Kids II: The Murderers

After A.I. , Steven Spielberg’s extravagant

summer banquet, everything else at the movies is scraps. Signaling the arrival

of dog days, we have several bits of flotsam to get out of the way. Most controversial

of them all is Bully , a disturbing

but ultimately pointless little horror from Larry Clark, the overrated director

of the gruesome 1995 film Kids , whose

entire career seems dedicated to showing us all how loathsome American

teenagers really are. Bully is raw,

mean-spirited and filthy. The fact that it is based on a true criminal case

about the murder of a teenage boy by a group of his doped-up, freaked-out

friends in South Florida lends an added shock to a tragic tale, but adds

nothing in the way of enlightenment. The film is so relentlessly

one-dimensional it would have been better as a documentary.

Brad Renfro, the

talented youngster who made an indelible first impression as the little

boy in The Client and matured

blissfully in the riveting Apt Pupil ,

and Nick Stahl, the sensitive, manly little fellow who bonded with Mel Gibson

in The Man Without a Face , are  two stars who have graduated to the danger

zone-that awkward age between college and manhood when there isn’t much work in

the Hollywood pasture for young colts. How many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can you stand

before you begin to think about alternate avenues of employment? Mr. Renfro-who

also gets an “associate producer” credit, whatever that means-must have jumped

at the chance to smoke dope, spout unquotable dirt, slash someone’s throat and

roll around nude in stained sheets. He should have stayed home in his Calvins.

In this repellent film

about self-destructive teenagers spiraling into a quagmire of drugs, violence

and unprotected sex without a shred of parental guidance, Mr. Renfro plays

Marty, a kid who has been insulted and slapped around for years by his best

friend Bobby (Nick Stahl), a bully who rapes, mauls and hits everyone in the

neighborhood. Marty, the awkward, shy one, will do anything to please his

buddy, including stripping in gay clubs and doing phone sex. Bobby, the

dominant, abusive one, lives in a hedonistic moral swamp of his own making.

Bobby gets off on inflicting pain when it’s pretty obvious he’s covering up his

own latent homosexuality (a real theme which might have provided a more cogent

psychological explanation of the dark events if the director had the courage to

explore it better).

Between Kama Sutra

positions, Marty’s pregnant girlfriend Lisa comes up with the idea of killing

off the bully, and before she can light another joint six other teens think

it’s a cool idea, too-as if murder is a no-brainer as blithely accomplished as

scoring another hit of Ecstasy. On the rare occasion when director Clark reluctantly

allows a parent to enter the picture, the adults seem more irresponsible and

clueless than their children. The audience guffaws when one brain-dead mother

finally rises from her stupor long enough to ask, “What are you kids up to?”

And so, on July 14, 1993, the whole gang drives Bobby out to a swamp and stabs

him to death. When he calls out to Marty for help, Marty guts him like a rabbit

and leaves his body for the alligators. Vomiting, dropping tabs of acid like

Chiclets and watching porno flicks, the kids are too immature to understand the

consequences, so they blab about the savage ritualistic murder of the

neighborhood bully to their friends. After what seems like days, the police

arrive at last, and the rest is Florida history. Marty currently faces the

electric chair; the others are serving sentences ranging from 40 years to life

imprisonment. A pathetic horror story, to be sure, but so what?

It isn’t enough to

recreate the events of a brutal murder or record the sadness of a stunned

community unless your audience knows more about the killers at the end of the

movie than they did going in. Larry Clark is no Richard Brooks, Jim Schutze

(whose book inspired the screenplay) is no Truman Capote, and Bully is no In Cold Blood . Instead of narrative coherence, character

development and the kind of moral insight we desperately crave to make a creepy

story relevant, Mr. Clark substitutes rap music and hard rock as the driving

forces of teenage inertia. Instead of a fluid, character-driven script, the screenplay

is a series of wacked-out one-liners suitable for porno flicks. Except for the

two leads, the acting is self-indulgent and amateurish. The direction seems to

be “Act like animals, while the camera circles around you in jerky,

out-of-focus swirls that are guaranteed to make the audience barf.” For a true

story, everyone is tired, bedraggled and potted. Comparing what happens in Bully to Columbine High and the Matthew

Shepard case, Mr. Clark claims “it’s time that we wake up to the way many of

our kids are living.” The alarm bell has a ring of truth, but compiling facts

for the sake of sensationalism doesn’t make for a satisfying movie, and Bully is anything but.

