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Movie Reviews : Journeys into Today's L.A. . . Yesterday's England : 'Slamdance': A Cold Neo-Punk Tale of Murder and Madness Under Vibrant Skies of Los Angeles


"Slamdance" (Friday, selected theaters) has a great look--vibrantly colorful, sharply contemporary--but often it seems to be dead behind the eyes. The vision of Los Angeles in this neo-punk thriller is almost vacantly beautiful. It's constructed on hip anachronisms; director Wayne Wang and his collaborators make the city look gorgeous but sick.

They create a city of ephemera, metallic shimmer, rot under neon: austere singles bars and dead-empty streets caught in a baroque, skintight sheen of intense reds, blues and blacks. Out on the edges are murder, isolation, madness.

But this is no hypertense, gaudy "Blade Runner" vision. It has a chilled serenity.

Appropriately, given a movie so stuck on its surfaces, the hero of "Slamdance" is an artist: a New Wave cartoonist who draws in an underground Lynda Barry-P. S. Mueller vein and does surrealist paintings on the side, an irresponsible guy who sleepily explores the hedonist outlands. Tom Hulce plays this character, C. C. Drood, like Peter Pan on laughing gas. Drood is supposed to be impish, wild and free: qualities Hulce projects a little too well--and too often. The story, we can guess, will tangle him in some violent comeuppance.

His blond temptress, Yolanda--Virginia Madsen, looking dreamlike and petulant--is going to whirl him off into one of those identity-dissolving chases through darkness, out in film noir hell, where good and bad cops will stalk him, shadowy figures in higher places have murder on their minds, and Drood's own doppleganger-- a psychotic hit man named Buddy ("Slamdance" screenwriter Don Opper)--will tease him toward destruction. Only Drood's brunette ex-wife, Helen, will offer solace: Mary Ellen Mastrantonio playing a kind of sexpot-as-mensch.

It would be tempting to say that inside "Slamdance" is a remarkable movie struggling to free itself from conventional trappings. But the opposite is true. The trappings are what dazzle you; the interior of "Slamdance" is exactly what isn't remarkable.

There's a predictable, derivative movie buried in here that Wang's directorial eye, and the skill of his collaborators, do a lot to disguise: second-hand film noir in a '40s-pulp-Cornell Woolrich mode, filtered through the paranoid political thrillers of the '70s and then gussied up with modern graphics and rock video trimmings. Coming after Wang's "Chan is Missing" and "Dim Sum"--which had less complex surfaces, but richer interiors--it's a disappointment. Wang's specialty is cross-cultural humor, but here there are no real cultures to cross. This plot treats the L. A. milieu and people the way its characters do--shallowly, affectlessly--while moralizing constantly on that same shallowness.

It's flimsy stuff, not so much a film noir design as a film noir decal. Scenarist Opper works in a modern minimalist vein, stripping the story down to the archetypes and then pasting a thin smear of surface naturalism over it: "Kiss Me Deadly" with hints of "Kramer vs. Kramer" blown up to "Parallax View" dimensions in Brett Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero" world. But he's pulled all the life out of his characters, or neglected to put any in--while failing to generate any catchy variations on the old thriller themes.

In many ways, his characters are as cartoonish as Drood's drawings, with sentimental plot hooks and cute quirks to hold them into the frame. Some of the actors--Opper, Harry Dean Stanton as the moral cop, Herta Ware as Drood's landlady--are quite good, but in a one-note, flattened-out style. Drood has a cliched adorable kid and preschool-teacher ex-wife--and this seems flat too, a device to anchor Drood into an angelic everyday world, light against darkness. Meanwhile, the incessant doubling of the denizens of the nightmare flip side--Drood and the hit man, the two cops, Yolanda and her lesbian lover--carries hints of a darkened homosexual subtext.

It's notable that when Opper drags in his big metaphor--the bar floor where Angelenos are wildly slamdancing in a symbolic crunch of body-bashing--it's happening behind the action and has no connection to the story. Or any tie-in to the characters, who definitely aren't punks. It's just a metaphor, plopped down ostentatiously and then dropped.

But what gives "Slamdance" its own special, eerie fascination is its sound and look. New Wave rock or arty jazz--eerie harmonica wails by Stan Ridgway, tense riffs by Mitchell Froom or John Lurie--echo in the backgrounds, while the city's architectural highlights are mashed together like raw fruit in an aesthetic Osterizer.

In "Chan is Missing," Wang had a lucid, neo-documentary visual style. In "Dim Sum," he became more consciously artful: with shots modelled on Yasujiro Ozu's serene, fixed-angle viewpoint and Jean-Luc Godard's fatalistic frames. "Slamdance," in turn, has an achingly well-detailed veneer, thanks also to cinematographer Amir Mokri and production designer Eugenio Zanetti.

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