Saturday, January 3, 2009


The first of crime author Hugh Wiley’s James Lee Wong detective murder-mysteries that Collier’s Magazine published in the 1930s starred horror sensation Boris Karloff as the famous Asian sleuth. “Mysterious Mr. Wong” director William Nigh and “Tiger Shark” author Houston Branch establish San Francisco as the setting immediately with a long shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. This tightly knitted thriller about a thinly disguised group of Hitler’s Third Reich agents trying to sabotage the shipment of poison gas to Stalin’s Soviet Union qualifies as crack jack entertainment with strong performances and a minimum of buffoonery as well as anti-Chinese ideology that Nigh employed in his earlier “Mr. Wong” epic. Indeed, many complain “Mr. Wong, Detective” (*** out of ****) dawdles, but at 69 minutes, this splendid little melodrama maintains a snappy pace, and the dialogue isn’t half bad. Monogram Studios lavished better production values for this B-picture. Consider the detail that the studio went to dress Mr. Wong’s residence. Of course, this studio bound yarn confines its action in rooms where either the police question the suspects or Mr. Wong meets with them a social basis. Occasionally, as in the beginning when a thug surveys a dockyard or when a character pulls up to Wong’s house in a chauffeur driven car, “Mr. Wong, Detective” ventures outside, but not often.

One of the few exteriors (more like a sound stage) occurs in the opening minutes as Lescardi, (Frank Bruno) Mohl's Henchman, hides in a warehouse at the dock and spots a crate stamped with Dayton’s Chemicals. Later, he warns Anton Mohl (Lucien Prival) at his apartment after climbing down from the higher apartment to avoid detection. “If those chemicals fall into the hands of our enemies, we’re though,” Mohl snaps. “That ship has got to be stopped.” Meanwhile, a flustered Simon Dayton (John Hamilton) visits Mr. Wong at his residence late one foggy night. A friend recommended Wong to Dayton. Dayton explains his life is in danger. “I’m just convinced that somebody’s out to get me. I tell you it’s driving me crazy. I haven’t any case,” he tells Wong. Dayton, it seems, has arranged to ship a load of chemicals abroad, but he has experienced setbacks. Factory delivers have been held up; railroad shipments damaged, and ships withdrawn that he’d chartered. He explains his office has been entered, its contents rifled several times. “I can’t give you a single clue,” he says in frustration. “I must have help or I’ll lose my mind,” he pleads. Wong agrees to meet him the next morning. No sooner does Dayton leave than he is almost kidnapped when Lescardi pulls up, posing as his chauffer driver, but Dayton refuses to get into the car. Wong and he find his chauffer in the bushes nearby with blood on his head.

The following day, Dayton summons San Francisco Police Captain Sam Street (Grant Withers) after the disgruntled chemical inventor, Carl Roemer (John St. Polis) storms into his company office and demands to be paid for his formula. Street and his men arrive at Dayton Chemicals and spot Dayton standing at the wind. After they question Roemer, they find Dayton’s office door locked and discover Dayton dead on the floor. Roemer was carrying a gun, but it was empty. Moments later Mr. Wong (Boris Karloff) shows up and finds glasses shards in Dayton’s office. Wong visits a friend with a lab and they construct a replica of the glass globe that contained the poison gas that killed Dayton. Street’s initial suspects are Roemer and Dayton’s partners, Theodore Meisel, (William Gould) and Christian Wilk (Hooper Atchley), but they are all cleared.

Not only is Anton Mohl, aka Baron Von Krantz desperate to stop the ship from leaving San Francisco with the chemical weapons, but he also wants to obtain the formula. Wong learns that only a high pitched noise can destroy the tiny glass globes that contain the poison. He tries a variety of musical instruments, but it is his parrot that cracks it with its sound. Not long afterward, Wilk dies under similar circumstances as Dayton. He was alone in his room, with the door locked, and a group of people were outside. Street is really frustrated and believes that the surviving partner Meisel is the guilty party. Just before Wilk is poisoned, Wong meets the undercover German agents (of course, the studio could not acknowledge their heritage because the Production Code Administration forbade Hollywood filmmakers from portraying foreign nationals in a derogatory light), and Wong spots Olga Petroff’s special blend of cigarette that he found in Dayton’s stolen car.

