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'ZigZag' Veers Off in Surprising Directions

In his directorial debut, David S. Goyer coaxes wonderful performances of challenging characters in a coming-of-age story.


"ZigZag" is a small movie with a big impact. It represents an astute directorial debut for screenwriter David S. Goyer, who made his mark with strong action-adventures, often comic-book-inspired, most notably "Blade" and "Blade 2."

Although a distinct departure from the thrillers he scripted, "ZigZag" is anchored, as was "Blade 2," in a potent father-son relationship. In the "Blade" films, it was between title character Wesley Snipes and maverick scientist Kris Kristofferson. Here, it is between Singer (John Leguizamo), a warehouse worker who has signed up to be a big brother to ZigZag (Sam Jones III), a high-functioning autistic 15-year-old with a drug-addicted single father (Snipes) whose brutality tests his son's inner resources. Singer's struggle to get ZigZag out of his terrible home environment has an urgency, because Singer is suffering from terminal cancer.

Just as the film, which Goyer adapted from the Landon J. Napoleon novel, seems to be laying it on thick with the news of Singer's fatal disease, "Zig" zags in an unexpected direction. ZigZag has an after-school job as a dishwasher in one of those used-brick, stained-glass and dark-paneling restaurants, the Grub 'n' Grog, owned by the exuberantly bigoted and obnoxious Walters (Oliver Platt), called "Toad" behind his back by his workers. Having been badly treated by his father and then by Toad, ZigZag, who has a phenomenal memory for numbers, impulsively spins the combination of the restaurant safe and robs it of $9,000. Not knowing what to do with the loot, ZigZag inadvertently allows his father to confiscate it.

The story follows Singer's uphill struggle to return the money before its theft ruins ZigZag's life. But once the film sets this plot in motion, it refreshingly departs from its unraveling to create a touching coming-of-age story filled with humor and suspense. "ZigZag" is an urban fable made real by its beautifully written and wonderfully well-played people. More than merely heart-tugging, Singer's illness makes credible his withdrawal from all others in his life in his single-minded concentration on securing Zigzag's future.

Toad and Zigzag's dad, Fletcher, are dreadful men who enjoy making life miserable for others, but Snipes and Platt, both resourceful actors, find the humanity and even humor in these monsters. Natasha Lyonne's Jenna could so easily have become yet another hooker with a heart of gold, but her subtly shaded acting, supported by Goyer's superior writing and direction, allows her to emerge as a streetwise, no-nonsense woman whose innate intelligence preserves her humanity. Luke Goss' loan shark-strip club proprietor is amusingly nasty, and Sherman Augustus is a smart, low-key cop of unflagging persistence.

These fine performances, including a sharp cameo by Elizabeth Pena as ZigZag's teacher, provide splendid support for Jones and Leguizamo's stellar portrayals of two loners of imagination and sensitivity whose strong emotional bond develops in the face of life's precariousness. Jones emerges as an actor of much promise, and this arguably represents Leguizamo's finest screen acting to date.

"ZigZag" is also richly cinematic. Los Angeles locales have been chosen with a keen eye to freshness and pungent atmosphere, and they have been masterfully photographed by James L. Carter with a notably effective play of dark and light. With Carter and ace production designer Philip Toolin's contributions, Goyer has been able to bring to his film a lot of style amid authentically seedy settings. It is a comment on the times that so successfully idiosyncratic a film bears a 2000 copyright. That it has been on the shelf awhile is all the more reason to be grateful for its release.

MPAA rating: R, for strong language and sexual content, elements of drugs and violence. Times guidelines: strong violence and language; some nudity, sex and drugs.


Sam Jones III...ZigZag

John Leguizamo...Singer

Wesley Snipes...Fletcher

Sherman Augustus...Hawke

Natasha Lyonne...Jenna

Oliver Platt...Toad

A Franchise Classics presentation in association with Non-Stop Cyclops. Director David S. Goyer. Producers Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens. Executive producers Tracee Stanley, William B. Steakley. Screenplay Goyer; based upon the novel by Landon J. Napoleon. Cinematographer James L. Carter. Editor Conrad Smart. Music Grant Lee Philips. Costumes Susan Bertram. Production designer Philip Toolin. Set decorator Regina Lee O'Brien. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

Exclusively at the ArcLight, Sunset Boulevard at Vine Street, Hollywood; (323) 464-4226.

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