April 15, 1985 12:00 PM

Maybe it looked good on paper. The story does have the immediacy of a newspaper headline: It was inspired by Ross Milloy’s 1980 New York Times Magazine article about the outbreak of violence between Texas shrimp fishermen and the Vietnamese refugees they believed were encroaching on their territory. Director Louis (Atlantic City; Lacombe, Lucien) Malle, a Frenchman who has lived in America since 1977, saw the possibilities of drama in the difficulty of assimilation. More than 100,000 Vietnamese settled in Texas after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. They lived apart, following the old customs, working tirelessly, showing little interest in learning English and ignoring the local fishing laws. A blowup was all but inevitable. Goaded by the Ku Klux Klan, the Anglos began firebombing Vietnamese boats and house trailers. For Malle this modem variation on the battle of the Alamo represented “a terrific setting for a film. We just needed great characters and a great story.” He didn’t get either. Alice (Silkwood) Arlen’s screenplay is primarily a study in stereotypes. Ed (The Right Stuff) Harris, playing a Texas shrimper, might as well go around wearing a badge that reads “bigot.” Harris is supposed to elicit sympathy, since the bank won’t give him an extension on his loan and foreigners are fishing his waters. But the man is at heart an inflexible slug who beats the wife he cheats on and who is not above a little gook-baiting either. In contrast, newcomer Ho Nguyen (a Vietnamese medical student at Houston University with no previous acting experience) is shy and near saintly as a struggling refugee. Malle tries to balance the ledger by casting Amy (Streets of Fire) Madigan as a local girl who helps her sick father (Donald Moffat) run a fish-processing factory while carrying on with Harris. It is Madigan who comes to recognize the injustice being done to the Vietnamese. Madigan and Harris (who met and married when they co-starred in Places in the Heart) are intelligent, forceful actors, and they generate real heat in a dance sequence that seems to belong to another film. Yet their characters remain cardboard figures in a supercharged landscape that Malle fails to activate. Malle’s dedication to this project is unquestioned. But he has made a dry, airless package of a movie in which everything comes too neatly labeled. Search for human drama at your peril. You’ll come away empty. (R)

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