Best part of 'The Rookie' is buddies, not bullets

December 07, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'The Rookie'

Starring Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen.

Directed by Clint Eastwood.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

**

The guns are back in town.

Clint Eastwood's Uzi-crazy, loony, ramshackle buddy picture "The Rookie" might just as well have been titled "On the Road to Beirut." Whenever the plot gets boring, everybody pulls out their heat and begins Swiss-cheesing the world. It's a $30-million Fearless Fosdick cartoon.

Seeing it is like visiting a shooting range without ear protection. If you can overcome your flinch, you'll discover that it's pretty silly stuff, but not without some energy and entertainment value -- at least until it turns quite ugly at the end.

Once again Eastwood insists on directing himself. Perhaps because he's not trying so hard, this being a mere "entertainment" and Clint being the serious auteur of such wonderful classics as "White Hunter, Black Heart" and "Bird," it's his sprightliest movie in many a moon, though never sufficiently so to disguise the plot's harebrained thinness.

But the principal Eastwood irony is once again on rampant display: That is, for all this posturing as a big macho tough guy, as a director he's on much more solid ground in intimate emotional scenes than he is with the action stuff. His gunfights and explosions are strictly routine; the best aspects of the film deal with the theme of buddies.

Eastwood plays a tough old auto-theft detective named Nick Palovosky; after his own partner is gunned down by the inevitable, silky gang-leader (played by Raul Julia employing what I believe is supposed to be a German accent), Eastwood is presented with his new No. 2, the green, earnest rookie named Michael Ackerman, played by Charlie Sheen.

Shades of John Wayne and Jeff Hunter in "The Searchers." The emotional exchange is classic gruff father/callow son, with a mellowed but brusque Eastwood observing and training the eager but unformed younger man. The two halves of the odd couple are in perfect syncopation: Eastwood has aged gracefully, like Wayne, into an iconographic presence; and Sheen, by contrast, has a modern neurotic edge to him, as if he's at once wrapped too tight and three bricks shy a load.

Of course the ritual aspects of the piece demand that ultimately their roles be reversed: that Sheen, now grown tough and seasoned, rescue Eastwood, now reduced to dependent infantilism after having been captured and tied up by the villains.

In fact, so vivid is the formula that you feel it bending the plot toward absurdity to accommodate the de rigueur epiphanies and resonances. The series of ridiculous strokes by which Eastwood ends up a captive are almost too silly to recount; the series of gratuitously violent strokes by which Sheen contrives to discover his whereabouts are equally ridiculous. In the most preposterous, Sheen, all 130-dripping-wet pounds of him, singlehandedly beats the atomic structure out of an entire barful tattooed bikers, each of them weighing at least a thousand pounds.

The movie's most conspicuous absurdity, however, is casting the lambent, passionate Brazilian actress Sonia Braga as Julia's floozy with an Uzi. Braga deserves so much more out of Hollywood, but she gives it her best, considering that there's really no role there for her to play. She actually manages to generate a fairly smoky bolt of erotic energy in one astonishing sequence, where Eastwood's helplessness inflames her sexually and -- this must be a first! -- she rapes him.

But how ugly the movie turns in its last few minutes, at the conclusion of an undistinguished running gun battle through the Los Angeles Airport. I accept entirely the convention of the final shootout and that melodramatic form, as binding as the rules of the bullring, demand that the most heinous villain be slain, not captured. Fair enough.

But Eastwood changes the formula to charge it with more power and contempt. What could have been a sporting contest -- two equally matched gunmen testing their courage and skill -- is turned finally into an execution with Eastwood the director infusing the act of what can only be called sheer, wanton murder with considerable rectitude and pleasure. Big mistake; in many inner cities, the execution-style murder has become popular with amateurs. To glorify it, as Eastwood does here, is socially irresponsible and completely unconscionable.

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