Mohl plans to kill Wong, but not before Meisel appears to have committed suicide with a glass globe. The police release Roemer and his wife, but Wong wants Street to bring the chemist to his home. No sooner does Wong arrive at his own place than Lescardi, Anton, and Olga corner him and demand the formula. He produces one of the replicas and crushes it and fools the villains into believing that they are dying for poison gas. Street arrives with Roemer and arrests the German agents.

Director Nigh and his writer Branch have constructed a clever scenario here and you will probably figure out how the victims die even when people are standing around outside their doors. Reportedly, the same device was used in “Charlie Chan in Egypt.” The police are treated like incompetent buffoons, with Street constantly losing his temper at the twists and turns that the case takes, albeit he looks like a precursor to the 1980s TV police superior who constantly shouts at the hero. Red herrings fly like confetti. The last person you expect as the murder is actually the last man you’d expect. Naturally, Karloff is a British citizen miscast as an Asian and Asian are used for comic relief. All in all, “Mr. Wong, Detective,” with its industrial espionage plot clearly involving Germans and Soviets, is a lot of fun for a low-budget B-movie.

Altogether, Boris Karloff made five “Mr. Wong” features: “Mr. Wong, Detective” (1938), “The Mystery of Mr. Wong” (1939), “Mr. Wong in Chinatown” (1939), “The Fatal Hour” (1940), and “Doomed to Die.”


"To Have and Have Not" (***1/2 out of ****)grew out of a conversation between Ernest Hemingway and Howard Hawks. Hawks had tried to persuade Hemingway to write screenplays, but Hemingway refused. Hawks told Hemingway, "I can make a picture out of your worst story." Hemingway asked, "What's my worst story?" Hawks replied "a bunch of junk" called "To Have and Have Not." "You can't make anything out of that," Hemingway argued. Hawks retorted, "Yes, I can." The novel "To Have and Have Not" concerned a charter boat captain, Harry Morgan, who loses the money owed to him by a client who leaves him in the lurch without paying his bill. Reluctantly, Morgan accepts money from rumrunners to ship their contraband merchandise. He gets shot-up, loses an arm, and his boat. Later, Morgan dies after he contends with bank robbers who force him to take them to safety using his boat. Hawks sold the story for a quarter interest in the movie to Warner Brothers, and in 1943 the studio cast Humphrey Bogart as the lead.

Initially, when Howard Hawks began work on the film, the U.S. Government objected to the use of Cuba as the setting. They worried that audiences might confuse the political regime in the Hemingway novel with America's current ally, the Batista government running Cuba. Hawks and his good friend William Faulkner changed the setting to the French territory of Martinique. Furthermore, Faulkner advised Hawks to rewrite the politics of the movie so that it dealt with the clashing aims of Vichy France and Free France.

Like Hemingway's novel, the film "To Have and Have Not" opens with professional skipper Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) taking his client, Mr. Johnson (Walter Sande), fishing off the coast of Fort de France, Martinique. After sixteen days of bad luck, Johnson quits, lies about having no money, and tries to leave Morgan without paying his bill. When Harry discovers Johnson's lies, he confronts him and Johnson is about to sign over $825 worth of traveler's checks. During a shoot out between Vichy police and suspected Free French resistance agents, Johnson is caught in the crossfire and dies. Earlier, the Free French had tried to hire Harry to smuggle one of their members onto the island. Reluctantly, since the police have confiscated his cash and the money owed him by Johnson, Harry accepts the Free French offer. By this time, Harry has gotten involved with a beautiful but mysterious woman, Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall), only recently arrived in Martinique and short of finances herself. She had tried to steal Johnson's wallet, but Harry caught her and discovered Johnson's financial solvency.

Harry and his longtime alcoholic sidekick Eddie (Walter Brennan) pick up Helene De Bursac (Dolores Moran) and her husband Paul (Walter Szurovy) but encounter a Vichy patrol boat. Harry shoots out its search light and loses the patrol boat in the fog. Unfortunately, Paul De Bursac catches a slug in his chest. Predictably, Vichy Police Captain Renard (Dan Seymour) questions our heroes at their hotel about their trip. Harry and Eddie lie that they were fishing for marlin when a German U-boat frightened them. Later, Harry digs the spent bullet out of De Bursac's chest with Marie's help. Captain Renard renews his suspicions and arrests Eddie. Later, Renard and his agents corner Harry at the hotel where he lives when he is not taking customers on fishing trips. Harry catches the dastardly Renard with his guard down, kills one of his henchmen, and then claps Renard and company in handcuffs. After slugging the police captain on the head, Harry convinces Renard to turn Eddie loose. Eddie, Marie, and Harry get De Bursac off the island to safety.

