May 07, 1990 12:00 PM

Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Director George Armitage, apparently possessed of style to burn, torches this film in wasteful fashion, even if he does a colorful job of it.

Baldwin gets a major counter-typecasting break, going from the heroic Jack Ryan of The Hunt for Red October to the repulsive, amoral protagonist of this film. He plays a charming but vile Miami crook who seems in his more amiable moments like Bugs Bunny as he might have been written by Camus. For that matter, Fred Ward as a slovenly Miami cop bears a resemblance to Yosemite Sam—as Sam might be if he kept taking out his false teeth and brandishing them. Leigh is a rural Florida woman who’s putting herself through school as a hooker.

Baldwin, Ward and Leigh provide energetic, vivid performances, as does Saturday Night Live’s Nora Dunn in a straight role as Ward’s partner. But they’re all stuck behind Armitage, like talented jazz sidemen whose leader is given to impulsive solos devoted to showing off his technique.

Armitage ought to be past this sort of postadolescent showing off, having been associate producer on TV’s Peyton Place and having directed a number of action films. But he flaunts his presence, going, for instance, for gross-out humor with frequent shots of Ward’s upper plate, a scene where fingers are chopped off in close-up and another where a gashed eyebrow is sewn up amateurishly with a plain needle and thread. (The disorienting, courage-of-its-own-per-versions attitude suggests the touch of the film’s producer, Jonathan Demme.)

Armitage wrote the screenplay too, adapting Charles Willeford’s novel. Armitage seems to be trying to make some point about guilt, innocence and choices. Baldwin at one point complains, “My problem is that I can have anything and everything I want, but I don’t know what I want.”

Baldwin, however, is too repugnant to identify with. He’s sadistic and parasitic-it’s seen as a saving grace that he steals only from people who have already stolen from someone else. Ward is no moral model, and Leigh is too abjectly dumb to be admirable.

All of which suggests that, its heart having gone even further south, this movie is hollow at its core. (R)

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