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Heterosexual Anglo moviegoers often find it difficult to understand why America's various minority groups kick up a ruckus every now and then about the way they're portrayed on movie screens. From Jesse Jackson's protest outside this year's Academy Awards ceremony to the recent condemnation of the action comedy Bulletproof from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, leaders of marginalized groups often look a little goofy to mainstreamers for stirring up controversy about American commercial cinema. As almost any 8-year-old can tell you, Hollywood bears about as much resemblance to real life in the United States as the 1996 Republican National Convention did to, well, life in the United States.

Saner heads in these marginalized communities often express their own anger at what appears to be faulty prioritizing--or no prioritizing at all--by movement spokespeople. So what if Waiting To Exhale didn't get any Oscar nominations? In point of fact, it sucked; let's talk about reviving inner-city opportunity. Should any activist group waste the fax paper to criticize an Adam Sandler comedy, for God's sake? Some of us are more disturbed that half the U.S. Congress recently affirmed it was OK for employers to fire an individual because of his or her sexual orientation.

And yet, to ignore the value of big-screen visibility is to deny the primacy of America's intimate, passionate, and even addictive relationship to popular culture. For better or worse, the escapism offered by films becomes even more important in a millennial America where economic health means more work for fewer people. Movies validate not how we feel about ourselves, but how we want to feel about ourselves. For two hours they provide us the tiny sliver of control that Plato warned us about in his eerily prophetic "flickering images on a cave wall" metaphor. Any schmuck with seven dollars can be saint or sinner, creator or destroyer, leader or follower.

This last category is the real rub for minority media crusaders. Character subtleties of the best indie cinema not withstanding, most movies flaunt a clear-cut division between driver and passenger, those who instigate the action and those who are affected by it. In the past decade, Hollywood has opened the door to a variety of faces in leading roles--then promptly slapped a label on their foreheads so they can be easily identified. Unless you're Denzel Washington, you become a forceful black leading man only in the role of criminal or clown. There are no such exceptions among gay and lesbian actors, although (supposedly) straight men have a field day playing lead characters who are gay--as long as they're drag queens or flamers.

And as far as enjoying the smorgasbord of Hollywood thrills and chills, lesbians of all colors have found their invitations mysteriously lost in the mail. These days a well-delineated lesbian character is almost as difficult to find as an African-American romantic lead; neither exists on the Hollywood radar. Expect the situation to get worse, because the major studios now make movies as much or arguably more for the lucrative overseas markets as they do for American audiences. Ticket buyers in Korea could not care less about diversity in American film images.

Out of left field and into this sad state flies Bound, a new crime thriller whose central lesbian love affair is at once the most innocuous and the most anarchic thing about it. The writing-directing team of brothers Larry and Andi Wachowski has chosen as its filmmaking debut a tightly constructed, stylishly (but rarely self-consciously) executed, gripping little noir parable that couldn't be more firmly grounded in American movie tradition if the filmmakers created a wacky romantic farce about mismatched paramours. The lovers at the heart of this "little guys scam the mob" tale are certainly mismatched by the standards of '50s and '90s crime partnerships, but it's the unexpected nature of their bond that keeps them one step ahead of the bad guys--and audiences, for that matter. They function as a team in which the femme fatale charms of one swoop in to the rescue when the other's tough chick muscle falters; imagine Joan Crawford in stilettos and Barbara Stanwyck in pants pooling their wiles against the gangster weasel who's not smart or mean enough to defeat, either.

It's easier to imagine Crawford and Stanwyck strutting through the roles of, respectively, Violet (Jennifer Tilly as the double-crossing gangster's moll) and Corky (Gina Gershon from Showgirls as the suave interloper) when they engage money launderer Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) in one of Bound's many sweaty, "let's see who blinks first" face-offs. It's not quite so easy to imagine these legendary bombshells hopping into the sack in perhaps the most explicit, R-rated same-sex love scene since Catherine Deneuve seduced Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. About 10 minutes into their flick, the directors Wachowski hit viewers like a hot shower with this scorcher, and it's no doubt what you'll be reading about endlessly from a titillated press. Whether heterosexual moviegoers choose to pigeonhole Bound as a "lesbian film" or enjoy it as a top-shelf suspense with a provocative twist will determine its box-office fate, of course.

Larry and Andi Wachowski have been more respectful than you might think two hetero boys would be toward their film's potentially huge lesbian audience, having made much fuss in the press about hiring Susie Bright, the sharp-tongued Sapphic sex columnist, as an adviser to the film. In the end, it was more of a public-relations overture than a real necessity, because Bound is not a "lesbian movie" in the way that Desert Hearts or John Sayles' Lianna was. In other words, the film doesn't attempt to explore the psychology of same-sex love, but only assumes that passion in any gender combination can drive two people to risk their lives for a happy future together.

We root for Corky and Violet not because they're lesbians, but because their characters revive a classic "lovers on the run" dynamic in American cinema--and because Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, thankfully, don't dig any harder beneath the story's surface than what the Wachowskis' clipped, white-knuckle dialogue provides. As anyone who has ever seen Tilly on a talk show can attest, that breathless baby-doll voice is no affectation. She lassos it with impressively steely undertones for this, her first ass-kicking role. Gershon is the pouty-lipped, leather-wearing brawn, though intriguingly "the one who wears the pants" in this duo is not the one at the wheel.

The biggest question for Bound is, will it fall between the cracks that separate straight and gay in America? Is it, in other words, too homo for heteros and not quite homo enough for homos? It would be a shame if either side walked away from the hellacious, hairpin good time Larry and Andi Wachowski have created here. Male or female, straight or gay, no lover of the American crime thriller should deny themselves the opportunity to identify with Corky and Violet in their balls-to-the-wall heist.

Bound. Gramercy Pictures. Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano. Written and directed by Larry and Andi Wachowski. Opens October 4.

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