"To Have and Have Not" deals with the usual themes that obsessed Hawks. All good Hawksian characters are professionals in the strictest sense and a later scene between Harry and Paul De Bursac establishes the quintessential characteristics of the Hawks hero. De Bursac describes the chief characteristic, "When you meet danger, you never think of anything except how you will circumvent it. The word failure does not even exist for you . . ." "To Have and Have Not" boasts some memorable dialogue, especially between Bogart and Bacall. The "whistle" scene is now the stuff of legends, like the horse race dialogue in their next movie "The Big Sleep." Interestingly, Bogart and Bacall fell in love during filming while Bogart was still married to his alcoholic wife actress Mayo Methot. Eventually, Bogart divorced Methot and married Bacall. Walter Brennan's shtick about "was you ever bit by a dead bee?" is hilarious.

Enough similarities exist between "To Have and Have Not" and "Casablanca" to make comparisons inevitable. Like the Bogart hero in "Casablanca," necessity compels Harry to abandon his isolationist attitude and aid the Free French. Unlike "Casablanca," no actual Nazi German characters appear in "To Have and Have Not," but Madame De Bursac does mention them in passing. Furthermore, World War II does not play a major role in the story apart from the street shoot-out between Vichy authorities and the Free French as well as Renard's search for De Bursac. Unlike the doomed "Casablanca" romance between Rick and Ilsa, Marie and Harry have never met, and nobody comes between Harry and Marie. Unlike Rick, Harry owns a charter fishing boat rather than a tavern. Indeed, Paul De Bursac and his wife do resemble fugitive Czech Resistance leader Victor Laszlo, but De Bursac has come to Martinique to rescue a Free Frenchman imprisoned on Devil's Island.


The 1935 Monogram Pictures' release "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" (**1/2 out of ****),with Bela Lugosi and Wallace Ford, clearly didn't deserve any Oscars, but neither does director William Nigh's poverty-row crime thriller qualify as ghastly. This low-budget, black & white whodunit about a series of murders occurring in the Chinatown section of an anonymous metropolitan American city is incorrigibly xenophobic. Remember, when this movie came out, Americans harbored paranoid fears about the so-called 'Yellow Peril' that Chinese immigrants represented as they poured into the west coast. Any multi-culturally minded liberals who partake of "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" are going to be not only appalled but also offended this movie's conspicuous, racially charged invective.

Clocking in at a meager 63 minutes, this melodrama never wears out its welcome. Prolific director William Nigh, who helmed 120 movies in a career spanning thirty-four years, and his writers keep things clicking. Lew Levenson adapted author Harry Stephen Keeler's story "The Twelve Coins of Confucius," and Nina Howatt penned the screenplay with James Herbuveaux contributing additional dialogue. Neither Howatt nor Herbuveaux wrote anything after "The Mysterious Mr. Wong," but the dialogue sounds pretty snappy, slang-riddled, but quotable. The action itself resembles a twelve chapter serial pared down to the bare essentials. Secret passageways, concealed doors, underground sanctums, exotic coins, and torture chambers permeate this yarn.

"The Mysterious Mr. Wong" opens with expository information from an encyclopedia about the fabled twelve coins of Confucius and how the person who possesses them will rule a province called Keelat. A newspaper story about a murder appears next. Indeed, newspaper accounts of homicides in Chinatown recur throughout the film. Three slayings occur in rapid succession in the first few minutes. The police believe that the Tongs are on the warpath. The first victim staggers out into a street and collapses. A man searches his body, finds a perforated coin, and plants a note with a Chinese letter on the corpse. The second victim has been hanged and hands rifle his pockets to acquire a coin. The third man is strangled as he sleeps—yes, he is strangled perhaps too quickly, but the Production Code censors might have forced Nigh to accelerate this lurid death scene—and hands plunder his body, extract the coin from a shoe and leave the usual note on his body. Meanwhile, agents of the Keelat province show up in town to thwart Mr. Wong. Phillip Tsang (E. Alyn Warren of "Chinatown Squad") heads up the operation. Eventually, Tsang crosses paths with Mr. Wong and Wong takes him hostage.

