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Touch is being advertised as “from the writer of Get Shorty,” and that’s not altogether unreasonable. The film was written and directed by Taxi Driver scripter Paul Schrader, who played a crucial role in developing the contemporary American cinema, but it doesn’t seem to belong to him. This tale of a holy innocent among Hollywood hustlers, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, does seem more akin to Get Shorty than to such Schrader successes as Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters or Light Sleeper.

Schrader grew up in a rigid Calvinist sect and has turned repeatedly to religious topics, notably in scripting Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. He has seldom demonstrated a genial wit, which is what’s required for the story of Juvenal (boyish up-and-comer Skeet Ulrich), a rehab center counselor who has the power to heal serious afflictions with a single touch. Juvenal may be another of Schrader’s tormented loners, but tormented lonerdom is not the essence of the tale. This is satire, after all, and the director’s sense of style has always been better developed than his sense of humor.

Juvenal is a former Franciscan monk who discovered his healing gift while in Latin America; confused, he left the order and ended up on skid row, first as a drunk, then as a counselor to drunks. While visiting one of his former clients, he casually cures a woman of blindness, a miracle that happens to be witnessed by Bill (Christopher Walken), a former religious grifter turned RV salesman. Fascinated by the possibilities of Juvenal’s gift, he recruits former associate Lynn (Bridget Fonda) to get close to Juvenal. She succeeds all too well, as she and the miracle man become lovers.

This is a potential roadblock to Bill’s plan to exploit Juvenal, as well as an affront to August (Tom Arnold), who runs Outrage, a cadre of uniformed Catholic-traditionalist zealots who “go around breaking up guitar masses.” August wants to use Juvenal’s powers to further his own back-to-basics agenda, and sees the young man’s relationship with Lynn as a stain on his saintliness. On the sidelines are such everyday exploiters as a newspaper reporter (Janeane Garofalo), a TV talk-show hostess (Gina Gershon), and a rock promoter (Paul Mazursky). There are even bit parts for Lolita Davidovich, Don Novello, and John Doe.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this material to Schrader. Although Touch is a comedy, Juvenal is another lost young man looking for near-religious salvation in the embrace of a woman, just like the protagonists of Taxi Driver and American Gigolo (and the director’s ultimate model, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket). Where most Schrader films stick closely by their protagonists, however, Juvenal is not the essence of Touch, only its catalyst. The story is supposed to portray a whole slice of American hustlerdom—books about angels are “second only to serial killers” on the bestseller lists, Bill notes—which is a bit too challenging a switch for Schrader. His specialty is the obsessive, not the panoramic.

Touch doesn’t quite click, but it’s by no means a flop. Ulrich and Fonda are engaging, and the overexposed Walken gets to do something a little different; his Bill is a scam artist with a twinkle in his eye rather than a blade up his sleeve. Still, the casting tends to make the movie feel generic; Schrader should have taken some risks with unknown actors, as he did by hiring harDCore homeboy Dave Grohl to write and perform the surf-rockabilly score. Apparently the director decided that making a satire was gamble enough, and he avoided taking many others. The result is oddly timorous. It’s as if, after repeatedly tempting ludicrousness in the pursuit of his dark obsessions, Schrader was a little afraid of making a comedy that might get laughed at.

The new generation of more contentious biopics, most of them associated in some way with Oliver Stone, has engendered a fierce response from the official media. In defense of truth, justice, and the American myth, mainstream pundits have demanded to know how Hollywood dares impugn LBJ, or exalt Larry Flynt. This is largely a turf battle; reputation-making is supposed to be the province of those savants certified by Roone Arledge or Martin Peretz. The pundits also suppose that American moviegoers are too dim to separate fact from speculation, and pretend that there’s less tendentious nonsense on the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post or in the New Republic than in Nixon or JFK.

The guardians of truth in current events seem less interested in movies like Absolute Power, which probably have a greater effect on civic dyspepsia than films that engage history directly. This vulgar, moronic thriller is entirely fictitious, but it will gladden the hearts of those conspiracy theorists who believe that Bill Clinton is a cold-blooded gangster who had Vincent Foster iced. Set in a Washington where Secret Service agents coolly murder innocent citizens in an attempt to conceal the ruthless president’s taste for rough sex, it imagines the capital run by natural born killers.

Did I say Washington? One advantage Washingtonians will have in watching Absolute Power is recognizing that director/star Clint Eastwood’s latest effort isn’t really set in D.C. at all. Filmed mostly in L.A. and Baltimore, the film features only two prominent local edifices: the White House and the Watergate Hotel. The latter, vaguely redolent of corruption, is of course a monument to Republican shame, but President Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman) is evidently a Democrat—if only because his nemesis, Luther Whitney (Eastwood), is an embodiment of Republican virtues: circumspect, chivalrous, independent. He’s also a jewel thief, but that’s clearly not as disreputable as being president.

Midway through a burglary in an opulent, empty suburban mansion, Luther is surprised by the arrival of two lovers. Hiding in a vault conveniently equipped with a one-way mirror, he watches as the man gets nasty; when the woman fights back, she’s shot by bodyguards (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) who rush into the room. Luther watches as an acid-tongued assistant (Judy Davis) begins plotting a cover-up; after they leave, the thief scoops up some evidence the killers have overlooked and heads for safety. He’s spotted, though, which puts the White House in a panic.

