, but when "Crash" actually did hit the cinemas it was accompanied by mediocre-to-scathing reviews, which effectively condemned it to oblivion.

Lousy box office plus lousy reviews usually equals cult classic in the making, and I was really hoping to beat the rush to "rediscover" a lost cinematic masterpiece, but no matter how much I wanted to love the movie (and I do revere Cronenberg as a writer/director), I can't escape the fact that it's a crashing bore.

Even so, I have to admire a film in which just about every major character has sex with just about every other major character, regardless of age, gender or the presence of scar tissue.

As willfully perverse sex scenes go, they're kind of fun -- certainly more entertaining than watching Kurt Russell scamper around on the underside of a Mack truck.

Which brings us, somehow, to "Sling Blade." I've saved this one for the end because I'm convinced I was the last person on the planet to see it.

I stayed away mostly because of my aversion to what I call the "Rain Man" principle: the force that compels reasonably fit, extremely well-paid actors to play savants, mutes, palsied poets and so on, with the promise of an Academy Award waiting in the wings. Such roles almost invariably strike me as exploitation rather than genuine exploration of human experience.

I'm not convinced "Sling Blade" is any different -- in fact, its tale of a wise outsider bonding with a precocious child in a small Southern town owes a lot to "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." Billy Bob Thornton, meet Alan Arkin.

But then, I like "Lonely Hunter." And I found myself enjoying "Sling Blade," too, almost against my will. Thornton's acting has been praised to the high heavens, so I'll call attention instead to his gifts as writer and director, crafting even the most minor of roles (the crew of a fix-it shop, a ragtag collection of would-be musicians) with poetic language that recalls the finest of folk ballads.

The cast is splendid all around: young Lucas Black, singer Dwight Yoakam as the boy's mother's monstrous boyfriend, sitcom icon John Ritter as a closeted grocer named Vaughn.

Vaughn? Wait a second, isn't that the name of the wreck-room coordinator in "Crash"?

Ah, yes. It all comes together.

BREAKDOWN 1997, R, 95 minutes, Paramount Home Video (in release)
CRASH 1997, available in NC-17 and R versions, 90 minutes, New Line Home Video (in release)
SLING BLADE 1996, R, 134 minutes, Miramax Home Entertainment (in release)

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