"The Underneath" doesn't add up. Made with polish and assurance, capably acted and intricately constructed, its overall impact is less than these parts would indicate. It is good but, against all logic, it is not good enough.
That logic should not be a factor is appropriate because "The Underneath," as its title indicates, is yet another of those sinister film noirs, rife with suspicion, double-crosses and misbehavior.
What the title doesn't tell you, and what the film's press material tiptoes around, is that the film is a fairly close remake of 1948's "Criss Cross," one of the most underrated of the classic noirs, written by Daniel Fuchs, directed by Robert Siodmak and starring a vibrant Burt Lancaster in one of his earliest roles.
Working from a script credited to Sam Lowry (apparently a pseudonym) and Fuchs, director Steven Soderbergh has used "The Underneath" as an excuse for some high-gloss filmmaking. Helped by cinematographer Elliot Davis, Soderbergh, still best known for his debut film, "sex, lies and videotape," has made this picture sparkle visually. He also makes the film's tricky plot structure, which mixes footage from several different time frames, work successfully.
"The Underneath" opens in the present (shot in grainy stock that almost seems to be tinted green) with security guard Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) riding in an armored car on a cash pickup run.
Almost immediately, the film goes into an extended flashback, showing Michael arriving back home in Austin for his mother's second marriage. Looking for a job, he goes to work for Clay Hinkle (Joe Don Baker) at the Perennial Armored Car company, where his new stepfather, Ed Dutton (Paul Dooley), is employed.
At loose ends emotionally, Michael soon seeks out his ex-wife Rachel (a tasty role for Alison Elliott), who is not exactly glad to see him. "How can you show your face without getting hurt?" she asks, and not in a concerned tone.
Clearly Rachel has not been waiting docilely for Michael's return. She is engaged to Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner), a local hard guy. There is still chemistry between these two, but Rachel is so peeved at Michael for how he acted in the past that she can barely talk to him.
Soon, in a flashback within a flashback (set apart by the fact that Michael wears a beard), their previous life is revealed. Michael was a gambling junkie while they were together, completely self-absorbed, the kind of feckless ne'er-do-well that women like Rachel find irresistible.
Back and forth and back "The Underneath" goes between these two flashbacks and the armored car present, which is also characterized by subtitles indicating the time of the action. It all plays more smoothly than it may sound, though a familiarity with the original film does help in figuring things out.
While all of this is effective, it doesn't go far enough. What "The Underneath" lacks is the kind of emotional connection that the best film noirs have. Instead of involving, this film is distancing, too given to admiring its own shiny surface. And at key points it is unable to make the more dicey aspects of the plot as convincing as they need to be.
Though he works hard and honorably at the role, part of the problem is that Peter Gallagher feels miscast as Michael Chambers, and it's not just that he lacks the coiled energy that made Burt Lancaster so memorable. After all, who doesn't?
Rather it's that though Gallagher can convey the moral weakness the character demands, he cannot make Michael into someone whose fate the audience cares about and willingly gets involved in. As his ex-wife says, Michael is someone who is not there, and once that becomes apparent, neither are we.
* MPAA rating: R, for some violence, language and sexuality. Times guidelines: The violence is more stylized than disturbing.
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'The Underneath' Peter Gallagher: Michael Chambers Alison Elliott: Rachel William Fichtner: Tommy Dundee Adam Trese: David Chambers Joe Don Baker: Clay Hinkle Paul Dooley: Ed Dutton Released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Steven Soderbergh. Producer John Hardy. Executive producers Joshua Donen, William Reid, Lionel Wigram. Screenplay Sam Lowry and Daniel Fuchs. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Stan Salfas. Costumes Karyn Wagner. Music Cliff Martinez. Production design Howard Cummings. Art director John Frick. Set decorator Jeanette Scott. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
* In limited release.