Tense, Exciting, Dangerous-Hollywood Homicide is Not

Ron Shelton’s Hollywood Homicide , from a screenplay by Robert Souza and Mr. Shelton, should have been a sharper action-comedy satire on the LAPD than it eventually turned out to be. Its failure was not the fault of the capable cast that was assembled for the project. The subject is not to blame, either-buddy-buddy cop stories seem to be infinitely variable and fresh on the big screen and television. After all, Mr. Shelton and Mr. Souza conceived Hollywood Homicide while both worked on Dark Blue (2002), their reworking of an early James Ellroy screenplay called Plague Season . Mr. Shelton was the director, and Mr. Souza, an ex-LAPD detective, served as the law-enforcement consultant. Unfortunately, Dark Blue was everything Hollywood Homicide is not: tense, exciting, suspenseful, dangerous and dramatically satisfying. The only edge Hollywood Homicide enjoys over its predecessor is its wacky humor, some of which becomes labored after a series of seemingly endless car chases and track meets on and off the streets of L.A.

It’s a shame, really, because Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett have good comic timing and chemistry together as veteran detective Joe Gavilan and rookie sidekick K.C. Calden. Beyond their big age difference, Joe and K.C. are polar opposites in lifestyles and moonlighting vocations. While the much-married and much-divorced older man is busy trying to get out from under ruinous multiple alimony payments and ill-advised real-estate investments, K.C. is a deceased cop’s son with an affinity for acting and yoga instruction-both of which pastimes bring him in welcome proximity to hordes of pretty girls. At times, the one-liners on the subject exchanged between the two leads begin to acquire the tired sound of a sitcom audition.

Still, Hollywood Homicide does break new ground by injecting the pervasive homicidal feuds in the current rap-music genre into the LAPD-movie genre. The trouble is that Mr. Shelton and Mr. Souza don’t do enough with the material to make it dramatically compelling. There is one promisingly cogent encounter between Mr. Ford’s suspicious detective and Isaiah Washington’s cool rap mogul, Saritain. But the aura of mysterious power that Saritain exudes in this scene is seriously diminished when he ends up behaving like a cheap, gun-happy thug on the run from the police.

Not that Joe and K.C. have an easy time of it, but their life-and-death struggles with Saritain and ex–rogue cop Leroy Wasley (Dwight Yoakam) are ridiculously prolonged and exaggerated, inasmuch as we can’t be expected to worry that something really awful is going to happen to the two lead characters when they’re written with an obtrusively humorous slant. Even when K.C. realizes that a criminal adversary is responsible for the murder of his own martyred father-cop, he comes out on top with the help of an elaborately farcical acting trick that further trivializes the already banal chase scenes preceding it. Actually, the pre-credit sequence-in which the four members of a hip-hop group performing in a club are assassinated-packs more cinematic dynamite than any of the action set-pieces that follow. But the skimpy methods employed by the detectives to solve the murders look feeble next to the various CSI and Law & Order genre powerhouses on television.

On the positive side are some very fresh and witty sex scenes between the aging detective, played by the equally aged Mr. Ford, and the radio mystic, Ruby, played by the ageless Lena Olin. Dare we use the ancient term “charm” to describe the sheer grown-up fun Joe and Ruby seem to be having as they beat back the usually merciless clock? By contrast, K.C.’s more frequent sexual experiences seem to be performed strictly by the numbers in between his own unfunny rehearsals for the Stanley Kowalski role in a pathetically undernourished production of A Streetcar Named Desire .

Among the compensating fringe benefits of this curiously unfocused production are Lolita Davidovich’s hard-as-nails Hollywood madame, Cleo; Martin Landau’s has-been producer, Jerry Duran, with a mansion to peddle for some hard cash; Gladys Knight as Olivia Robidoux, the hip mother of a key witness named K-Ro (Kurupt); Frank Sinatra Jr. as Marty Wheeler, the quintessential Hollywood lawyer adept at playing both sides against the middle; and Lou Diamond Phillips in an amusing turn as “Wanda,” a transvestite undercover cop with the streetwalker’s costume to prove it.

I can’t help feeling that Mr. Shelton’s potentially sophisticated take on the LAPD has been hijacked by the mercenary monolith (or matrix) manned by Hollywood’s bottom-line suits, with instructions to load on the stunt men and car-crash special effects for the sake of the juvenile first-week audiences who need to be lured away from their video games. It’s too bad. One expected more from the writer-director of such intelligent sports movies as Bull Durham (1988), White Men Can’t Jump (1992) and Tin Cup (1996).

Aussie Conviction

Scott Roberts’ The Hard Word , from his own screenplay, begins in an Australian prison. Dale (Guy Pearce), Mal (Damien Richardson), and Shane (Joel Edgerton) are three brothers waiting to be released after serving time for a series of masterful armed robberies in which no one ever got hurt-although their last robbery apparently wasn’t masterful enough. No matter. Dale is both the oldest and smartest of the three brothers, as well as the acknowledged leader; Shane is the handsomest, the vainest and the most emotionally disturbed of the three; and Mal is peculiarly attuned to his culinary passion for meat and a post-crime desire to be a butcher.

