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First Degree
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by Scott Weinberg

"Choppy, sloppy and altogether...floppy. (Sorry, tough rhyme there.)"
2 stars

First Degree (a.k.a. Charades) seems to hold a potentially interesting (if not the least bit original) movie somewhere inside, yet the end product is sunk by an irritating overuse of those two unwelcome movie staples: pointless flashbacks and dreary narration.

Clearly inspired by the overwrought style of suburbia-bound violence found in the best of Tarantino and his numerous minions, First Degree starts out awful, slowly offers some fun, and then ends up with a finale lifted whole from much better films. Along the way, you get to look at the rather blank visage of C. Thomas Howell.

As the movie opens, we get to see a few barbecue guests beat the snot out of a tow-truck driver. Just when things start to get interesting, we’re subjected to an atrociously written narrative delivered by B-movie Queen Karen Black, and we’re jolted back “3 hours earlier” to see what came before. Huh? And it happens more than once or twice! Had this familiar suburban thriller been told in a more linear fashion, I’m sure the movie would have been considerably more entertaining.

Once we hit the midway point, and it becomes clear that one of the barbecue guests is a vicious killer (and also that every single guest played a hand in the brutal kidnapping and murder of a longtime mentor), First Degree actually manages to hold your interest quite capably, though it’s doubtful you’ll come away thinking it’s a very good flick.

The cast is a who’s who of cable movie-caliber actors, with the always-working C. Thomas Howell (The Hitcher) offering easily the silliest performance on display. Longtime schlock stalwart Karen Black (Invaders from Mars) overacts to the point of absurdity, while former Playboy gal Erika Eleniak (Under Siege) apparently thinks her onscreen mission is to emote as little as possible.

Those who adore rampant scenery chewing at its most manic will find much to enjoy in the performance by Jack Scalia (Hell Mountain). Posing like Hulk Hogan and behaving like the long-lost Baldwin brother, Scalia delivers a performance so over-the-top that it’s impossible to look away. It may be bad acting, but it’s fun to see. Special mention to little-seen doll-baby Kimbereley Kates (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure), who plays one hateful hell-witch of a housewife. With her raunchy mouth, joyously bitchy disposition, and sinfully beautiful body, Kates’ presence alone makes this one a look.


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originally posted: 08/09/02 06:44:18
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  02-Mar-1998 (R)



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