May 01, 1989 12:00 PM

Corbin Bernsen, Rubén Blades

Up to a point, this is a snappy caper comedy, full of the sort of offbeat humor more usually associated with small French films. That point is the ending, into which this film runs with all the grace of a runaway bus hitting a brick wall: “Hey, any of you guys got an idea how to end this thing?” Silence. Splat.

But to flash back, the movie begins with a bunch of small-time cons gathering in a small Montana town at the behest of Bernsen, who is planning a bank robbery. Before he can hook up with his pals, Bernsen is arrested by a couple of ambitious New Jersey cops who are tracking him on a warrant; he spends the rest of the movie in a parallel plot trying to get away from his captors.

All seriousness in the middle of a movie that often verges on slapstick, Bernsen creates an effectively discomfiting tone. His confreres are equally impressive, particularly Blades, as an edgy triggerman, Fred Gwynne, as an old pro explosives expert, and Lou Diamond (La Bamba). Phillips, as a loosey-goosey young car thief and wheel man. (The other gang member, William Russ, an alumnus of TV’s Wiseguy, has a squint and a tilt to his head that makes him seem as if he’s imitating Peter Falk.)

Director-screenwriter Jim Kouf, whose biggest previous credit was writing Stakeout, vacillates between details of crime preparation, studies in the group sociology of crooks and spoofs of gangster movies. It’s a bit like Rififi meeting The Killing meeting Wise Guys meeting Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost. At one point Blades threatens to split after a run-in with Russ, then relents, saying, “The only reason I’m going through with the job is so afterward I can kick [Russ’s] ass and then run over him with the new car.” Gwynne’s response is timed perfectly: “It’s good to have a goal in life.”

The climax is the bank job, and it’s not so much that the ending rings false as that it is so inconsistent with the rest of the film—with no compensating emotional or comedy benefit. If this movie broke 15 minutes before the end, most members of the average audience would imagine a more entertaining finish for it than Kouf did. (R)

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