A cynical newspaper reporter, Jason Barton (Wallace Ford of "Freaks"), investigates these murders. The authorities are convinced that the Tongs are responsible. Barton disagrees in a news story, and his editor Steve Brandon (Lee Shumway of "The Lone Star Ranger"), packs him off to find a Chinaman named Wong. "Did you ever run into a Chinaman by the name of Wong?" Brandon inquires. "Have I ever run into any that ain't named Wong?" Barton retorts. Our journalistic hero ventures into Sam Toy's Laundry where he encounters an Irish cop, Officer 'Mac' McGillicuddy (Robert Emmett 0'Conner of "Picture Snatcher"), who seems to be the only policeman walking a beat in the district. He shares Barton's racism and refers to the Chinese as "monkeys." None of the other reporters are interested in the murder. Barton checks over the body and learns that Toy died with a pencil in his hand. A breeze blows through the laundry when Mac opens the door and Barton finds a message written in Chinese. He visits the herb shop of Mr. Lysee (Bela Lugosi), but Lysee plays dumb when Barton quizzes him. Barton visits a nearby university where Professor Chan Fu (Luke Chan) works as a translator. Lysee sends one of his minions to steal the note from Barton, but Barton eludes him. Later, Barton ransacks Toy's laundry and finds the last coin, but an assailant gets the drop on Barton and steals the last coin. When Barton recovers, he learns another Chinaman has died. "Say, this is getting monotonous," Barton complains, "I'm supposed to bring in real live news, the best I can do is run down dead Chinamen." Later, Barton and the newspaper switchboard operator, Peg (Arlene Judge of "Flying Devils"), have dinner in a restaurant and Barton discovers that the man who stole the coin from him is trying to return it. This man dies in the booth next to Barton and Peg. Afterward, Mr. Wong's murderous minions capture Barton and Peg. Eventually, Wong takes them to his underground torture chamber where he plans to stick bamboo shafts up Peg's finger nails unless the reticent Barton surrenders the last coin. Just before the torture commences, Wong and company leave our hero and heroine alone long enough for Barton to find a convenient telephone and call his boss. "I'm somewhere back of old Lysee's herb shop. It's a matter of life and death. There's a secret panel on the back of the counter. You better come well heeled. These babies don't play with marbles." Nigh was no stranger to directing movies about Asians with white actors impersonated Orientals. He directed all four Boris Karloff mysteries in the "Mr. Wong" franchise: "Mr. Wong, Detective" (1938), "The Mystery of Mr. Wong" (1939), "The Fatal Hour" a.k.a "Mr. Wong at Headquarters" (1940), and "Doomed to Die" (1940). Later, Nigh directed Lugosi again in "Black Dragons" during 1942.

Of course, "Dracula" star Bela Lugosi was atrociously miscast as Mr. Wong with his obvious Hungarian accent. More than likely, Monogram cast Lugosi because Universal had cast Bela's biggest rival Boris Karloff in their 1932 epic "The Mask of Fu Manchu." Nevertheless, Bela delivers his lines with reasonable credibility and doesn't bump into the furniture. He looks pretty sinister as an Asian villain and he is up to his ears in intrigue and murder. "The Mysterious Mr. Wong" wallows in racial prejudice that was part and parcel of its time. Nevertheless, it still ranks as an entertaining B-movie.


Watching director Jake Kasdan's take on teenage comedies in the PG-13 rated "Orange County" (** out of ****) reminded me of those contemplative coming-of-age youth yarns John Hughes cranked out in the 1980s with Molly Ringwald and Matthew Broderick. This silly, sentimental satire about a high school graduate who dreams about attending Stanford University in sunny California, so he can study creative writing under an author he idolizes amounts to a contrived, half-squeezed comedy of errors.

Refreshingly, "Orange County" relies less on gross-out body fluids buffoonery and more on crazy character flaws for its mirth. Unfortunately, "Zero Effect" director Jake Kasdan (son of "The Big Chill" helmer Lawrence Kasdan) and his wacky writer Mike White of "Chuck and Buck" fare better as comedians than as storytellers. When they serve up their laugh-out {-loud jokes, they deliver them with crackerjack comic timing. On the other hand, their tale about a young writer who wants to move away from insulated Orange County, California, with its liberal lifestyles to seek greater things for himself and the resolution of conflicts in his far-out, dysfunctional family life qualifies as the typical pulp of a Walt Disney potboiler.

