June 17, 1985 12:00 PM

While Young Turks in Hollywood fret themselves into a frazzle trying to duplicate last year’s hit model in space hardware or teen titillation, director John Huston, at 78, remains a rambunctious risk taker. The legend behind such classics as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Man Who Would Be King, Huston has never considered making a sequel to any of them. Why should he, as long as there’s a chance to be different? Prizzi’s Honor, a daring, deliciously demented black comedy based on Richard (The Manchurian Candidate) Condon’s surreal 1982 novel, allows Huston to be different with a vengeance. His coarse vitality is irresistible. You can almost see him grinning wickedly behind the camera at these grotesque goings-on. Jack Nicholson, one of the few names in movies these days that guarantees a good time, stars as a Brooklyn mafioso. Never mind that Nicholson’s accent would baffle Brooklynites; he makes it work for the part. The way he stiffens his upper lip is nifty too, giving him a Bogart air. Add this to his rogues’ gallery of unforgettable characters. He plays a trusted, if none too bright, enforcer for a Mafia don, deftly overplayed by William (Mikey and Nicky) Hickey. Hickey’s striking but malevolent granddaughter, Anjelica Huston, was jilted by Nicholson four years earlier, when she dishonored him with another man. Anjelica, the director’s daughter and Nicholson’s longtime real-life lady, plays this small but telling role (a sort of modern-day Lucrezia Borgia) with career-making panache. Now, confronting Nicholson at a family wedding, she is obviously cooking up a rematch. But Nicholson’s eye is taken by a gorgeous, unknown guest, played by Kathleen (Crimes of Passion) Turner with enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. Turner is glorious, the sexiest presence in movies right now and a prodigious actress to boot. Nicholson follows this paragon to L.A. (who wouldn’t?), where she tells him she works as a tax consultant. But he finds he has linked up with a free-lance hit woman. So Nicholson asks himself: “Should I ice her or marry her?” Why, after all, can’t two killers wed, set up house and plan a family between planning jobs? Says Nicholson to Turner: “I look at you. I see what I want to see. That’s what love is.” Nicholson and Turner, a magical screen pair, make something wonderfully credible and inexplicably touching of this bizarre coupling. They are two cobras with a nesting itch, and they mine the script (by Condon and Janet Roach) for every satirical poison dart aimed at the evil in everyday America. There is no sadism in their violence, only greed—which makes their actions more shocking and human. Prizzi’s Honor is overlong and overwrought, with the most convoluted plot since Bogie and Bacall cut their way through the muddle of The Big Sleep 40 years ago. But thanks to Huston and his superb cast, the film is also outrageously entertaining—a rare oasis for grown-ups in a summer of infantile shlock. (R)

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