'SIGHT' FOR SORE EYES Sex-and-guns film is vintage Elmore Leonard, with rewards aplenty for those who ignore the bullet holes in the story.


Elmore Leonard, that rare pulp mystery author whose work has been turned successfully into movies, returns to the screen with many members of the same team that produced "Get Shorty," the ebullient tale of Hollywood corruption that starred John Travolta.

The new film, "Out of Sight," mostly lives up to the light heart and hip vibe of its predecessor, even if it doesn't strike the same satiric chord. And it certainly doesn't lack for star power. George Clooney, as the crinkly-eyed bank robber Jack Foley, is the sexiest guy on the lam since John Robie the Cat. And as Karen Sisco, the federal marshal who makes it her life's work to track him down, Jennifer Lopez wields sexily slinky powers that are anything but standard-issue.

Supported with finely etched and often amusing performances by Ving Rhames, Billy Zahn, Don Cheadle and Albert Brooks, Clooney and Lopez form a handsomely heated dyad around which a crowd of typically colorful Leonard characters swirl and self-destruct. Director Steven Soderbergh, best known for such edgy independent fare as "sex, lies, and videotape" and "Kafka," proves that he has chops where more conventional bang-'em-ups are concerned, spicing up the action with a bold sense of color and chapter breaks in the form of eye-catching freeze frames.

As he did with "Get Shorty," screenwriter Scott Frank has adapted Leonard's novel with a keen ear for the author's punchy dialogue and an eye for his wacked-out world view. ("Get Shorty" director Barry Sonnenfeld executive-produced this film; Danny DeVito and Stacy Sher return as producers as well.) And composer David Holmes infuses the film with the same Stax/Volt vibe that gave "Get Shorty" its greasy lilt, adding some Isley Brothers and Esquivel for added retro appeal.

Altogether, a terrific package for those filmgoers who never tire of the cinema's most cherished harness team, sex and violence.

But because it recycles so many iconic images, so many stock moments, "Out of Sight" begs the question: How many guns-and-babes movies are enough? Although it's a welcome development that someone of Soderbergh's taste and intelligence is at the helm of what is essentially junk culture, by now even an indie sense of irony isn't enough to make the cliches fresh. What's the smart, self-respecting post-modernist to do when Quentin Tarantino has put quote marks around everything?

Probably what Soderbergh has done, which is simply stay true to Leonard's ribald vision, deploy every cinematic technique at your disposal to keep the audience interested and choose your cast with any eye to sex appeal, sense of humor and panache.

Like Tarantino did in his pass at Leonard, "Jackie Brown," Soderbergh tells the story circuitously, starting midway through, then taking filmgoers on enough double-backs and side-swipes to create whiplash. We meet Jack Foley just as he's preparing to rob his 200th bank. We get a load of his M.O., full bore: fiddling with a lighter with handsome nonchalance (this guy is the Toscanini of the Zippo), he fixes a young teller with a gaze that would melt a .44 Magnum. But then, Foley doesn't work with a gun, and who needs one with a smile like his?

But no amount of molten charisma can make up for congenital bad luck, which Foley encounters soon after "Out of Sight" opens. He winds up in prison, but not for long; with the help of his friend on the outside, Buddy (Rhames), Foley breaks out of the joint. But then his bad luck flares up: The night he escapes, Karen Sisco happens to be at the prison serving a summons. Jack takes her hostage, forcing her into a car trunk while Buddy drives; as they scrunch down for the ride -- Foley lightly fingering Karen's thigh, Karen lightly fingering her sidearm -- they fall into patter that sounds suspiciously like a first date: movies, how weird life is, hopes, dreams. By the time she gets out of the trunk, Karen is hooked.

OK, so she has a weakness for inappropriate men. But a Federal Marshal's crush on a hardened criminal isn't the only improbability "Out of Sight" asks the audience to countenance. They must also accept a billionaire (Brooks) who tells a convict about a cache of uncut diamonds in his Detroit mansion, and a hardened criminal who confesses his crimes -- before they happen.

But this is Elmore Leonard's party, so suspended disbeliefs won't go unrewarded. "Out of Sight" caroms with style through Leonard's supercharged world of guns, money, molls and Feds (the fact that the moll in this case is also the Fed only adds to the film's piquant loopiness). If Jack Foley lacks the hangdog soulfulness that made John Travolta's debt collector and Robert Forster's bail bondsmen such heartfelt leading men in "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown," he makes up for it in smoldering star quality. And if Karen's struggle between lust and duty is less than convincing, Lopez is nonetheless alluring; her idea of the proper accessorizing of a Chanel suit is a Sig-Sauer .380.

As in all things Leonard, it's the calvalcade of kooks that makes the party really get down: Steve Zahn in a scene-stealing, zoned-out haze. Aficionados will relish the return of FBI special agent Ray Nicolet (an uncredited Michael Keaton) from "Jackie Brown," as well as an uncredited appearance by Samuel L. Jackson (too bad Ordell Robbie died in the last movie). And yes, that's Nancy Allen as a middle-aged maid, a living testament that life isn't fair in Hollywood for actresses of a certain age.

Anyone looking for moral valence in "Out of Sight" is advised to look elsewhere; we're expected to root for the bad guys -- or at least the good bad guys -- regardless of their venality, stupidity and greed. But within this cockeyed world, Soderbergh makes some admirable efforts: Guns are fetishized nearly as much as Lopez's hips in "Out of Sight," but we still see an approximation of the real consequences of gun violence. Glenn's first murder is presented as a vortex of nausea and solemnity; later, a criminal goes out not in a blaze of glory, but in an act of sheer clumsiness.

This is vintage Leonard, amply captured by Soderbergh with affectionate wit. The author's criminals may be venal, stupid and greedy, but viewers wind up loving the lugs in spite of themselves.

'Out of Sight'

Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Released by Universal Pictures

Running time: 120 minutes

Rated R (language and some strong violence)

Sun Score: ***

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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