These three fraternal felons seem to have it made in prison, with cushy quarters and easy jobs, thanks to the high-powered, well-connected conniving of their crooked defense lawyer, Frank Malone (Robert Taylor). Yet after having served their time, they find themselves compelled by Frank and his criminal confederates to pull off one last massive heist before they can retire from their lives of crime.

Dale and his brothers don’t entirely trust Frank-partly because Dale suspects that his sexually provocative wife, Carol (Rachel Griffiths), has been having an affair with Frank while Dale has been away in prison. For her part, Carol is determined to follow the money in whatever man’s bed it is located. Both Dale and Frank suspect her of being capable of betraying either of them at the first opportunity, but neither of them can avoid being manipulated by her, despite their suspicions. Dale’s brothers urge him to dump her without any further ado, but he keeps hesitating until, in the end, she reveals herself as not so much the scarlet lady as, at heart, just one of the boys.

Producer Al Clark has described The Hard Word as akin to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), as imagined by the Coen Brothers. “And I was only being partly frivolous,” Mr. Clark continued. “Because it actually describes the way I see it. Heat is fundamentally a film about relationships disguised as an action movie. So is ours, although with more deadpan comic spin and less elaborate set pieces. As for the Coens, they have an unblinking way of observing bizarre behavior. They won’t let you look away. Neither do we.”

That may be, but I warn my readers that the trans-Pacific cockney accent of the lowlife characters can make for some heavy going. The visual style is efficient enough, but the characterizations are so casually offhand that it’s difficult to understand the motivations for their actions. In the big heist, the violence erupts so gratuitously, and the spatial coordinates are so confused, that I never figured out how the three brothers escaped with all the loot after being double-crossed.

The entire cast perform ably, but Mr. Pearce and Ms. Griffiths, one of the lingering revelations on the HBO series Six Feet Under , are something special in their native habitat. For her sensually goofy part, Ms. Griffiths apparently decided that only a blond-floozy bleach job could convey the mood she was seeking. Mr. Pearce seems to be returning to some bedrock realistic persona after a long holiday as a stylized character actor of sub–Russell Crowe dimensions. One thing The Hard Word cannot be accused of is committing the smug sociological assumption that crime doesn’t pay-in Australia or anywhere else in this terminally corrupt world.

Euro Clash

Céric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole , from his own screenplay, has been lingering in theaters hereabouts on the basis of generally favorable word-of-mouth. And it’s worth catching on the big screen before it’s relegated to the vaults, only to be rescued by the benign forces of VHS and DVD. For one thing, it’s the first film I know of from anywhere that makes fun of the European Union as a new monster of standardization threatening the rich varieties of European culture. For another, it features four of the most erotically and emotionally delectable female performances I have seen in one film this year.

The hero and, at times, the anti-hero of the film is Xavier (Romaine Duris), a French exchange student in a special E.U. program in Barcelona for budding bureaucrats from many different countries. As Xavier tries to find his way in Barcelona, he answers an advertisement placed by a multilingual group of international students seeking an additional tenant to help pay the enormous rent on their apartment.

Xavier has maintained contact with his first but not lasting love, Martine (Audrey Tautou). At school, Xavier befriends a lesbian confidante who advises him on how to seduce Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche), a susceptible married young woman bored by the neglect of her workaholic surgeon husband-who happens to have been Xavier’s first benefactor in Barcelona. Wendy (Kelly Reilly), a feisty British girl, rounds out the gallery of enchanting females with whom Xavier connects, either erotically or platonically, in the process of finding a place and a career (though not a woman) to which he can belong whole-heartedly. Is this a wish-fulfillment fantasy? Of course- but it’s a lot of fun, nonetheless.

The Lubitsch Decree

Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) will be shown on June 20 and 21 at the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street. Screening times are at 1, 5:10 and 9:20 p.m. If you’ve never seen this Greta Garbo classic-or even if you have-you shouldn’t miss this opportunity to witness one of the most luminously comic-romantic performances in the history of the cinema. As an added dividend, you might want to take another look at a movie criticized at the time by leftists for making fun of housing conditions, the Moscow show trials and the fear of being reported to the secret police in Joseph Stalin’s glorious Soviet Union (at least according to Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize–winning dispatches from Moscow earlier that decade). But then as now, the ineffable Garbo under Lubitsch’s direction is the main show.

Heaven Can Wait (1943) is one of Lubitsch’s warmest and most underrated masterpieces, and will be shown on Sunday, June 22, at 1:05, 5:05 and 8:55 p.m. On Monday and Tuesday, it will be shown only at matinees at 1:05 and 5:05 p.m. Don’t get me wrong. If I were temporarily made ruler of the universe (like Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty ), I would decree that all my readers would be obliged to see all 34 Lubitsch works in this marvelous Film Forum retrospective. ( Cluny Brown (1946), with Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer, is another Lubitsch treasure.) But being, instead, a reasonably rational reviewer, I shall stick to the high points. This is not the Warren Beatty Heaven Can Wait (1978), which was based on Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Lubitsch’s Heaven features Don Ameche and Gene Tierney in one of her most enchanting and most vulnerable incarnations.