Crimes of the Art

Kevin Spacey and Kurt Russell demonstrate why winter is the darkest time of the movie year.

WELCOME TO THE Dead Zone! It's the season when Hollywood unloads its most misbegotten products while next to no one is looking in the pre-Oscar lull: inert action flicks, third-rate romances, artless art films. This week's crap crop includes Kevin Spacey's The Life of David Gale (opening Friday, Feb. 21 at Metro and other theaters) and the LAPD bad-cop movie Dark Blue (also opening Friday, Feb. 21 at area theaters). Both show great promise, and both break your movie-loving heart.

David Gale (Spacey) is a philosophy prof and activist in Death Watch, a group battling capital punishment in the nation's capital-punishment capital, Texas (where 33 prisoners were killed last year, plus another eight since Christmas and, with luck, 11 more by next Christmas). At heart, the movie wants to publicize horrors and startling alleged facts: Did you know that 73 percent of serial killers vote Republican? Director Alan Parker makes so many issues films (Mississippi Burning, Come See the Paradise), he's like Stanley Kramer with a better eye and a sense of humor.

But Parker started out making 52 major TV commercials a year, and he knows that an idea won't sell unless it's wrapped in entertainment. Hence the plot, a succession of bewildering hairpin turns: Gale gets falsely accused of date-raping a student (Rhona Mitra), then he's sent to death row for the rape and murder of Constance (Laura Linney), a close chum and Death Watch activist. News magazine sends reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslett), dubbed "Mike Wallace with PMS," to find out if Gale is guilty. Seems like he is, then isn't, as the plot flip-flops.

Spacey does a snappy job spouting philosophy and debating the pro-death penalty Texas governor on TV, and he and Winslett give their jailhouse interview scenes a skillful tension. But while Winslett is impressively svelte, her role is appallingly thin. Her rental car, which keeps conking out as she races to save David, is like Austin Powers' Unnecessarily Slow Dipping Mechanism. Laura Linney charges her performance with dignity, gravity, and grief.

But everyone's motives are murk, and the finale is puzzling, not thrilling. Parker would've done better if he'd gone for a straight issues flick, a simple moral fable like Dead Man Walking.

DARK BLUE should've been great: Originally a James Ellroy screenplay set during the 1965 Watts riots, it was updated by Ellroy to 1992's Rodney King riots, then adapted by David Ayer, who wrote 2001's terrific Denzel cop story, Training Day. Ron Shelton proved he could direct movies touching on race in White Men Can't Jump, and Dark Blue's first scene raises hopes. Two thugs (perfectly played by the black rapper Kurupt and the white Dash Minok) chat ࠬa Pulp Fiction, then make a hit on an Asian-owned deli. A good, gory scene.

But when rule-stomping cop Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) and his young prot駩 (Scott Speedman) close in, the story turns stupidly generic, like a bad rehash of Training Day. Eldon's evil LAPD boss (Brendan Gleeson) calls Eldon off the thugsthe boss' secret minionsand orders him to pin the crime elsewhere. Predictably, Eldon sees the light, his prot駩 dies like Dickens' Little Nell, and LAPD is exposed as the riot begins. Calamitously, it's all an indulgent vehicle for Russell, who fesses up in the year's most implausible, preposterously protracted monologue. The female love interests (Michael Michele, Lolita Davidovich) couldn't be more superfluous. Ving Rhames' crusader cop is disgracefully dull. Lively sequences are outnumbered by deadly clich鳮

Don't worry. We'll be out of the Dead Zone soon.

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