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THE WORD IS OUT: GOOD WRITING STILL PAYS OFF : Summer Box-Office Hits Sparkled on Paper Before They Sparkled on the Screen

September 01, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

You can't keep a good plot down. Stripped of its incidental trimmings of time and place, and simplified to its barebones notion (its "high concept," as Hollywood began to call it a while back), a plot that was well-made to begin with can be resold as often as the yellow Rolls-Royce.

Kenneth Fearing's novel "The Big Clock" has a Luce-like magazine tycoon murder his mistress and then assign his best reporter to check out the story--except that the reporter has witnessed the murder and becomes both the hunter and the hunted.

Now, as millions are discovering, the duality of the hunter as the hunted has shifted to the Pentagon; the tycoon is the secretary of defense, the hunter/huntee is a young Navy intelligence officer who has shared the mistress, and the film is Roger Donaldson's sleek, fast "No Way Out."

The new script was written by Robert Garland (Jonathan Latimer adapted the novel for the 1947 film with Charles Laughton as the tycoon and Ray Milland as the investigative reporter). And, as millions are also discovering, the updated story has another level of complication. It is, as Times' film critic Sheila Benson has reported, a razzle-dazzle wingding of a movie, sexy, suspenseful and characterful.

The sure-thing, foolproof plot has become a kind of undeclared mystery as well as a kind of continuous chase in which the hero is eluding capture and pursuing his prey at the same time. "No Way Out" is a kind of double feature; it runs through the mind again after its ultimate disclosures (which do not please everyone, although the clues are subtly established, as in a classic mystery).

Still, a movie that works, works for a whole skein of reasons. After his vitamin-enriched, white-bread role in "The Untouchables," Kevin Costner has a much more flavorful outing in "No Way Out." (Although released later, it was shot before "The Untouchables.") He is very good.

Then, too, Gene Hackman, who goes from strength to strength these days, gives a performance that makes the secretary nothing so simple as a stock villain but a recognizable human being, caught in his own trap and suffering with a lively and paining conscience.

Sean Young is not making her debut (she was in "Blade Runner" and several other films), but this time she comes across as a real discovery. She is a ravishing beauty, with a kind of intelligent and impudent sexiness that evokes the late Kay Kendall.

Actors live and die for that perfect congruence of themselves, their talent and their role. "No Way Out" gives such a role to Costner, just as "Roxanne" (another proof of the timeless durability of a really good basis plot) gives Steve Martin the best of all his opportunities.

Martin has been zany, has been wonderfully, physically slapstick, has been sensitive and intelligent, but never all at once to the full measure of his gifts, although "All of Me" came close.

But as a 20th-Century Cyrano, with an athlete's grace, a poet-lover's heart and a clown's genius for masking sadness with laughter, Martin is absolutely terrific. You have the feeling that M. Rostand might well approve the way the foreigners updated his work.

The David-and-Goliath plot-- the triumph of the small over the large--should have been exhausted years ago, especially in its translations to the world of sports. How many times in how many sports can you do "Rocky"? The answer is that the end is not yet, if the detailings are right and seem to arise from a close and loving observation.

"Hoosiers" is currently entertaining westbound passengers on TWA, and it survives the dim screen and muffled sound of high-level viewing, the toughest test ever devised for a movie. It is another of Hackman's dimensional characterizations, in which what he doesn't say but can be seen to be feeling is as important as his words. He and his Indiana basketballers, and the feisty Barbara Hershey, are worth seeing again at any altitude.

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