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LOST GENRE
TRADITION TAKES A BEATING AT THE HANDS OF OLIVER STONE

MANY OF US love genre films. It saves the trouble of getting acquainted all over again. It's like parties with old friends. Not much new work involved. No global surprises, only local ones. Local ones can be delicious. It can be like classical Chinese painting: The tradition continues unmolested; the next generation makes subtle modifications, changes, alterations, advances. Tiny, but the effects are felt and savored.

Oliver Stone is no subtle amender. He is a redeveloper. He razes the block, puts up his own mall. He has started his own genre: falsifying history. But it doesn't work on entrenched genres like the low-life crime film, as in "U-Turn." Genres are a category of sequel: They are new installments of old forms. There will be no "U-Turn II."

Stone has taken a pretty good cast and a possibly interesting story -- narrative potency isn't all that important -- and made a mess of it. Why? Apparently it's because Stone can't manage the idea he's actually making B-movie entertainment. He tarts up the film with silly camera work and flashbacks.

The possibility that this is meant as a parody of the genre exists, even if remote. It is too unglued to be parody. And if comedy is the thought behind it, nuclear waste has more laughs.

It begins in this classic way. A dumb grifter loser named Bobby (a chaotic performance by Sean Penn) breaks down in a hideous desert town. His one hope of getting his car fixed and gone lies with a mentally challenged mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton). In no time Bobby runs across a blind Vietnam vet woofing it on the street (Jon Voight; don't ask what he's doing in the film). The local semi-psycho sheriff (Powers Boothe) gives him the hometown cop's suspicious glare. Bobby catches up with a vision parading down the street (Jennifer Lopez, delectable way beyond this sinkhole). He hitches a ride back to her place.

Up to this point, if it weren't for the artiness impastoed by Stone and the question of teeth, things aren't so bad. Bobby has a crazed drug hit man tooling across the country looking for him. His car is in the clutches of the town dodo. There's Jennifer Lopez. This isn't high-end cinema; still, you wonder how necessary it is for Lopez to be married to her father, another head case (Nick Nolte).

Sadly, if implausibly, lame comedy might explain the excess of teeth. Stone cuts away to various predators, alive and snarling or dead and displaying canines in a rictus of death. This ought to be about money, sex and revenge. What is this dental obsession? The camera goes up to people and examines their teeth, crooked or straight, clean or spectacularly encrusted. Symbolism? If so, then in a class with Thruway-straddling road signs. The stabs (this is not a metaphor) at comedy and irony are slimed with blood and sharp instruments.

Not only films slip neatly into similar packages, or kinds, or genres -- so do their actors. The majority of our most impressive stars are their own sequels from film to film: Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Al Pacino. Circumstances change, but they're not a whole lot different film to film. They're so good at what they do, it doesn't seem important to know what else they can do. Morgan Freeman deserves to be there, too.

Freeman shows the same easy, dominating presence and screen intelligence as the others. In recent movies he has turned up in police procedurals as a detective, from New York City in "Seven" and from Washington, D.C., in "Kiss the Girls." He is terrific. He is in fact much too good for the movies. Both are squirrely duds.

"Seven" is steeped in moody atmospherics, pretty impressive, too (making, incidentally, Stone's feeble attempts look like Post-It atmospherics). But as soon as Brad Pitt is identified as Freeman's cop buddy, the film goes tilt. It's not exactly that Pitt is out of his depth (he's a big over-under actor) but that Freeman puts him there simply by being on screen next to him. Pitt comes off dwarfed by Freeman's sheer presence, and is in any case no more than commercial insurance.

The question becomes, Why isn't Freeman better-used? In a better world he'd be put into a crime movie with the complexity and depth of the "Prime Suspect" series (Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison) swirling around him. "Kiss the Girls" is not that movie. Here's Freeman again as the gravitational center of the action, but the film is so dumb and bizarre, it disqualifies itself from serious consideration.

Someone is kidnapping beautiful young women down around Durham, N.C., and making love slaves of them in an underground cavern. This allows the moviemakers to toy with male adolescent fantasies, showing just enough to stimulate comic book imaginations. One of the women is Freeman's niece. So he rushes down south, which according to this movie is the land of cliches. Very dumb, but not Freeman. Seeing how good he is, you can't but think on the movie they didn't make.

"Murder in Mind" could very well describe your mental state after 15 minutes of this video. It derives from a respected tradition, a crime occupying the indefinite zone separating reality and inner psychic worlds. Hitchcock's "Vertigo" is a supreme example (readers would do well to check out Sebastien Japrisot's "The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun"). The excuse for picking up "Murder in Mind" at all is the presence of Nigel Hawthorne of "The Madness of King George" and lots of other quality work. Also, perhaps, Mary-Louise Parker, and for commercial fallback, Jimmy Smits of "NYPD Blue" (embarrassingly out of his depth).

Smits is a wealthy something-or-other recently married to Parker. Hawthorne is a psychiatric hypnotist treating her for murdering her husband, then maybe not. His every twitch registers as ominous so clearly that the film suffers from a case of premature suspicion. This seems to have been a stage play where, one imagines, it might have worked under stricter formal conditions. But on film, here anyway, it's a mess. The general notion is glimpsed all too soon, while the particulars remain baffling. It's like knowing the answer to a problem but having no idea how you got there.

Added to this is an overall claustrophobia. For all intents and purposes there are only three characters. Such a narrowing makes it child's play. The same thing happens in "Kiss the Girls." Everything is effect, which is no substitute for a spectrum of possibly guilty parties. Besides Freeman and background cops and a co-starring victim (Ashley Judd) we meet maybe two other characters who could qualify. One is a psychiatrist, wouldn't you know?

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