Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

BAD COMPANY * 1/2. Directed by Damian Harris. Script by Ross Thomas, from his novel. Photography, Jack N.Green. Production design, Andrew McAlpine. Music, Carter Burwell. Produced by Amedeo Ursini & Jeffrey Chernow. Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Ellen Barkin, Frank Langella, Gia Carides, Spalding Gray, Michael Beach, David Ogden Stiers. A Touchstone release. 108 min. Rated R (strong language, graphic sex & violence).

Watching again the exciting "The Big Sleep" (1946) the other day, I marveled at the way this great film was tough, witty, wonderfully played, complicated ... and so pleasantly incoherent. "Bad Company" on the other hand is bad, humorless, woodenly acted, complicated and annoyingly incoherent.

"Bad Company" is another attempt to fill today's slot left vacant by the fall of Communism and the disappearance of the Red Scare, both of which had for decades created a genre: the duel between Good (us, the CIA, the British Secret Service) and Evil (them, the KGB and such). With the end of the Cold War, acrobatics were needed (cf "The Russia House") to keep up the East-West confrontation; other movies replaced bad Soviets with terrorists or druglords ( "License to Kill," "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger," etc.)or with industrial/economic espionage, which is partly the case with "Bad Company."

Everybody lies, dissembles and cheats in this movie. Its very opening cheats doubly, the audience and the "film noir" genre this movie tries to follow. As Nelson Crowe (Fishburne), applies for a job with the Tool Shed Company, he tells the audience about himself, about being a sacked ex-CIA operative, which he attributes to downsizing the Firm. Since this speech is the equivalent of his thoughts, and since he is lying -- as we learn much later -- this is duplicity of a high order.

First-person narration is one of the conventions of "film noir" but those early sentences are the first and last time Crowe speaks to us. And what follows piles up characters, events and situations that also defy verisimilitude and clarity.

The Tool Shed is a Dirty Tricks outfit run by Vic Grimes (Langella) who left (or was made to quit?) the CIA three years ago, and by Margaret Wells (Barkin), first seen wearing a big, ostentatious cross and having with interviewee Crowe a phony, tough-cute conversation. She is also Grimes's hard-as-nails mistress.

Crowe's first assignment, supervised by Margaret, is to blackmail an industrialist by videotaping him as the man copulates energetically with his under-age niece. There's a cynical, entertaining twist here that perhaps promises more amusing ones to come. They don't.

Currently, the Tool Shed's major client is nervously twitchy and pretty dumb-looking Walter Curl (Spalding Gray). It is crucial for his company to win a lawsuit against it. The deciding vote is in the hands of State Supreme Court Judge Beach (Stiers) whom Crowe has to buy. Beach is a debt-ridden compulsive gambler, married, and the lover of Julie. She is played by Australian Gia Carides in her American feature debut. Her performance is better than her role.

The bare bones of the story sound like pretty regular thriller-stuff, but the avalanche of subplots, twists, multi-duplicities, extraneous characters, side-issues and revelations is more than the brain can take or cares to follow. The format is like parentheses within parentheses, and you really don't give a hoot for either characters or plot.

The narrative has the rancid smell of total corruption and unappetizing sex. Margaret, from uncontrollable sexual appetite and controllable wish to dominate and manipulate, beds down Nelson Crowe instantly. She, like all others, gives one the creeps -- which increase with subsequent complications, raucous sex and crude language.

Hardly anything follows earlier developments with any kind of rationality. While here and there you get glimpses of what might have been really interesting if not treated so sketchily or gotten lost in the sargasso sea of multiple crossings, the endless trickery becomes tiring and tiresome. The hard-boiled, sparse and mostly low-key dialogues are derivative, artificially cool, stylized and often opaque. So are the performers. Visually and verbally, "Bad Company" copies the unlikely aspects of "noir" movies but not those elements that involve us.

Something that might have been pretty good is the script's determination to populate the picture exclusively with bad people. This brings it closer to the modern trend ( "Natural Born Killers", "Pulp Fiction," "True Romance") than to traditional film noir. But lack of humor, dramatic or tragic interest results in a tall tale as complicated and as pleasurable as an Income Tax long form.

"Bad Company" 's main grace is the excellent lighting and camera skill of Jack Green who brings to many visuals sleek, low-level, dark yet sharp photography not unlike his Oscar-nominated work in "Unforgiven." Even so, this no saving grace, given the affectations of what is being shot. The naked decor of the Tool Shed is like negative, chichi chic. It includes an absurd indoor pool where Langella, in his impeccable suit, is up to his hips in water (you can't tell if he's wearing waders) while ridiculously practicing fly-casting. His form is bad, here and in a later scene that will strike real anglers as all wrong.

Near the end, Fishburne tells Barkin "You're the girl of my dreams, because if you aren't, nothing we've done makes any [expletive] sense." Well, she isn't -- and nothing makes sense.