Heaven's gait

The buzz on Heaven's Prisoners, the screen adaptation of James Lee Burke's novel, has been so miserable for such a long time that its release date has been changed more than Hillary Clinton's hair style. (Not surprisingly, it's been sitting on the shelf since roughly the Bush Administration.) I tend not to read too much into such events; after all, a delay can be the result of fine-tuning, or even an indication that a movie is too good to be recognized as the art that it is.

Such is not the case with Heaven's Prisoners. A dreadful mess that should have stayed out of theaters altogether, it's a dinosaur of the detective genre, incoherent and emotionally remote.

James Lee Burke is one of the new breed of pulp-fiction writers, specializing in the contemporary crime genre: He's Jim Thompson with a Cajun accent. His steamy potboilers about the neoheroic, ex-New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux (played here by Alec Baldwin) have engaged fans and book critics alike. So of course it sounded like a good idea to bring his works to the screen. All the elements of a good movie series are right there for the adapting--including a franchise character for Baldwin to portray in sequels.

Don't expect any sequels based on this outing. Director Phil Joanou and screenwriters Harley Peyton and Scott Frank have taken all the promise of Burke's book and produced a film as wrongheaded as it is boring. They've tried to create an atmosphere of grittiness, but the tone is completely artificial, even silly; you know the second you see a fresh-faced, blandly asexual actress like Mary Stuart Masterson reduced to playing a stripper that this is not going to be a good movie at all.

The filmmakers don't have the sense to consider how hard-edged crime fiction should play on the screen. Literary conceits that work on the printed page seem idiotic and precious in a movie. With salty dialogue, some embarrassingly awkward stagings, and the convoluted plot, the filmmakers have managed to suck the blood out of the story until there's nothing but a series of passionless images flickering about on the screen.

The story concerns Robicheaux, his wife (Kelly Lynch), and their rescue of a Mexican girl from an airplane that crashed in the bayou. The Drug Enforcement Agency and the Mafia want to know what Robicheaux saw in the underwater tomb. But he couldn't care less about it himself until threats and cryptic comments from strangers begin to pique his interest.

Heaven's Prisoners doesn't miss any opportunity to unfold with by-the-book predictability. Why is it that, in dumb movies like this, the villains always strong-arm the cops (or ex-cops), telling them to stop their investigation "or else?" Don't they know that tough guys like Dave won't scare easily?

It doesn't help matters that virtually every performer is off his or her game, looking as if they're auditioning for parts in a soap opera. Masterson's usual clean-scrubbed ordinariness works against her performance. You can't help but wonder whether the casting director took the day off when Masterson was given the part, or why no one noticed that she is fundamentally incapable of projecting the necessary hardness the character requires. (She looks as though she lost a bet to have Tammy Faye Bakker apply her makeup.) With her tomboyish figure, she's physically unconvincing and simply doesn't possess the energy level necessary to stake out the part and make it live.

Baldwin's usually a reliable enough actor, but he wastes a lot of energy trying to keep his Cajun accent from faltering. I'd always figured Baldwin was smart enough to walk and chew gum at the same time, but this isn't the part to prove it: He seems to be sleepwalking through most of his lines, as if he's rushed to complete each scene.

But even Masterson and Baldwin compare favorably to Eric Roberts' wretched performance. Roberts' career has charted a particularly peculiar path. He went from Method-acting golden boy to preening has-been in "character" parts with the speed of a bullet, and he seems incapable of resuscitating his image. I don't know why Roberts keeps appearing in Joanou's films; he played basically the same part, the clueless bad guy, in the unintentionally campy Richard Gere vehicle Final Analysis. Maybe it has something to do with Joanou's homoerotic fascination with Roberts' overdeveloped musculature. Roberts must take some perverse comfort in knowing that, whenever he appears in a Joanou film, he gets to do it unclothed. But Roberts doesn't cut the figure of a real action star like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, or even Jean-Claude Van Damme; his persona is Joe Piscopo all the way.

Joanou has been waiting to fulfill his early promise since his student film attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg and Joanou was dubbed the next Wunderkind. But he followed up his first feature, Three O'Clock High--an overstylized and commercially disappointing exercise that nevertheless has its defenders--with the ponderous Irish gangster movie State of Grace; the puzzling, insight-deficient U2 concert film Rattle and Hum; and then Final Analysis. The Wunderkind turned out to be a one-trick pony.

Heaven's Prisoners, with a minimum of trick photography and emphasis on character development, almost feels like an apologia for Joanou's previous fiascos. Unfortunately, he doesn't demonstrate a capacity for extracting the emotional content of a film from its characters: The movie feels as if it were directed by a coffee machine, not a human being. The pacing is loopy enough that you want to slap the film editor awake and force him to cut the film to make it flow. What should be important scenes feel abbreviated, while others drag on interminably, including more barroom brawls than a 1977-era Burt Reynolds picture. There's a panicky air about the movie, which doesn't seem confidently directed, so you're easily annoyed while watching it; you feel like you're watching a magician struggling to keep the rabbit from popping out of the hat too soon.

In addition to innumerable errors in continuity--Baldwin will sweat like a gladiator, but his shirt is sopping wet one moment, bone-dry the next--Heaven's Prisoners suffers from a puzzling lack of tension. Like two of last year's biggest flops, Devil in a Blue Dress and Just Cause, the transparency of the alleged mystery seems not shocking and complex, but merely tawdry and lurid, and--worse yet--sloppy. Heaven's Prisoners is a thriller for those who are easily scared and don't like to be challenged by films. I'm sure there are people like that out there, and they deserve this.

Heaven's Prisoners. Savoy Pictures. Alec Baldwin, Kelly Lynch, Teri Hatcher, Mary Stuart Masterson, Eric Roberts. Written by Harley Peyton and Scott Frank. Directed by Phil Joanou. Opens May 10.


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