Everything that can go wrong for goal-oriented Vista Del Mar High School class president Shaun Brumder (Tom Hanks' son Colin of "Whatever It Takes") in "Orange County" does. Although he is a straight-A student, all Shaun lives for is surfing the waves with buds Chad (R.J. Knoll of "Turbulence") and Arlo (Kyle Howard of "House Arrest") until one of their pals perishes when a wave of tidal proportions washes him away. This tragedy prompts Shaun to take stock of his life. He sells his surfboard and takes up writing. One day at the beach, Shaun literally unearths a copy of Marcus Skinner's novel "Straitjacket" (no such book exists; it's a plot gimmick) and reads it repeatedly until he has every line memorized. When he discovers Skinner (Kevin Kline in a cameo) teaches creative writing at Stanford, Shaun asks his flaky high school counselor (Lily Tomlin at her hilarious best) to mail his scores to the university. Incredibly, she mixes up Shaun's A-plus transcript with another student's F- minus transcript. Naturally, Stanford rejects him. Nothing Shaun's animal activist girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk, Sissy Spacek's daughter of "Snow Day") can do helps. Eventually, Shaun's black sheep, ten-toed sloth of a brother Lance (Jack Black of "High Fidelity") comes to his rescue. Lance piles Ashley and Shaun into his truck, and they recklessly careen off to Stanford in a last ditch effort to crash the admissions office. Instead, pyromaniac Lance burns it down.

Colin Hanks could easily follow in his father's footsteps. He makes a believable, ordinary, fall guy whose world tumbles down around him despite his best efforts, but somewhat manages to triumph. Nevertheless, heroic as the younger Hanks is, he cannot compete with subversive comic genius of Jack Black who swipes every scene as slobby Lance. Had the story been as ripe as the ridiculous gags, "Orange County" might have been a fresher farce.


The Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) produced this amateurish, often predictable apocalyptic suspense thriller about the epic battle between Good and Evil on the eve of the new millennium. Clearly, the 'end time prophecies' in the books of Daniel and Revelation inspired the evangelical screenplay by Stephan Blinn, Hollis Barton, and Hal Lindsey based on TBN founder Paul Crouch's book. Nothing exciting or enlightening about the controversial Biblical code, however, ignites sparks in this loquacious yarn. Sadly, sketchy characters uttering embarrassing dialogue in a cliché-riddled script with little overall action and an anemic ending make only a slight impression in this barely tolerable 100-minute, PG-13 rated melodrama.

"The Omega Code" (* out of ****) depicts the efforts of misguided philanthropic tycoon Stone Alexander (Michael York) who spends millions to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity with a little coercion and terrorism for good measure. You know Stone is up to no good when he talks about a one-world currency and an improved Roman Empire. First, he sends out his right-hand henchman, ex-priest Dominic (Michael Ironside of "Starship Troopers"), to gun down an elderly Jewish scholar after he had broken the 'Biblical Code.' Second, when our sartorial megalomaniac doesn't have his minions manipulating the Bible code to stage a global takeover, Alexander charms a motivational guru, Dr. Gillen Lane (Casper Van Dien of "Tarzan and the Lost City"), into serving as his mouthpiece. Dr. Lane drops everything to accommodate Alexander, forsaking his young daughter Maddie (Ayla Kell of "Rebound") and estranged wife Jennifer (Devon Odessa of "Shoot the Moon"), before he realizes that Alexander has deluded both the world and him. Meantime, our straightforward but simple-minded hero suffers from hallucinatory visions, apocalyptic horses, hooded monks, and the tragic death of his mother. He refuses adamantly to believe in God. As far as Lane is concerned, no benevolent Higher Being could be so cruel and callous as to destroy his saintly mommy in a senseless car accident. In the middle of a conversation with TV talk-show host, Cassandra (Catherine Oxenberg), Lane experiences these terrifying visions, but he doesn't understand what they symbolize. Shrugging them off as uneasily as he does his botched marriage, he helps Stone embark on his quest for global domination until a jealous Dominic intervenes. When he tries to knock off Lane, Dominic accidentally shoots Alexander in the head and then frames Lane for the murder. Not only does Lane now know the scope of Stone's perfidy, but he also because a fugitive on the lam.

