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DUMBED-DOWN AND DEADLY Current screen criminals can't hold a candle to Hannibal Lecter and his predecessors. Yesterday's brainy bad guys brought an icy intelligence to the evil they did -- today's naughty boys never get beyond Random Violence 101.

"Why," said Goldfinger, with a cosmopolitan smirk way back in 1964, "I don't expect you to talk at all, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die." As he spoke, a laser beam began to melt its way up toward the elegantly attired but otherwise helpless 007.

Of course, James Bond figured out a way to escape, but, alas, all these many years later, it is Goldfinger -- or at least what he represented -- who faces extinction.

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As an icon, the super criminal, the master of dark arts and deep conspiracy, can probably be traced back to Conan Doyle's archfiend Moriarty and, further, to King Arthur's bastard son Mordred. In a thousand, or a hundred thousand, pulp permutations, we knew him well: a coolly elegant, cold-minded and -blooded intellectual debauchee, almost always upper-class, whose superiority was so effortless and malevolence so deep that it sustained thousands of plots and kept hack screenwriters and blowhard Brit character actors out of the unemployment lines for years.

The most recent of these was one of the best: Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning portrait of the queasily charming Hannibal Lecter, the king-bull-stud of the world of sociopathic predation, who could read serial killers so well because he was one and spoke their secret language. The most romantic was Coppola's chivalric Don Corleone, a puppet master with a conscience who administered his empire like a good king, but had the geopolitical smarts of a Kissinger.

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But the face of the movie criminal has changed radically in the last few years: no longer is he the suave continental or the ironic psycho or the shrewd manipulator; now he's just as likely to be a moron. As in: duh!

That's what'd so scary about him -- not that he's any less violent than his predecessor, or any less ruthless, but that he's so stupid. He doesn't think rationally, and he improvises terribly; the only suspense in his life is if he manages to bumble his way out of the mess he's created, usually by killing everyone who is hanging around.

These thoughts are prompted by the arrival of two new films, "Feeling Minnesota," which opened Friday, and "Two Days in the Valley," which opens in two weeks. Though superficially similar, being stories of random violence as it plays across the lives of quirky "real people" in self-consciously deglamorized backgrounds, the two stand almost opposite each other in their approach to movie villainy. In "Feeling Minnesota," a loopy retelling of Cain and Abel in St. Paul, Minn., the villain is Vincent D'Onofrio's loser brother Sam, hungry for love, who thinks he's ,, smarter than he really is or can be. Fat, pasty, sweaty and wearing a powder-blue polyester tuxedo most of the time, he makes Peewee Herman look like Pierce Brosnan. Just about every move he makes is wrong but that's all right because just about every countermove made by his antagonist -- Keanu Reeves, as his brother Jjaks, equally immoral but spared harsh judgment because he's better looking -- is equally stupid. In fact, in some dark comic sense, "Feeling Minnesota" is a study in stupidity.

These two blithering idiots bungle their way around a tough-but-tender tart played by Cameron Diaz, also no Rhodes scholar candidate. They are pursued by a cheap, crooked cop -- Dan Aykroyd -- and a small-time gangster -- Delroy Lindo. Everybody is stupid, but everybody thinks he's smart. They pull guns with absurd abandon, don't know how to use them, and blow big holes in the world and each other without giving it much thought. It's a kind of nightmare inverse of the world in which we take it that we live, a world completely untrammeled by any concept of consequence, because nobody has the imagination to consider consequence.

Don't forget 'Fargo'

The ne plus ultra of the genre of stupid films is probably another Minnesota-based work, the Coen brothers' wondrous "Fargo," though of course Fargo is in North Dakota. Somehow Minnesota has become the capital of American stupidity: is Garrison Keillor to blame? (Yes!) But that movie, far superior to this one, was another expression of the stupid criminal's highest vanity, his self-delusional folly in believing that he was capable of figuring out a plan which would work. In "Fargo," nothing works except the thermometer, as a callow, scheme-smart-big-picture-dumb car salesman tries to put together a phony kidnapping of his rich wife and ends up precipitating a bloodbath.

