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Movie Review : Direction, Script Cool Off 'Heat'

March 13, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Las Vegas. Town without pity. Land of the midnight neon sun. Official colors: glitter and gold.

It's Nick Escalante's kind of town. A sulky drinker, hard-core gambler and low-rent bodyguard, Escalante (Burt Reynolds) is the hard-boiled loser who fuels the action in "Heat" (citywide). Unfortunately, except for a couple of bright patches of dialogue by screenwriter William Goldman and a sharp performance by Peter MacNicol, this new Reynolds vehicle never builds up heat--or momentum. It's just another bumpy, tedious ride through the seamy Vegas streets, which serve as home court for a bitter, lonely guy's battle with an oafish gang of high-rolling thugs.

Judging from the collection of Venice tourist posters at his tacky office and apartment, Escalante--known to his cronies as "the Mex"--dreams of making a big score and heading for the Land of the Grand Canal. The clang of the Vegas slot machines gives him a headache--he's always popping aspirins. But when one of his hooker pals (Karen Young) gets carved up by the wacko son of a mobster, he begrudgingly takes up the chase, while also serving as a bodyguard for a frail whiz kid (Peter MacNicol) who's on a low-rolling tour of the casino circuit.

If the movie's a mess, full of predictable chase scenes and horribly staged brawls, it's hard to knock Reynolds. Outfitted in leather jackets and boots, he's a believable tough guy with an impassive stare and the weary gait of a cowpoke who's been thrown from too many wild mustangs. But, geez, is he gloomy! That makes it hard to work up any enthusiasm for his travails. R. M. (Dick) Richards (who was replaced during filming) directs at a funereal pace and has such a hard time keeping track of the story that you'd think he was bopped on the head halfway through the picture.

Much of the blame for the movie's muddled narrative goes to Goldman's woozy script. It tantalizes us with all sorts of intriguing leads--Mex's obsession with Venice, his headaches, his gambling fever--without ever following them up. (Personally, we'd attribute the migraines to the tinny nouvelle-jazz score, which sounds as though it was composed on a Casio portable keyboard). Worse still, the script botches a promising relationship between Mex and the millionaire whiz kid, who disappears for much of the film before belatedly resurfacing as Mex's unlikely protege. The pair could've been a likable odd couple, which would have given the film an unpredictable spark, especially since Mex has no romantic interests or entanglements.

Artfully played by MacNicol, the timid whiz kid has a brainy, frazzled charm (when he's revved up at the blackjack tables, he guzzles Perrier), which meshes neatly with Mex's dour, detached air of resignation. Instead of pursuing this unusual buddy pairing, the film makers opt for a messy round of bloodletting. Our favorite: Mex's credit-card karate skills--he disables villains by hurling razor-sharpened Visa cards at their throats.

If Reynolds keeps making clunkers like "Heat" (MPAA rated-R for lots of violence), no one's going to wonder what happened to his career. No one's going to care.

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