For it is President Richmond and his security detail who are implicated in the crime, something Luther soon realizes. He first plans to leave the country, but stops when he hears Richmond’s hypocritical paean to the murdered woman, who happens to be the young wife of a prominent campaign financier (E.G. Marshall). Luther decides to stick around and destroy the president, and in the process refurbish his relationship with his estranged daughter Kate (Laura Linney, who can put this disaster on her résumé with the egregious Congo). Though the plan puts Kate at risk, it’s all for the best; it introduces her to an estimable suitor, D.C. police detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris), who’s investigating the slaying.

Did I say D.C. police detective? Well, the murder certainly seems to take place in the suburbs, and although the film features Washington police cars and uniforms, there’s also a sign suggesting that the crime occurred in “Middleton County.” That’s typical of the slovenly script, which is credited to William Goldman (who had a rep back in the All the President’s Men days), but must be the work of a committee. The tenor of the dialogue changes from line to line, the plotting is careless, and the characterization is not even functional: Kate, for example, is a public prosecutor, yet seems clueless about the implications of conspiring with a wanted fugitive. (Of course, the fugitive is dear old Dad, and Hollywood movies that depict politics as a moral cesspool are usually keen on the nuclear family.)

Still, Kate isn’t unconscionably naive. When she realizes that her father is tangling with the White House—but before she understands the full dimensions of Richmond’s infamy—she instinctively exclaims, “Jesus, Luther, they’ll kill you!” Like the intended audience for this flick, Kate understands that all American presidents are coolly homicidal. Let’s see Oliver Stone top that.

“I don’t know about this new South Africa,” grumps Dangerous Ground protagonist Vusi (Ice Cube), a former revolutionary who fled Johannesburg for San Francisco as a teenager and has returned, thoroughly Americanized, for his father’s funeral. After encountering the anarchy of the post-apartheid scene, Vusi begins to wish he hadn’t made the trip. Savvy viewers will probably concur, although those who abandon the film after its first few ludicrous sequences won’t get to see Estee Lauder supermodel Elizabeth Hurley in a series of revealing hooker-chic outfits.

In a bizarre footnote to boyfriend Hugh Grant’s notoriety, Hurley plays Karin, a crackhead stripper whose wardrobe is heavy on the see-through and skin-tight. It turns out she’s also the lover of Steven, Vusi’s brother, a crackhead DJ who has vanished into the seedy “Jo’burg” club scene, which seems pretty much interchangeable with the seedy club scene in any other Hollywood action flick. Director Darrell James Roodt, whose previous films include the creditable Cry, the Beloved Country and the maladroit Sarafina!, is South African, but the vision of his country on display here reduces it to an African version of Hollywood’s Moscow: a newly wide-open, crime-ridden location for routine drug-gang thrillers.

A literature student facing exams, Vusi keeps making plans to return to California. He’s head of the family now, however, and begins to accept warrior rituals that he at first rejected. Trying to protect his brother from ruthless West African cocaine overload Muki (Ving Rhames), Vusi allies with the well-meaning but unreliable Karin to find Steven, who eventually turns up at a Sun City casino. An equal-opportunity target, Vusi tangles with black township thugs and white urban ones, and even encounters a parade staged by an Afrikaner racist party. Vusi’s warrior genes soon kick in, and he, Karin, and bitter ex-revolutionary brother Ernest (Sechaba Morajele) take up arms and head for Muki’s place. (Karin, being a girl, can’t seem to actually hit anyone at point-blank range with a machine gun, but who would turn down the chance to accompany Elizabeth Hurley when she’s outfitted with a red microskirt and an AK-47?)

Roodt and co-scripter Greg Latter try to dignify this trash with words of wisdom: The preachy script counsels Ernest to get an education, informs Steven that black South Africans mustn’t “fall into the same trap as the black Americans in the ’70s,” and offers the official Afrocentric line on why contemporary Africa is not a peaceable kingdom: “We’ve been oppressed so long, all we know is oppression.” Such uplift is overwhelmed, however, by Stanley Clarke’s busy rock/hiphop/Afropop score and scenes like the one where Vusi and Ernest decide to torture a small-time drug dealer with electric shocks to his genitals; when both men can’t bring themselves to touch the dealer’s penis, Karin eagerly volunteers. (This enthusiasm, of course, couldn’t have anything to do with Hugh.)

Fatuous and perfunctory, Dangerous Ground is principally notable for its new wrinkle on casting a black actor with a white actress while avoiding the possibility of sex: Karin can’t sleep with Vusi because she’s Steven’s boyfriend—and she can’t sleep with Steven because he’s too stoned. The ambitious but misguided Hurley again demonstrates that she considers no part beneath her, while Ice Cube, who’s been adequate in laconic roles, definitively proves that portraying a character who’s pensive, poetic, and conflicted is well beyond him. Both of them should have taken the pledge not to play Sun City.CP