Both "Feeling Minnesota" and "Fargo" probably wouldn't exist without Quentin Tarantino's work, which seemed to pioneer the whole stupidity thing for the big screen, as it studied equally stupid small-timers struggling with immense problems that they themselves invented or caused to exist. But Tarantino was clearly as much influenced by fiction as he was by other movies; Tarantino wouldn't exist without Elmore Leonard; Elmore Leonard wouldn't exist without Truman Capote; Truman Capote wouldn't exist without Samuel Beckett; Samuel Beckett wouldn't exist without Albert Camus; Camus wouldn't exist without his older buddy Sartre; no Sartre without Celine; no Celine without World War I. So: blame the royalty of Europe at the turn of the century -- theirs was the most colossal stupidity of all, a family quarrel among cousins who happened to be kings so that the millions died for no more meaningful reason than the boys couldn't get along on the picnic.

"Two Days in the Valley," by contrast, has a sense of nostalgia to it. Like its own most direct antecedent, "The Usual Suspects," it features an old-time "super criminal" at the center of it. In this film, though, he's not a malevolent Keyser Soze, pulling strings with infinite cleverness and patience, but a more active killer, played with old-fashioned iciness by James Spader, no slouch at iciness. With his dead eyes and prissy, Anglified speech patterns, and in the deep pleasure he takes in blowing people away, he seems every inch the psychopathic killer. And he also seems hopelessly out of place in this film. He's the phoniest character, by far.

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In fact, "Two Days in the Valley" may signal a kind of end for this sort of character, at least for the time being. The screenplay, by director John Herzfeld, dumps him in the middle of the San Fernando Valley among a dozen far more realistic characters whose fate becomes entangled with his. In a curious way, the secret battle in this movie isn't between good guys and bad but between archetypes of movie reality, the banal and the overdramatic.

Most of the characters -- Danny Aiello as a small-time Jersey loser, Paul Mazursky as a used-up director, Teri Hatcher as an Olympic skier with boyfriend problems, Eric Stoltz as a very low-key cop and Jeff Daniels as a very high-key one -- would be considered realistic, at least in that newer, hipper movie tradition of Tarantino. None is conspicuously glamorous, not even Hatcher, whose nominally glamorous life is revealed to be a bitter sham; all are losers, life's little guys, punks, weasels, people without much hope or skill, really. They just want to be left alone.

Spader's character, Lee Woods, is different. He's a professional, without a qualm of conscience, a fast mover among the little people, who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. "You have a minute to live," he likes to announce with a smirk, before blowing people away. He travels with a beautiful woman as lover and associate, which further separates him from banal reality and inserts him into movie reality.

Yet he is brought down in the fable by the mousiest of men and the dumbest of coincidences, almost as if the film is arguing that such characters are no longer useful. They don't belong. They have been overwhelmed by banality. I felt a sense of Gulliver being overwhelmed by Lilliputians, tied and trussed and brought low by people he could hold in his hand. It is the end of their beautiful wickedness. They are melting, melting.

Why would that be so? Curiously, I think, it has to do with world view. The master criminal and the moron criminal occupy different imagined universes, which is to say different ways that we think about ourselves.

Not just good and evil

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In the former, it's not that evil has lost its luster and fascination so much that the view of the universe as a rigid hierarchy, a dichotomy between absolute good and absolute evil, no longer convinces. The super criminal, gleaming and charismatic with brilliance and evil, flourished in the stark world of melodrama, in the deeper conceit that there is a morally ordered universe in the first place: here, and over there is good. In this battle, good usually wins (but it's a close-run thing), the order is preserved and the structure that is society may continue.

There's a further vanity: The magnificence of our villains reflects the magnificence of ourselves. A truly monstrous villain in a melodrama confirms our own importance: we are worth that much effort and care, our enemies must be mighty to stand a chance against us and when we vanquish them, our own might is certified.

The sleazy, stupid villain, however, represents a different conceit -- one of rotted confidence, of lost empires and broken dreams. Moral rigidity has been replaced by moral chaos. Good and evil may no longer be strictly delineated and are in fact banally intermingled. People are "quirky," not good or evil or even heroic. The king of this place is the dumb psychopath who kills without much thought. He is random in his predation, a metaphor for the occasionally cruel whimsy of the meaningless universe.

Therefore, to be victimized has no significance: you are just unlucky and the droog who does you without a rise in his pulse rate forgets about it by the time he gets across the street and starts hunting something new.

On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia. Or even Cleveland.

Pub Date: 9/16/96


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