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FILM REVIEW : A Flirt With Danger, Suspense in 'Impulse'

April 06, 1990|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

"Impulse" (citywide) is a sex-and-suspense thriller about the divided consciousness of a woman in a man's world: a smoky-eyed vice squad cop named Lottie Mason (Theresa Russell), who poses by night as a hooker, prowling the Hollywood streets, picking up potential johns, getting them busted.

The basic idea, or impulse, is simple. This phony hooker, flirting with danger and pulling back at the last possible moment, has become fascinated with her own alter ego. She lives the role so well--seeing the world through the eyes of both hooker and cop--that she's gotten overly curious. Danger is about to suck her in: the increasingly violent pursuit of crazed drug dealers and mob informants on her job; harassment from the Internal Affairs division and her lecherous boss (George Dzundza); the subtler attacks of the boyish assistant D.A. (Jeff Fahey) who wants to win her love.

The movie tries to be like its heroine: frosty-cool on top and hot underneath, full of sleek surfaces and nervous undercurrents. At times it succeeds. Director Sondra Locke uses a clean, uncluttered style. She doesn't get swept away in action-movie froufrou and preposterous plot twists the way Kathryn Bigelow did in that other tough-lady-in-distress thriller, "Blue Steel."

Though Locke is a good storyteller--as she also demonstrated in her charming, satiric fairy-tale movie "Ratboy"--"Impulse" isn't a good story. It has an edge, but it lacks the steel-trap cunning or witty dialogue of "Sea of Love," the best of the sexy cop thrillers. "Impulse" seems more ordinary than it should, as if it were on the brink of something nervy and it flinched. Much of the story revolves around an elaborate piece of misdirection, but when the surprise is sprung, it seems almost perfunctory. There's no kick to it.

A central, and crucial, motivation makes little sense. Lottie, the experienced cop, lets herself get picked up and paid off the job by the fugitive mob witness for which the entire department is searching, then runs away after witnessing his murder. Why? Is she more ashamed of lust or compromising positions than afraid of being suspected of murder?

In the average modern cop thriller, the movie makers use the convulsive action sequences to paste over all the dopey, archetypal plot twists. Here, Locke concentrates on the story and it betrays her. It's perhaps symptomatic that its weakest scenes are the frigidly coy love bouts between Russell and Fahey and that among its best are the sadistic exchanges between Russell and Dzundza. Dzundza plays Lottie's superior, Lt. Morgan, a bully who cops quick feels and tries to threaten or cajole her into bed. It's a tricky performance, a demolition job on callous machismo, that he pulls off with panache.

Russell, especially in husband Nicolas Roeg's movies, can give off amazingly raw, unabashed sexual vibrations. Here, she's poured into rump-hugging, screamingly tight dresses and peek-a-boo bodices on the job and she gets two levels: the cold eroticism and something softer and more woundable underneath, a mix of moralism and abandon. Russell is wonderful at playing jaded woman and cold teases. Her eyes suggest she's seen and done everything, her hips seem innocent and wild.

The movie's press book, unsurprisingly, makes no reference to Clint Eastwood, Locke's ex-lover and longtime director/co-star; he isn't even identified as the director of Jeff Fahey's next movie, "White Hunter, Black Heart." Yet, it's obvious that Locke is straying heavily into Eastwood territory here; obvious also that she's learned a lot from him. "Impulse" (rated R for sex, nudity, violence and language) has his terse sang-froid and tight-lipped romanticism, his clean, inexorable pacing and his country-kid fascination with sleek urban rot.

Watching "Impulse," you almost wonder whether this seemingly angry pair could forget the tabloids and lawyers and call a truce. They might have a few more good movies together left in them.

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