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Men With Guns, Revisited.

By Adrienne Martini

MAY 18, 1998:  There's something about film noir that sucks in young directors. Perhaps it's a deep-seated need to live out some macho fantasy, where the weapon defines the man. Or, perhaps these guys have a fascination with the shadows of a venetian blind and the movement of cigarette smoke. But film noir is a genre that continually reinvents itself, constantly sprouting new leaves from its hard-boiled roots, and, most recently, fertilizing the dying career of a decent actress. Of course, this would be the good cop vs. bad cop vs. prostitute L.A. Confidential, the flick noir that garnered an Oscar for Mrs. Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger. This Curtis Hanson creation also features a labyrinthine plot, which can be hard to follow after two-too-many Martinis and probably kept the film from wining an Oscar for its own self. Well, that and the unsinkable Titanic. But Confidential does have stunning cinematography and magnetic performances from Danny DeVito, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kevin Spacey.

Spacey, who should be crowned king of creepy characters, also won a noir-inspired Oscar for his portrayal of a multi-personalitied criminal in The Usual Suspects. Suspects, while it does keep to the ubiquitous corrupt cop angle, focuses more on the mishaps of a collection of criminals, randomly brought together to commit the caper of the century. Naturally, the crime doesn't come off quite as hoped but director Brian Singer's shots and Christopher McQuarrie's hyper-realistic, twist-a-minute script will leave even the most jaded noir fan with cigar-sized goosebumps.

The great Steve Martin, however, did not win a darn thing for his spoof-noir Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Actually, spoof may be the wrong word, in that it implies that the film makes fun of Hollywood's dearly beloved genre. Dead Men is actually a loving tribute to the films of the '40s that launched the whole light-and-shadows thing. The plot is no great shakes, mostly because Martin and director/co-writer Carl Reiner chose to write around as many old clips from classics as they could, which allowed Martin to interact with greats on the magnitude of Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck. But it isn't the thin plot that makes this film worth watching, it is the quality of jokes, even though each and every one isn't a roll on the floor hit, most of them find the mark that they were aiming for. Well, the quality of the jokes and the fact that everyone looks better in black and white.


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