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ROBERT TOWNE'S first film as both writer and director since the highly regarded "Personal Best" is "Tequila Sunrise," an L. A.-drenched saga of drugs, sex and perfidy. It was one of the more eagerly awaited films of the year.

Towne may well be the most highly regarded scriptwriter in Hollywood. He's the man who wrote "Chinatown," "Shampoo" and "The Last Detail." In addition, he has also been called in as the script doctor on any number of films. He's the man who's summoned out of last-ditch desperation to lend shape to the shapeless or to festoon scripts with nuggets of hard-boiled wit.

He fell on hard times in the '80s. One long-term project "Greystoke" was taken away from him and others couldn't get off the ground. The mere existence of "Tequila Sunrise," then, is a personal triumph.

It turns out to resemble little more than a very sophisticated but slow and soggy episode of "Miami Vice" set in LA-LA land. I have no doubt that in some circles, Towne's past work and reputation will cause it to be treated with utmost seriousness. Sight unseen, some formidably astute critics called it the final part of Towne's "L. A. trilogy" (after "Shampoo" and "Chinatown").

It doesn't deserve that much respect, believe me. It's sexy and witty and Conrad Hall's magnificent cinematography helps to give it sensual Angeleno atmospherics (with their arrangements of orange on red, some of Hall's skyscapes even look like tequila sunrises).

But it is hopelessly flawed by the common artistic delusion that a lot of surface complexity is the same thing as depth.

Incoherence is admittedly an old tradition of the California thriller. Raymond Chandler once admitted to the screenwriters who adapted his novel "The Big Sleep" that he couldn't clarify a crucial plot point any more than they could.

Ever since Towne and Polanski's masterful "Chinatown", L. A. movies have been telling us that perfidy and betrayal are the L. A. way of life. "Tequila Sunrise" is about a conspiratorial web of people who keep secrets and control just for the sake of keeping secrets and control. That is, when they are not so drowning in self-analysis and the Higher Psychobabble that their emotions are hopelessly unreadable.

Let's put it bluntly: Robert Towne, the great structuralist script doctor, desperately needed a structuralist script doctor. "Tequila Sunrise" is a sexy, witty, moody beautiful mess.

Mel Gibson plays a coke dealer who is frantically trying to go straight. Kurt Russell plays his friend on the police force -- the one with the wet look hair. Michelle Pfeiffer is the beautiful woman who bounces sexily and weepily between them.

Towne DOES write some great dialogue. It has a loose authentic rhythm. It sneaks up on its own wit. The sexual badinage between Russell and Pfeiffer and Gibson and Pfeiffer is first rate. It isn't quite up there with the lines William Faulkner wrote for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall but then as good as he can be, Robert Towne is no Nobel Prize winner.

Gibson, Pfeiffer and Russell are turned into little more than wisecracking models, though. The paradoxes are too easy, just like they are on "Miami Vice". The ex-dope dealer is a loving family man. The L. A. cop is the narcissistic faithless playboy. And the Fed is the butt of everybody's jokes.

The cop manipulates everyone meaninglessly -- just for the sake of manipulating them. And at the end of the movie he grins at his own benevolence (a more distanced and, perhaps, less self-serving screenwriter might have shoved a grapefruit up his nose).

It has the Pacific Pirandello aura of a lot of L. A. movies (Alan Rudolph's, for instance). People are so deeply immersed in "motivation" and role playing that they think role playing itself is hot stuff. It isn't. It just makes for a lot of pointless complexity and boredom.

In fact, if Raul Julia hadn't showed up at the end of "Tequila Sunrise" to get all of Towne's best lines and conquer all the psychobabbling inertia, the whole movie might have suffered from the sodden, headachy malaise you get from having too many tequila sunrises in the sun.

Rated R and opening today in the Holiday, University, McKinley, and Summit Mall Theaters.

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