The Kiss of Death

In the lurid,

preposterous action thriller Kiss of the

Dragon , a Chinese cop from Beijing (Jet Li) and a junkie whore from North

Dakota (Bridget Fonda) join forces to fight a corrupt French police chief

(Tchéky Karyo) who is holding the whore’s baby captive. In the violence that

follows, they destroy half of Paris with their feet and an endless supply of

acupuncture needles. I tell you, it has to be seen to be believed, and aren’t

you glad I did it for you?

As the policeman

protagonist, Jet Li-a martial-arts instructor and kung-fu star from Hong

Kong-thinks he’s in Paris to help his embassy rid the Paris underworld of a

gang of heroin-smuggling Chinese gangsters. Sabotaged by the evil police

officer who controls the crime in Paris with his own gang of murderous thugs

masquerading as cops, Li’s character, stranded and alone in a foreign city,

becomes a hunted man who fries faces with hot irons, throws hand grenades down

laundry chutes and kicks a lot of butt.

Ms. Fonda, in another

in a long string of disastrous career choices, plays a nitwit who has been

forced into prostitution by the villain. Whenever she gets out of line, he

slaps her around and injects her with another hypodermic. After the mismatched

odd couple forms a team, all hell breaks loose. In the mayhem, they demolish

luxury hotels, bridges, boats and a noodle shop, and terrorize a medieval

orphanage full of screaming children. It’s gory and absurd, with dialogue so

moronic it keeps the audience in stitches.

Kiss of the Dragon is the work of Luc Besson, the pathetically

untalented French director of such numbing drivel as The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and the Bruce Willis

potboiler The Fifth Element . In

fairness, he only wrote the loopy script for this one. The director, making his

debut, is Mr. Besson’s protégé, a 32-year-old maker of French commercials and

music videos named Chris Nahon, who demonstrates no aptitude of any kind for

coherent feature films. Ms. Fonda has big hair and a big look of permanent

agony. Mr. Li has a sad face, a sweet, winning personality and a cool,

matter-of-fact way of driving a pair of chopsticks through a jugular vein that

should come in handy at lunch meetings in Beverly Hills. But what can you do

with a hero who is too good to be true, a tragic damsel in distress who is too

dumb to be real, and a villain who is an archfiend so twisted and depraved he’s

downright hilarious? Don’t ask me. I just review them-I don’t write them.

Belting It Out Like

the Merm

Watching Klea

Blackhurst’s critically acclaimed Ethel Merman show (held over through July in

the new cabaret room upstairs at Jack Rose, 771 Eighth Avenue at 47th Street)

reminded me of the time I was a blindfolded panelist on What’s My Line? and the Merm was the “mystery guest.” I guessed her

the minute she opened her mouth (she talked the same way she sang, like an

angry trumpet) and ruined the surprise. There was nothing mysterious about

Ethel Zimmerman from Astoria, Queens. In life, as in death, she was ripe for

parody.

You can’t reinvent the

Merm. She was a crude, brassy broad. She was also an original. Paying no

attention to anything (or anyone) on the same stage, she just opened her mouth

and blasted off. The damage she inflicted on lyrics was estimable (subtlety was

not her forte, which is one reason she was a bomb in movies), but you couldn’t

grouse that you didn’t hear them. I’ve never been much of a fan of her

particular vocal violence, but I must admit she sounded like nobody else. She

could hold a high C for 16 bars and never take a breath. A Merman song was not

so much sung as branded.

Klea Blackhurst is a jolly broth of a lady with a voice the

size of a TWA terminal, and her singing a tribute to the songs and sass of the

copper-piped Merman is a natural. Her clever act is called Everything the Traffic Will Allow , and she says it’s a homage, not

an impersonation-but with all that lung power and songs like “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” what else is there? She

grew up listening to Merman when other kids were aping Elvis, and it is clear

that she is besotted. Although Ms. Blackhurst can belt like her idol, she has

more emotional range and texture, and God knows she has more humor. Her patter

is engaging, and while most of her material is familiar, she shapes it in

funny, informative and ingenious ways, bringing you into the act with warmth

and conversation. On “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” she even accompanies

herself on a ukulele.

She’s devoted her life

to studying Merman to the point of obsession, even adorning her stage with

plastic roses because Ethel was allergic to flowers. Unfortunately, her

reverence extends even to the way Merman murdered ballads. “I Got Lost in His

Arms” really hits a sour note. It will be interesting to see what Klea

Blackhurst does next, without the straitjacket. As good as this show is, her

talent makes me want to see and hear less of the Merm and more of her Kids II: The Murderers