"Long Ride Home" director Robert Marcarelli struggles against a formulaic B-movie script that makes any of "The Omen" sequels appear consecrated by comparison. The action unfolds quickly at first before it bogs down in numbing passages of exposition designed by its didactic scenarists to highlight the problems of modern society. The characters stand around and chew the scenery, but little happens that would make anybody's pulse race. Even the third-act "Raiders of the Lost Ark" pyrotechnics cannot salvage this heavy-handed religious propaganda potboiler. The filmmakers allow Michael York of "Logan's Run" little leeway in his villainous portrayal of Stone Alexander. He appears more urbane than intimidating. We are never in doubt from the outset that York's character is anybody but the anti-Christ. Check out Stone Alexander's star-shaped corporate logo that bears a suspicious resemblance to a pentagram. Indeed, York lends "The Omega Code" what modicum of dignity that it has with his polished performance. As the square-jawed, reborn hero who locks horns with Stone, Casper Von Dien acts like a school boy with a bladder control problem. Only career baddie Michael Ironside seems genuinely convincing as a hard-fisted fiend with no compunctions about homicide. The closest thing to profanity occurs when he utters 'son of a . . . 'then charges out of the room in pursuit of our hero before we can catch the b-word.

"The Omega Code" draws its inspiration from bestselling authors, such as Michael Drosnin in "The Bible Code," Grant Jeffrey in "The Signature of God," and Jeffrey Satinover in "Cracking the Bible Code," that argue you can find prophesies concealed in divine scripture by using equidistant Hebrew letter sequencing. Hasidic Jews argued the same nonsense as early as the 12th century so there is nothing new about this crackpot theory that is derived in part from Pythagoras who believed that numbers represented the ultimate reality.

No, "The Omega Code" is not the greatest story ever told. The same people who complain regularly about sex and violence in movies should think twice about taking their children to see this shallow morality saga. Nevertheless, this TBN feature film contains several obligatory shoot-outs and a knuckle-bruising interrogation scene that earn it a PG-13 rating. Laudable as TBN's evangelical goals appear, "The Omega Code" amounts to little more than a second-rate imitation of a secular doomsday adventure opus. Altogether, this innocuously bland Providence Entertainment film release tastes like Tums for the soul.

Stay home and read Revelation; it tops this muddled mystery thriller.


Out of all the new movies that producer Mel Gibson could have made to follow up his triumphant "Passion of the Christ," the "Lethal Weapon" superstar selected "Paparazzi" (*1/2 out of ****), a shoddy, sadistic, inconsequential, melodramatic revenge thriller about a film star's tribulations with a gang of tawdry tabloid photographers. Casting Cole Hauser against type as a hero after his villainous roles in "Pitch Black" and "2 Fast 2 Furious" seems almost inspired. Indeed, when Hauser embraces vigilantism in the finest tradition of the best known screen vigilantes (anybody remember Charles Bronson in "Death Wish" or "Mr. Majestyk"?), you believe that he not only can kill without remorse, but also he can get away with homicide because his reasons justify his actions. Nevertheless, effective casting cannot overcome the cynicism and mean-spirited violence in freshman writer Forrest Smith's formulaic screenplay. "Paparazzi" recycles every cliché that audiences have come to expect in a movie about retribution.

Reportedly, Gibson concocted the idea for "Paparazzi," and he makes a cameo appearance as himself about 30 minutes into the plot as a patient at an anger management clinic. Yes, Gibson has had his share of close encounters with the paparazzi, so it doesn't take much imagination to figure out that the "Paparazzi" hero may be based loosely on Gibson. Back in 1990, Gibson destroyed a shutter bug's camera outside a Modesto, California, nightclub. Casting closer to the bone, the filmmakers take advantage of "Saving Private Ryan's" Tom Sizemore, whose own destructive real-life antics must have given him certain insights into making the sleazy villain that he plays seem as morally repugnant as possible. Although Hauser looks right for his role and Sizemore indulges himself with hammy 'big bad wolf' histrionics, "Law & Order's" Dennis Farina as a suspicious "Columbo" type detective delivers the best performance and steals the show. Ambiguity makes Farina's character look compelling. Is he a conscientious cop or a lowdown blackmailer? Sadly, "Paparazzi" lacks the artistic ambiguity of the Farina cop character. Furthermore, this predictable potboiler endorses vigilantism.

