Speed racer

Devil in a Blue Dress burns a wild, intoxicating trail through its genre

There are isolated moments in writer-director Carl Franklin's adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress when you roll your eyes heavenward at the familiarity of it all.

This is the story of a man caught between two different forces who would use him for their own ends, then throw him away. The twisty-turny plot is narrated by Ezekiel Rawlins (Denzel Washington), nicknamed Easy, a Texan transplanted to Los Angeles in 1948 who tells the story with an elliptical wisdom that's less hard-boiled than petrified.

Easy is an out-of-work World War II veteran who accidentally stumbles onto a freelance assignment when an overly friendly stranger, Mr. Albright (Tom Sizemore), wanders into his favorite neighborhood bar and offers him a one-shot job promising easy cash. Can he find a recently vanished white girlfriend of a white mayoral candidate, a woman who has displayed, in the words of Sizemore, a taste for "jazz music and dark meat"?

But film is ultimately about taking us to places we've been before--in vehicles souped-up by a director's ingenuity and facility with characters. Surveying the terrain of this noir-ish look at big-time politicians and street-corner gangsters is just too much fun to pass up. Devil in a Blue Dress, adapted from the Walter Mosley novel, makes overt visual and thematic references to classics such as Chinatown and Double Indemnity, but it moves at such a breakneck pace--and Washington and the actors who support him are so joyously nasty in their sinning--that you're almost never given time to notice the retreads.

Easy's first real problem comes when a woman named Coretta (Lisa Nicole Carson), with whom he trysts, turns up the next day beaten to death. She also happens to be best friends with the missing white woman he was hired to find, and has just supplied Easy with her whereabouts...or so he thinks.

Before he can look for her, she calls him and arranges a meeting. Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is the devil of the film's title, a husky-voiced, lanky-legged seductress in hiding from her mayoral candidate boyfriend for reasons she refuses, at first, to make clear. But with both the cops and the thugs who hired him weighing down hard on Easy, he figures out he's just wandered into a blackmail war between the two frontrunners in the race for mayor of Los Angeles.

The fact that the "secrets" harbored by these men are instantly identifiable by the middle of the film doesn't make Devil in a Blue Dress any less enjoyable, because Carl Franklin takes so many funky, funny, and thrilling detours to get us there. Franklin scored a critical hit with his 1992 One False Move, a thriller where everyone had blood on his or her hands, and this latest is a more self-conscious variation on that theme--the pleasure audiences can get in watching thieves and killers shoot bullet holes through their own twisted code of honor.

With the superb Crimson Tide and the chaotic, soulless Virtuosity under Denzel Washington's belt, 1995 has been a very good year--for him and for audiences who lap up his sexy, loose-limbed charisma as if it were ice cream. The character of Easy isn't particularly tough, but he's smart as hell, always scamming back tenfold against the scammers and turning fortunes his way.

Fans of Mosley's books have protested that Washington is too much of a pretty boy to really embody the author's vision--Danny Glover's name often comes up as the Easy Rawlins of choice--but Washington's affability proves an endlessly entertaining weapon against the snakes that slither at his feet. If Devil in a Blue Dress is a hit, there's been talk of adapting Mosley's Easy Rawlins series into a sequel franchise for Washington. This is one down-on-his-luck character you wouldn't mind hanging out with again.

Devil in a Blue Dress. TriStar Pictures. Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beals, Tom Sizemore. Written by Carl Franklin, based on the book by Walter Mosley. Directed by Carl Franklin. Opens September 29.

 
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