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Wrong Man, The (1993)
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Not-Bad Noir"
3 stars

A Showtime original movie, it deserved to play in theaters rather than solely on cable television what with this high level of the performances.

No, The Wrong Man is not a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic; rather, it’s a ramshackle road picture with a vague criminal plot that’s fairly enjoyable if you’re not expecting anything even remotely grandiose. Kevin Anderson stars as Alex Mills, a merchant seaman on a ship that has landed in a Mexican port for the night; Alex goes on shore leave and is warned by the captain to go easy on the tequila and the women, both of which can be detrimental if you get too much of either one. Alex doesn’t take the advice, though: he drunkenly wanders into a seedy bar where he’s talked up by an equally-seedy man volunteering that he’s a smuggler; he fixes Alex up with a beautiful prostitute while lifting his wallet full of cash, which leads to him cutting his sex play short when he discovers the woman’s mother and young child are in the same apartment, and storming his way back to the bar to reclaim his wallet, only to track the man down to his apartment where he finds him dying from a gunshot wound. (Inexplicably), Alex makes off with the gun he finds nearby and is chased by the local police who’ve happened upon the scene; he makes a successful getaway and takes refuge inside a red convertible. It just so happens that the car belongs to a married American couple consisting of the young, gorgeous Missy (Rosanna Arquette) and the older Phillip (John Lithgow); thankful to have encountered another countryman, they offer him a ride to Veracruz where Alex is hoping to catch up with his ship. The Mexican federal police have taken over the case because both the victim and suspect are foreigners, and at first their pursuit is hampered because they’re looking for a lone gringo rather than three, and this leads to a series of misadventures with Alex remaining one step ahead of them. We learn that Phillip is a “freight solicitor,” someone who smuggles fancy automobiles into the country without them going through customs; and Missy is from a wealthy South Carolina town who could’ve had any man she wanted but wound up with Phillip, who at his most brazen refers to her as a “lazy cunt” -- that’s the thing about Phillip: the more verbally demeaning he is of someone the more he actually has affectation for them. And Alex has quite the skeleton in his closet in that he’s a fugitive from the U.S. facing a manslaughter charge for killing the man who charged at him with a knife after Alex found him in bed with his girlfriend. They make a tantalizing trio, alternating between respect and distrust of one another, with the live-wire of a jacknapes Phillip both jealous of Alex’s lusting for his wife but flattered by it, as well -- you get the feeling he’d be irate if Alex weren’t succumbing to Missy’s libidinous advances, as if doing so would mean Phillip didn’t possess the most sought-after woman on Earth. The movie’s chief irony is that whenever the trio encounter a setback it’s actually beneficial because it temporarily throws the police off their trail, like when the convertible blows a fan belt that can’t be replaced right after the police have a description of it, or when the police deduce they’re on a bus and the bus the trio is on winds up crashing in a lake. It’s also good that in this third-world country motel owners aren’t prone to reporting gunshots when a jealous Phillip fires a bullet near Alex as retribution for getting too cozy with Missy.

The Wrong Man isn’t particularly interested in dexterous plotting and multi-faceted characterizations, and that’s fine because the movie is more concerned with atmosphere and acting, and this is just enough to keep it afloat. The dialogue is consistently adequate and occasionally offers up something indelible (when Missy is heavily applying makeup, Phillip quips “You’ve got enough junk stuck on your face to make you pass for birthday cake”), but it’s the juicy interplay among Anderson and Arquette and Lithgow that gives the material its oomph. While the role doesn’t allow him the depth he showed as Richard Gere’s farmhand brother in Miles from Home or Julia Roberts’s drama-professor love interest in Sleeping with the Enemy, Anderson cuts a charismatic portrait that carries him over the screenplay’s rough patches. You know he’s capable of giving a lot more, and while this is disappointing he proves he can carry a motion picture on sheer screen presence alone much like he similarly carried Mike Figgigs’s art-house psychological thriller Liebestraum earlier in the year -- a former stage actor with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Anderson has considerable resources, and if he isn’t asked to demonstrate even half of that here that’s okay for he can cannily etch with mere broad strokes. There’s never a moment when you want less of him. He matches up well with Arquette, who’s largely been disappointing since her extraordinary debut as the killer Gary Gilmore’s lover in The Executioner’s Song (the projects she’s chosen since have been anything but exemplary), but she’s scorchingly sultry here and uninhabited in that everything she does comes off as spontaneous, fresh -- the movie’s high point is when she does a topless dance on a motel-room table, and we can believe in that both Alex and Phillip are helplessly transfixed at the sight. Missy is far more physically attracted to Alex than Phillip, yet she’s helpless at yielding to Phillip’s innate love for her, and this gives the movie its gravitas -- if you didn’t buy this, the story would collapse before the thirty-minute mark. But it’s the always-welcome Lithgow who gives The Wrong Man its staying power. Based on his impressive resume, there isn’t a character Lithgow can’t play (remember his ex-pro-football-player transvestite in The World According to Garp?), and he hungrily attacks the role of Phillip as it were Steak tartar and gives the movie a real centrifugal force. Everything he does rivets our attention, and when a receptive viewer can latch onto Phillip’s idiosyncrasies you can’t help but have affectation for the guy. And he’s not a megalomaniacal performer -- he has the modesty in giving Anderson and Arquette the aesthetic room to bring their A-game to the plate and get some genuine give-and-take going with him. (With the exception of the always-mediocre Ralph Macchio in Distant Thunder, no actor hasn’t benefited with Lithgow as a screen partner.) Kudos also to the director, Jim McBride, who was responsible for the not-uninteresting Breathless remake and the outstanding New Orleans-set police drama The Big Easy, and who provides enough in the way of scene-transition fluidity and compositional acuteness. Overall, the story is weak and the plausibility factor low, but luckily McBride, with above-average technical prowess, is quite the entertainer.

Difficult to find on DVD but worth the effort.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29143&reviewer=327
originally posted: 05/23/15 22:51:50
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  05-Sep-1993 (R)

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