Two Kids and a Swayze

Diehard Patrick Swayze fan that I am, I counted down the minutes with bated breath until the opening of his latest masterpiece, Father Hood. I was not disappointed.

Keep your DeNiros and Brandos, your Garcias and Washingtons. Give me Patrick Swayze in a film that can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a lightweight caper movie, a low-rent tearjerker about family values and honor among smalltime thieves, or a hard-hitting expose of abusive foster homes and the failure of our state-run child-care system.

Father Hood is a proud example of that great American tradition -- the hopelessly muddled star vehicle. And Swayze is the perfect leading man for such a noble effort. Not since 1989's double whammy -- Road House and Next of Kin -- has the dirty dancer played a dumber hick, and no one does yahoos like my man Patrick. Why, sometimes he looks so natural in the role you could swear he isn't even acting.

The screenplay for Father Hood was derived from a series of investigative reports about child-care facilities, written by one of the movie's co-producers, Nicholas Pileggi, for New York magazine. In the course of his research for the New York article, Pileggi heard about a man who'd kidnapped his own kids from a brutal foster home, and voila -- the character of Jack Charles was born.

Pileggi received an Academy Award nomination for his Goodfellas script, which was taken from his nonfiction book Wiseguy. You'd think a guy with such a respectable resume would have had the sense to distance himself from a project like Father Hood somewhere between the first draft of Scott Spencer's screenplay and the casting of Swayze.

Swayze's Charles is a minor-league hood from the Elvis wanna-be school, whose sideburns are longer than his attention span. It's the latest variation on the ass-kicking greaser/redneck persona Swayze's been developing since The Outsiders, Grandview, U.S.A., and Tiger Warsaw. Just when he's about to leave L.A. for a big score (and what a novel and lucrative plan it is A to rip off a heavily-armed and closely-guarded drug-money courier), his daughter Kelly shows up at his door. She has just escaped from an evil foster home to which Charles had long ago abandoned her. Together they abscond with Charles's son Eddie, who, as a ward of the state, is en route to the institution his sister has just fled.

Now wanted for kidnapping, parole violation, and being a repeat bad-movie offender, Swayze, accompanied by the kids, hits the road headed for the big payday he thinks awaits him in New Orleans. Along the way, of course, there is much familial bonding and what passes for introspection on Charles's part.

Formula dictates that Charles become a sensitive guy and develop paternal instincts in spite of himself. (It's not just a road movie, it's that reliable old Hollywood staple -- the Journey of Discovery!) Even so, screenwriter Spencer and director Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina!) know you can't just let the reunited Charles family drive uneventfully down to the Big Easy, getting in touch with their feelings and bathing the audience in warm fuzzies. They endeavor to drum up a little suspense by contriving some wildly improbable set pieces. There's an overnight stop in Vegas where Jack tries unsuccessfully to pawn off the kids on his con-artist mother. That's followed by narrow escapes from the authorities at Hoover Dam and Cascade Caverns, where the three pause to do some sightseeing -- really -- at the insistence of young Eddie.

Just when you think the film can't get any lamer, along comes a subplot involving a well-meaning investigative reporter, Kathleen Mercer, doing an expose on child abuse at state institutions (sound like anyone you know, Mr. Pileggi?). In his typical clear-thinking fashion Charles blames the reporter, played by Halle Berry, for spurring on law enforcement agents to chase him. But the righteous scribe sets him straight and eventually saves the day by convincing Charles to turn himself in, testify to the horrifying conditions at the institution where his kids were held (even though he never set foot in the place), and become a hero. As no Hollywood production is complete without a credibility-straining love interest, Charles and Mercer fall for each other.

The film represents a giant leap for Patrick Swayze. It's his first on-screen role as a father. He remains fully clothed throughout. And at no point does he dance, although he does a brief, loosey-goosey hip shake in front of a bedroom mirror during the Vegas segment.

Eat your hearts out, Bobby, Marlon, Andy, and Denzel.


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