Michael Cimino's "Sunchaser" whisks us into a sleek, trendy world of affluent Westside Los Angeles, where a wife can tell her husband, perhaps only half-kiddingly, that if he won't buy her that $2-million house then he doesn't really love her. He then suddenly propels us into a rowdy, dangerous road adventure that becomes an increasingly spiritual quest.
The husband being urged to splurge is Woody Harrelson's Dr. Michael Reynolds, a UCLA physician who's a shoo-in to become the next head of the department of oncology. Reynolds is firmly on his upwardly mobile course when he's kidnapped by one of his patients, "Blue" (Jon Seda), a surly, dying half-Navajo gangbanger with a guard posted outside his hospital room door. A 16-year-old convict, Blue has about a month to live but has become determined to reach a cloud-shrouded sacred lake said to be in the crevasses of a mountain on a Navajo reservation. Blue believes its waters will cure him.
Predictably, somewhere along the line hostility between the two men will begin to melt as Reynolds will come to want Blue to reach his destination regardless of whether those waters are miraculously curative or not. Predictably, too, the film, while satirizing yuppie materialism and self-absorption, will express only the greatest respect for Native American culture and beliefs. Yet all that's so familiar in Charles Leavitt's script has been given a fresh, brisk spin by the sheer audacity and force of Cimino's style and by an incisive, wide-ranging performance by Harrelson that whets the appetite for his upcoming portrayal of Larry Flynt.
Putting the muscular Harrelson in a formal shirt, tie (never removed, a good touch), round glasses and a dinky mustache turns him into a nerd; he seems to have shrunk in size. But way beyond appearances, Harrelson digs deep to show us a man haunted by a childhood secret that forces him to connect with Blue more than the youth could ever imagine. Then Harrelson pulls off a tough acting challenge: He convinces you that Reynolds really is transformed by Blue's capacity for belief, even if you remain unmoved by Blue, played with convincing truculence by Seda.
Indeed, it's to the credit of Cimino and Seda that they resist making Blue sympathetic. On the road, Reynolds and Seda hitch a ride from Anne Bancroft's feisty astrologer; Alexandra Tydings is effective as the doctor's well-lacquered wife.
Gratifyingly, "Sunchaser" has the physical grandeur, energy and aplomb reminiscent of Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," and Doug Milsome's absolutely glorious cinematography has been well-matched by Maurice Jarre's rich score.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and some violence. Times guidelines: The film's violence is moderate, never excessive, and the blunt language appropriate to a key character.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Woody Harrelson: Dr. Michael Reynolds
Jon Seda: Brandon "Blue" Monroe
Anne Bancroft: Dr. Rebecca Baumbauer
Alexandra Tydings: Victoria Reynolds
A Warner Bros. release of a Regency Enterprises presentation of an Arnon Milchan/Vecchio-Appledown production. Producers Milchan, Michael Cimino, Larry Spiegel, Judy Goldstein and Joseph S. Vecchio. Executive producers Michael Nathanson, Joseph M. Caracciolo. Screenplay by Charles Leavitt. Cinematographer Doug Milsome. Editor Joe D'Augustine. Music Maurice Jarre. Production designer Victoria Paul. Art directors Lee Mayman, Edward L. Rubin. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
* Exclusively at the AMC Century 14, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 553-8900.