"Fever," on HBO, is just about the perfect cable film. If you like action, it's four-star entertainment. It offers a new twist on "buddy" films. And it has a couple of hot sex scenes thrown in for good measure.
Sam Neill gets top billing, but it's really Armand Assante's movie. Assante plays Ray Wellman, a convict just released from prison, who wants to go straight and find a new life with his old girlfriend, Lacy (Marcia Gay Harden). She's found a new life already, though, with lawyer Elliott Mandel (Neill). Wellman believes he can win her back.
Wellman is the kind of guy parents dread their daughters finding. sexy and experienced in ways nice viewers won't even want to know about. In the opening sequences, he's hot enough to melt whatever you've got in the freezer.
Assante is a talented enough actor to make Wellman believable as an aging street hood. He has an impatience in his walk and a fighter's energy in his body even when he's standing still. You believe Wellman has been a very bad boy in his time -- although now he's trying to go straight.
Neill is Neill, at his most effective and charming when he's not saying a word. He doesn't say a lot in "Fever." As Mandel, he's a straight-laced, good-hearted type who is head over heels in love with Lacy. Mandel does not back away from the feeling or try to hide behind his professional demeanor. "Fever" resists such easy, one-dimensional depictions at almost every turn.
But this is just the set-up for the action, which involves another convict bent on revenge against Wellman. This con is named the Junkman, and he's played mean and ugly by Joe Spano. The Junkman, who is still in prison, arranges for friends on the outside to kidnap Lacy.
The Junkman knows Wellman is obsessed with Lacy. What he doesn't know is that Mandel has a fair-sized obsession for her, too. The rivals, Wellman and Mandel, become an unlikely pair of buddies dodging and darting around Los Angeles as they follow the Junkman's orders in hopes of getting Lacy back.
One of the things "Fever" is about is a law-abiding man taking a sawed-off shotgun and realizing he is capable of killing. It's also about an ex-con watching that happen and understanding how a man can be seduced by the feel of holding a gun and the sense of power firing a gun conveys.
The strength of a movie like this usually is not its dialogue. But this movie does just about everything well. You have to smile at Wellman's line to Lacy when he meets her again after being released from prison: "The past ain't dead. It ain't even past."