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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Dadah Is Death,' 'Dirty Dancing' Due on CBS

October 29, 1988|Howard Rosenberg

It's hard to have much compassion for a couple of guys dealing heroin. Therein lies the biggest problem for "Dadah Is Death," the interesting, but curiously flat and ultimately deficient two-part CBS drama airing at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on Channels 2 and 8.

Dadah is the word for drugs in Malaysia, where two young Australians are awaiting execution for smuggling heroin, as one of their mothers mounts an international campaign to have her son freed.

Shades of "Midnight Express," the highly embellished but extraordinarly powerful 1978 movie account of drug smuggler Billy Hays' nightmarish Turkish imprisonment and ultimate escape. A much grimmer fate seems to await Kevin Barlow (John Polson) and Geoffrey Chambers (Hugo Weaving) on the eve of their scheduled hangings in Kuala Lumpur.

That night in 1986 is where this "fact-based" story begins before flashing back three years to Australia to meet our protagonists before they've met each other.

Naive and provincial, the 24-year-old Kevin is trying to go straight after a life of petty crime. Cynical and urbane, the 26-year-old Geoff swears to his girlfriend that he is no longer dealing drugs.

Circumstances will bring Kevin and Geoff together as casual acquaintances in Perth, and later as partners in Malaysia for their first--and last--heroin smuggling mission together. Their arrest by Malaysian authorities is a chiller--the directorial high point for Jerry London in this story and every bit as suspenseful as the capture of Billy Hays in "Midnight Express."

Thereafter, the story flattens, threading its way through Malaysian jurispudence and politics in shifting to the creative efforts of the spiny, determined Barbara Barlow (Julie Christie) to liberate her son from Penang prison.

The good work by Christie, Polson and Weaving (as well as Victor Banerjee's nice turn as a Malaysian attorney) is undiminished by the sluggishness of "Dadah Is Death," which frequently runs out of energy and story. The padding in Bill Kirby's script includes the injection of an American love interest for Kevin in the person of Rachel Goldman (Sarah Jessica Parker), who, whether she really existed or not, surfaces here awkwardly and illogically.

It's no wonder that Rachel's attachment to Kevin seems empty, given this story's frequent low level of passion and emotion. Although Kevin is more or less a victim of circumstances and his own immaturity, neither he nor Geoff is a sympthetic character. Each is rather weak and self serving, turning to the heinous business of drug smuggling when their personal lives go sour.

Despite their predicament, you simply feel nothing, not for them or even for the mother understandably battling for the life of her son. Better to reserve compassion for the victims of drug trade, not the perpetrators.

Sterile 'Dirty Dancing' Lacks Namesake's Vigor

Ken and Barbie do the mambo in "Dirty Dancing."

The hourlong premiere of this half-hour CBS series airs at 8 tonight (Channels 2 and 8), playing like an extended shampoo commercial and lacking the edge and joyful vigor of the movie on which it is based.

Hardly a major film, the cinematic version of "Dirty Dancing" was nevertheless robust and entertaining, a musically resonant romance matching summer lovers from clashing backgrounds.

However, the premiere of the TV series is a static bore, mismanaged and miscast, with Melora Hardin inheriting the role of Baby that Jennifer Grey played in the movie, and Patrick Cassidy taking over from Patrick Swayze as Johnny.

It's 1963. As in the movie, the setting is a resort hotel where Johnny is a dance instructor and 18-year-old Baby is spending the summer between high school and college. Only this time, it is resort owner Max Kellerman (McLean Stevenson) who is Baby's overprotective father and the one who, by putting her to work at the hotel, unwittingly exposes her to Johnny and his coarser world.

Nothing works here--not supervising producer Barra Grant's thin story, Tony Bill's direction nor, least of all, the "Dirty Dancing" characters.

Although she's listed as being 20, Hardin looks and plays much older and is never remotely believable as a blushingly naive and sheltered Baby. Miss America babe is more like it. Nor is Cassidy much more credible as a tough product of the streets and someone for whom dancing is almost an instinctive primal force.

Unlike Grey and Swayze, Hardin and Cassidy are classically beautiful people--more like mirror images than the opposites they're meant to be and, thus, the wrong choices for a series predicated in part on conflict. Everyone dances nicely, but still. . . .

You won't have the time of your life.

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