They sure know how to hurt a guy Review: Makers of the film "Heaven's Prisoners" deserve a good whack with a pool cue for the stupidity they've unleashed.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bah. Grrrrr. Arrgghhh. Movies like "Heaven's Prisoners" make me grumpier and grouchier. Why I think it's turning me into Bob Dole.

One thing about Steve Hunter, Steve Hunter likes a movie that makes a little sense. Steve Hunter hates it when it appears that the filmmakers just haven't thought very critically about what they're doing. The old movies did. Why can't the new ones? What's wrong with these kids? Grrrrr. Growwwwl.

Now take "Heaven's Prisoners." Steve Hunter wants to like this movie, because he likes well-made, intelligent thrillers, particularly with noir overtones, particularly with beat-up heroes around his own age, particularly with Teri Hatcher in any form, shape, costume or hair-do. Steve Hunter never goes GRRRRRRR when Teri Hatcher's around! Steve Hunter's a pretty normal guy in that respect.

But in this movie -- grumble, snarl -- there's a scene where Alec Baldwin, playing ex-New Orleans detective Dave Robicheaux, supposedly a street-smart tough guy, retaliates against a known professional killer who has assaulted him. He whacks the guy in the face with a pool cue. Now, you have to kill guys like this. If you just whack 'em, they bleed a little, then they get really mad, and sure as rain, they come after you. You kill them, or you move to Massachusetts and open a lovely little Birkenstock and brie shop in the Berkshires. Even Steve Hunter knows that!

But Dave whacks the guy. And then what precautions does he take, having bashed a known killer in the face with a pool cue? None! None whatsoever! Duh! Dave, are you that stupid? Or director Phil Joanou, are you that stupid? Or writers Harley Peyton and Scott Frank, are you that stupid? Grrrrr. Maybe novelist James Lee Burke, who invented Dave Robicheaux, is that stupid. And the killers come, and they catch Dave completely by surprise and blow his poor wife away. Dave, maybe you should have taken a precaution or two? That truly irked Steve Hunter. Grrrrr.

Anyhow, as handsome as "Heaven's Prisoners" is (and it's very handsome) and as well-acted as it is (and it's pretty well-acted), Steve Hunter still thinks it feels too complicated, too over-art-directed and set-dressed for what is fundamentally a very simple story. Underneath, it's an almost Western-pure plot, about an ex-alcoholic ex-cop who goes after his wife's murderers and smokes them, one by one, finally reaching the person who paid for the hit.

But that tale is swamped in whirls and layers and curlicues of narrative irrelevance: There's a long evocation of a testy Mafia marriage (Hatcher, with a butterfly tattoo next to her navel, playing the femme fatale for a kick and a half, and a surprisingly restrained Eric Roberts), which itself fits into a larger subplot about a New Orleans Godfather (Joe Viterelli) putting pressure on Roberts. A first-reel plane crash that provides the Robicheauxs with a little girl is never really factored into the story. A DEA agent hangs around, to very little effect.

And there are surprisingly dumb choices made. The really spectacular bad guy is Don Stark, as psycho hit man Eddie Keats. He has a fabulous few minutes in the movie's front end, when he blows the movie apart with a Tarantino-intense blast of pure, snake-booted, gold-jewelry-wearing malice. So, let's be honest here and not mince words: We really want to see him die. This is a thriller; it has rules that may not match society's but that nevertheless must be obeyed. We want to see him die. Slowly, preferably, or at least in slow-motion. Steve Hunter likes it when really nasty boys get parted from their socks and souls in a torrent of buckshot. No growls from that!

But no. For ludicrous reasons, he's simply found dead: All his beautiful evil is squandered, and the air goes out of the movie. What we're left with is too much story, not enough clarity, never enough answers and no truly big moments, which the genre was invented to provide.

Baldwin is good; it's not his fault Dennis Franz did the ex-drunk cop falling off the wagon for grief thing much better on "NYPD Blue" Tuesday night. (That whole episode was much better than anything in "Heaven's Prisoners," for the record.) Hatcher is, well, Hatcher. And there's a lot of her here to see, for all you celebrity nude fans who can't download her from the Internet. Kelly Lynch has a believable spin as Baldwin's extremely decent but unlucky wife. Mary Stuart Masterson is completely wasted in a part as a stripper with a heart of gold, a cliche from the start.

Grrrrr. Many more movies like this one, and you won't have Steve Hunter to kick around anymore!

'Heaven's Prisoners'

Starring Alec Baldwin and Teri Hatcher

Directed by Phil Joanou

Released by New Line

Rated R (violence, nudity, language)

Sun score ** 1/2

Pub Date: 5/17/96

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