As "Paparazzi" opens, we're introduced to rugged Montana-born actor Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser) who has just become Hollywood's hottest celebrity hunk as well as prime prey for the paparazzi. The paparazzi--for the uninitiated--consist of unethical photographers who take morally compromising pictures of celebrities when the stars aren't looking or struggle to avoid being caught-on-camera. These troublemakers stalk their prey, sometimes climbing trees to obtain stills of celebrities sun-bathing in the nude. Naked photos of Bo and his wife Abby (Robin Tunney of "Vertical Limit") show up on the front page of a national tabloid, and bottom-feeding photog Rex Harper (Tom Sizemore of "True Romance") resolves to get even more sordid pictures of our clean-cut hero. At a soccer game, Rex snaps pictures of Bo's young son Zach (Blake Michael Bryan of "Jurassic Park III") and Bo warns Rex to stop. The obnoxious, low-life Rex eggs Bo into hitting him. When Bo punches Rex, the van behind Rex pops open to reveal more shutter-bugs taking pictures and videotape of Rex and Bo. Bo settles out of court with Harper, paying the scoundrel over $100-thousand. Moreover, the judge orders Bo to enter anger-management therapy. Bo has little use for psychotherapy, especially after the paparazzi assail him in traffic with a barrage of camera bulbs flashing all around him like strobes. Rex and his low-lifers, including actor Daniel Baldwin as Wendell Stokes, race up alongside Bo on either side and virtually blind him with their camera lights. Bo stomps the brakes to elude them. No sooner has Bo gotten away from the paparazzi than out of nowhere a truck slams into him! The truck driver dies instantly from the impact of the collision. Abby and Bo lay unconscious in their wrecked car, while Zach in the back seat suffers from what we later learn is a coma. After they call 911 to report the wreck, Rex and his cronies have a field day clicking photos of the accident. Later, after this near death experience, Bo decides to exact a little Montana style vigilante justice from the paparazzi. Nosy Detective Burton (Dennis Farina of ''Snatch''), the cop assigned to investigate the car crash, complicates matters, because Bo wants to get his revenge without incriminating himself to the police.

Hair stylist-turned-movie director Paul Abascal curbed the on-screen violence so that "Paparazzi" could acquire a family-friendly PG-13 rating, just as he reins in the running time to a scant 85 minutes. Unfortunately, "Paparazzi" looks like it has been hacked to the marrow. The film lurches along unevenly in fits and starts with important information withheld to maintain momentum. "Paparazzi" wallows in cynicism and violence, too. The hero has no room to negotiate with the villains. It's all or nothing. You know from the get- go that the villains are going to burn. They commit the worst sin of movie villains: they put a child in peril. Anybody who harms a kid in a movie usually dies a horrible death. Although the violence itself isn't basted in blood and gore, the ease with which the hero resorts to it and our complicity as vicarious eavesdroppers who sympathize with him makes the violence doubly immoral. Scenarist Forrest Smith contrives one improbable plot point after another to draw out this forgettable fodder. After having his wife and himself photographed in the nude on a beach, our hero should have had enough sense not to put themselves on display again. Incredibly, they leave themselves wide open to the villains throughout the film. Surprisingly, the Los Angeles Police Department has not protested about the way that the movie makers portray the LAPD as trigger-happy. Watching "Paparazzi" is like rubbernecking at the scene of an accident after the bodies have been removed.


Summer movies usually lack the sophistication and subtlety of "Set It Off" director F. Gary Gray's "The Negotiator," (*** out of ****)a taut, suspenseful, white-knuckled police thriller that pits "Pulp Fiction's" Samuel L. Jackson against "The Usual Suspects'" Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey. Incredibly, the brain and brawn in Kevin Fox & James DeMonaco's screenplay is evenly matched so that "The Negotiator" scores solidly as an above-average, good cops versus bad cops account of law and order. Nobody in "The Negotiator" does anything that the average human couldn't survive without the services of an agile stunt double. You won't find the kind of outlandish heroics here that occur ostentatiously enough in the "Die Hard" franchise. Indeed, "The Negotiator" stands out as one of the summer's more down-to-earth entries. Actual characters find themselves in plausible situations where they must compete in a deadly contest of wits and wills. Dialogue does matter in "The Negotiator." Nevertheless, despite its onslaught of pyrotechnics at appropriate intervals, "The Negotiator" manages to thrill and entertain without venturing too far out on a limb.

