Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

RED ROCK WEST *** 1/2. Directed by John Dahl. Written by John and Rick Dahl. Photography, Mark Reshovsky. Editing, Scott Chestnut. Production design, Rob Pearson. Art direction, Don Diers. Music,William Orvis. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle, J.T. Walsh, et al. A Roxie release. 98 min. Rated R (violence, language).

Of the several attempts in recent years to make a more or less contemporary film noir in the classical tradition, but without falling into the traps of fashion, post-modernism or uncomfortable mix of styles, "Red Rock West" is one of the very best.

The case of "RRW" is one more bizarre happening in the illogical world of cinema. Made a few years ago, the movie was first released in some European countries. Only after this it premiered most successfully in North America, at the Toronto Film Festival. Yet even after Toronto "RRW" found no American distributor. Instead it went to video and to cable TV. Finally, well-attended screenings in a San Francisco theatre got things moving. Since April 1994, the movie has opened in several houses across the country.

The reasons I have heard for this film's earlier non-release were that it didn't fit any neat category. I am unconvinced by this pigeonhole theory, since, if this were true, dozens of films, including the hits of the Coen Brothers, would never have made it. There must be some other causes.

To the small Wyoming town of Red Rock comes Nicolas Cage, a nice, quiet, decent ex-Marine who is down on his luck. He was promised an oil rig job, but he has a bad leg and is unacceptable.

Cage goes into the local bar to spend his last cents on a cup of coffee. Because of his old Cadillac with Texas plates, Cage is mistaken for hired killer Dennis Hopper whom bar owner J.T. Walsh had sent for to murder his wife Lara Flynn Boyle. At the end of his rope, Cage accepts a bundle of money and -- or so it seems -- the assignment.

Without revealing specifics of a wonderfully yet neatly complicated plot, it is enough to say that it involves mayhem, additional mistaken identities, twists, a femme fatale, sex, people not being what they are, continuous action and suspense. Everything is perfectly timed and paced. The performers are first rate and all underplay without this becoming mannered. Even the usually agitated and near-demented Hopper is relatively cool here. The film also excels in mood, a sense of landscape and weather, photography and splendidly spare production values.

Director Dahl keeps it going in ways that unmistakably show that had great fun doing their thing. Many of the characteristics of the film noir (literally "black movie") of the 1940s are present in construction, look and characterization, without however being stuck in mechanically. For example, the old movies were in black and white while this one is not, but the color -- like everything else-- is so cleverly used that it does not stick out as something contemporary.

What is different -- yet never jarring -- is that the urban setting of noir movies has been changed to a rural one -- something rare for a film noir and something done with intelligence. John Dahl shows obvious affection for the old genre while maintaining a warm tongue-in-cheek attitude distantly reminding one of Hitchcock's. But the movie is neither parody, homage or imitation, and it is delightfully free of pretentiousness.

Some films noirs had humor, and others did not. "RRW" has both humor and wit, and it balances them seamlessly with "seriousness." This keeps the entertainment level high. There are even times when I thought of Luis Bunuel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," the movie where the characters try to have a meal but get invariably interrupted, as Cage 's movements -- he repeatedly attempts to get away from Red Rock and its problems -- are ironically punctuated by a "Welcome To Red Rock" road sign.

"Red Rock West" is, after "Kill Me Again," the second feature directed by John Dahl. now in his early 30s, and written with his brother Rick, now is in his late 20s. These two could well become the new Coen brothers.

Copyright Edwin Jahiel & The News-Gazette