All the Wrong Moves

One False Move is a knuckleheaded title for a diminutive detective thriller -- particularly as, both in its plot and the filmmaking in general, there are about as many false moves as barbecued ribs at a wild hog jamboree. Directed by former actor Carl Franklin and written by another actor, Billy Bob Thornton, with Tom Epperson, the film chronicles two drug dealer/murderers and a woman as they flee from South Central Los Angeles after the men have killed six people and stolen a cachet full of drugs and money, then head toward the fictional backwater town of Star City, Arkansas -- the location where the thrust of the story takes place.

The opening sequence is promising. A birthday party is savagely interrupted by a trio of interlopers: Ray (Billy Bob Thornton), a white dealer from Arkansas; Pluto (Michael Beach), a black dealer and the smarter partner in crime; and Fantasia (Cynda Williams), Ray's black girlfriend, who also hails from Arkansas. A black family is first terrorized, then held hostage, and finally blithely stabbed to death by Pluto as Ray and Fantasia appropriate the stash. Franklin's rapid-fire camerawork provides all the grisly realism required to make the murders numbingly horrific. The character outline is explicit from the word go: Ray hits women repeatedly, Fantasia shows some compassion by letting a little boy go free, and Pluto, as he sits waiting to murder the hostages, quietly munches from the birthday victuals before unleashing his slicer. But the film's promise is no more long-lived than the slashed victims.

Ray, Pluto, and Fantasia drive off to Arkansas via Houston, where they intend to sell the cocaine. (They plan, after making a brief stop in Star City, to go their separate ways.) At this point the plot shifts briefly to the investigation of the murders back in L.A., and two seasoned detectives, one white and one black (played by Jim Metzler and Earl Billings). After they discover the Arkansas connection, the cops plot a stakeout in Star City, and contact the town sheriff, Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton), who immediately -- and unbecomingly -- becomes the protagonist of One False Move.

Right down to its bloody end, this thriller, in the words of the great Patsy Cline, falls to pieces. It becomes "The Dale Dixon Story." The sheriff, we learn, is a homegrown folk hero everybody calls, for reasons never made clear (even Dixon confesses befuddlement to it), "Hurricane." He's a cross between Buford Pusser and Glen Campbell. Our Star City law enforcer is a one-man wrecking crew, fount of wisdom, race-relations analyst, and barbecue-spit guru. He's been on the force for seven years but has never had to fire his weapon. Potential assailants turn to cornmeal mush when he flashes his dimply grin; all the women in town melt like drawn butter at his approach. It goes without saying that Dixon's country-fried pizzazz impresses the SoCal honchos ("He's a force of nature," quips one). But somewhat predictably, Hurricane has a shady past: some years before, we learn, Fantasia and the sheriff rolled in the hay for one night, and unbeknownst to him, they have a young son. This wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance will have its dire consequences as One False Move meanders like the Mississippi River toward its predestined close. Call it Southern Discomfort.

Directorially, the film combines the simple-mindedness of a Pat Robertson homily with the vulgar turns of Jimmy Swaggart's confessionals. Ray is a white drug dealer and dumb; Thornton wears a ponytail and exposes his periodontally putrid gums every time he so much as sighs. Pluto, we're told, is practically a coke-peddling Einstein; the director sees to it that Pluto wears glasses. (Why didn't the screenwriters simply go ahead and name him Plato?) There's a semblance of genius in a name like Fantasia for the soiled virgin-turned-elusive moll. Even the acting of Cynda Williams and Bill Paxton, which is adequate if hardly stellar, isn't enough to compensate for the spectacular ineptitude of a plot that contains roughly three times as many holes as Pebble Beach. It's hickory-smoked hokum.

But the worst is yet to come, because while One False Move has a fairly engrossing opening murder sequence, nothing close to that caliber is evidenced in another apallingly vacuous police drama, Unlawful Entry. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan (whose previous film, The Accused, was a universe apart from this one), the featured players are Kurt Russell as a bespectacled (read: sensitive) Everyman, the lovely Madeleine Stowe as his soft-spoken (read: not very bright) wife, and Ray Liotta, charismatic and sexually forceful as always, once again being cast as the tormentor (a psychopathic Los Angeles policeman). Liotta is the one bright spark in this energy-drained vehicle.

Few audiences will have the stamina to sit through this terminally formulaic thriller, which employs every hackneyed pulse-raising device at its disposal with the virtuosity of a paraplegic wheelchair racer at the Special Olympics. This critic certainly lacks the stomach to revisit each of Unlawful Entry's imbecilities in print. Suffice to say that it's a combination of Internal Affairs, Straw Dogs, and the Death Wish movies, which achieves for this embattled genre what Bernhard Getz did for vigilantes. Even the title is inane: Unlawful Entry suggests sodomy as much as burglary.

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