"The Negotiator" focuses on police corruption among a tightly knit coterie of Chicago's finest. Really helpful is the fact that "The Negotiator" originated from an authentic case involving the St. Louis Police. Co-scripted by Fox and DeMonaco (who wrote the Robin Williams fantasy "Jack"), this tense actioneer deals with a falsely accused cop. "The Negotiator" belongs to the police genre where the hero-in-blue must take the law into his own hands to prove his innocence. While "The Negotiator" staunchly adheres to the crime formula, with its shoot-outs constantly interrupting the plot to enliven it, the film boasts enough star charisma and surprises to boost it far above the standard-issue police thriller. Moreover, "The Negotiator" features a line-up of well-versed thespians.

Ace hostage negotiator Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) wakes up one morning and finds himself charged not only with embezzling police pension funds but also for murdering Nathan Roenick (an unbilled Paul Guilfoyle of "Primary Colors") his long-time partner. The filmmakers deserve praise for getting the story off to an early start. Gray and his scenarists provide some informative dialogue about police negotiations and their methods. The lecture on eye language and lying is particularly illuminating and guaranteed to bolster any conversation. Stunned by these accusations, Danny hands in his shield at the request of Chief Al Travis (John Spencer of "The Rock"), his suspicious superior. Once again, Spencer plays a character with villainous shades. Danny's partner's widow curses Danny to his face and Danny's attorney advises his client to cut a deal.

In short, everybody but Danny's newly wed wife, Karen (Regina Taylor of "Lean on Me"), believes that he is guilty as sin. Investigators at Danny's house produce bank accounts of funds invested in off-shore bank accounts. Things look terrible for our hero, but Danny is innocent and we know it. Clearly, someone is trying to frame him. The dramatic tension that fuels "The Negotiator" concerns who is guilty and can Danny survive long enough to prove it. At this point, predictability sets into the Fox & DeMonaco screenplay. All the usual police thriller elements remain intact. No sooner has the heroic cop's pal confided in him about a police conspiracy than he catches lead, and Roman finds himself isolated. Another element of the police movie genre is how a saint like Danny Roman can fall so swiftly.

Refusing to cave in to a neat frame-up, Danny demands to face his accuser, portly Internal Affairs investigator Terrence Niebaum (J.T. Walsh of "Tequila Sunrise"). When a feisty Niebaum repudiates Danny, the outraged Roman takes him hostage, along with Niebaum's secretary, Maggie (Siobahn Fallon of "Krippendorf's Tribe"), and a pasty-faced informer, Rudy (Paul Giamatti of "Saving Private Ryan"), on the 20th floor of the Chicago Internal Affairs Division Headquarters. Chaos erupts. Chief Travis (John Spencer), Commander Adam Beck (David Morse of "The Rock") and Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin of "L.A. Confidential") besiege the building with an army of trigger-happy SWAT cops. David Morse joins the gallery of villains in "The Negotiator." As Commander Beck, Morse joins the gallery of villains in "The Negotiator." He makes quite an impression with is steely eyes and stern manner. Since he has figured out that one or more of his buddies have set him up, Danny demands an outside negotiator.

Enter Lieutenant Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), another of Chicago's crack hostage negotiators. Sabian boasts that he has never killed a hostage taker in all his years on the force. Before Sabian confronts Roman, the filmmakers have a little fun with his character. Apparently, Sabian's insubordinate daughter said something that hurt her mother's feelings, and Chris has to talk her out of the bedroom when he receives his call from Travis. The irony (that Sabian cannot get his own wife and daughter to mind him) enriches the storyline when Chris finds himself caught up between Danny and an army of cops that prefer to dispense with questions and shoot first.

At two hours and twenty minutes, "The Negotiator" is a quarter hour too long. Gray could have trimmed twenty minutes without endangering the suspense. Happily, "The Negotiator" gets off to a fast start. The idea of bottling them up in a skyscraper while Danny tries to break Niebaum's resolve qualifies as good stuff. Sadly, the filmmakers come up short. Often the plot stalls out. A big problem with "The Negotiator" is that the filmmakers keep us in the dark about who the villains are. Gray doesn't give up many clues about who they are and deploys some choice red herrings. Basically, we never get to know Danny Roman's friends so that we can guess the identity of his betrayers. Indeed, "The Negotiator" will make you furrow your brows with its plethora of detail. Burn the story about "Shane" into your brain cells if you really want to appreciate the plot. Unquestionably, with "The Negotiator," Gray establishes himself as a helmer of big-action melodramas.