Poor "Last Dance." It's meant to be a searing examination of capital punishment, but any reason for it to exist was obliterated six months ago by the appearance of "Dead Man Walking," which got there first with more.
But "Dead Man Walking" aside, "Last Dance" isn't very good on (( its own. Other than a powerful performance by Sharon Stone, it fritters away possibilities in odd ways, never really finding a moral center, never convincing us of any rightness of its position, and finally settling for a cheap jolt of melodramatics to give it punch.
Stone plays Cindy Liggett, a rawboned working-class Southerner use the code words (hint: What rhymes with "bright crash"?) who, 12 years past, beat two teen-agers to death with a blunt instrument during a burglary. She's been on death row since then, and time is just about out.
Stone appears to base her performance on Aileen Wurnos, another rawboned Southern gal who worked as a truck stop prostitute and capped seven of her johns; she currently resides on Florida's death row. Stone gets all her nuances -- simmering belligerence, furtive suspicion, toughness, the sense of complete waste of a life that could have so easily taken another course, and yet eventually a kind of furious dignity.
The movie turns out not really to be about Stone's character. Gee, great decision. I'd much rather see a movie about a sensitive young lawyer trying to find his moorings in a confusing world. We definitely need more sensitive-lawyer movies. That's really much more interesting than a scrapple-tough, poverty-embittered working-class woman driven by genetics and economics to commit a ghastly and violent crime. Especially when the lawyer is played by Rob Morrow in an accent that warbles all over the geography like a satellite fallen from orbit.
Morrow's Rick Hayes, through connections, has gotten a sinecure as an investigator for the clemency board. Of course, when he delves into his first case (Liggett's) he becomes convinced that her death sentence should be commuted and that becomes his crusade. He seems not quite a paragon of redemption so much as an incomplete personality desperate for a crusade.
But the film, like Rick Hayes, has trouble making its case. In fact, the case, and the bid for the Stone character's redemption, isn't based on the possibility of new information that would prove her innocent, but merely on the possibility that police suppressed evidence that she was under the influence of crack when she committed the crime, and therefore deserves to live. (In fact, "Last Dance" invests its sense of victimization entirely in the murderer and has next to no interest in the victims.)
And there are those who would say that, after all, Cindy decided to take the crack, therefore she is responsible for what she did under its influence.
To the degree that there's a saving grace in the film, it's the unconsummated love that develops between Morrow and Stone. That is the one thing besides Stone's performance that feels genuine. Otherwise it's a dead movie walking.
Pub Date: 5/03/96
Starring Sharon Stone and Rob Morrow
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Released by Touchstone
Sun score: **