Novel in concept and not without exploitative juice, "Lakeview Terrace" updates the bad-cop-neighbor premise of the early-'90s potboiler "Unlawful Entry" by adding a twist of color. Hey, there, attractive young interracial couple moving into that lovely, new, upscale suburban home, meet your worst next-door nightmare: a bigoted African American cop!
And yet, this new film from human-relations bad boy Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men," "The Shape of Things") is hardly slap-and-prod issue moviemaking -- considering its title refers to the San Fernando Valley area where Rodney King was beaten -- or even a provocateur's pulpish slumming. Working from a script by David Loughery and Howard Korder, LaBute offers up a casually sinister, character-oriented corrective to his laughable remake of "The Wicker Man."
It stars Samuel L. Jackson as a widowed, middle-age L.A. policeman named Abel Turner, whose tightly wound attitudes about security and racial progress -- patrolling the neighborhood at night, correcting his kids' grammar, demeaning their cultural tastes -- bubble into something openly hostile when he discovers his new neighbors the Mattsons are a white man (Patrick Wilson) and an African American woman (Kerry Washington).
The progressively minded Chris and Lisa Mattson love each other, but they're hardly a perfect union, and Wilson and Washington handle this tension nicely. Her conservative father (Ron Glass) ignores hubby, while Chris isn't as sure as Lisa is about starting a family right away. But it's nothing compared with the harassing vibe from one house over: blinding security lights at night, Abel's taunting of their guests at a housewarming party and his flare-ups over perceived influences on his teenage daughter. Unfortunately for Lisa and Chris, Abel's badge means their options for fighting back are few, and their attempts at detente seem only to escalate his campaign to make them leave.
Ironically, audiences may view the star of "Lakeview Terrace" with wariness before the Mattsons have cause to. Will this be the flinty, dangerous, screen-commanding version of Jackson, or the autopilot bad-ass of countless insipid action flicks? Thankfully, it's the former. Jackson modulates Abel's internal turmoil and heated exchanges with enough shades of loneliness, steely generosity and wicked playfulness to give the actor firm control of our fascination and growing unease.
In classic B-movie villain fashion, he simply commits to shifting the molecules in the air whenever he can, and in ways more unnerving -- the probing question that acts like a veiled threat, for example -- than the physical altercations, or those thematically obvious panoramic shots of distant fires creeping toward the characters' hillside sanctuaries. The upshot is that Jackson is in sync with the filmmakers' less inflammatory mission: working you up over an unhinged dude in a blue uniform rather than an angry guy with black skin.
That said, when the movie eventually explains Abel for us before asserting its good-versus-evil priorities in the final act, facile psychologizing and guns take over, and Jackson becomes effectively genre-trapped. But until then, "Lakeview Terrace" is a serviceable enough popcorn exercise in a few floundering Angelenos who can't just get along.
"Lakeview Terrace." MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense thematic material, violence, sexuality, language and some drug references. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. In general release.