'Which Way Home' tells its story weakly


January 28, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

For the benefit of those who might not want to sit through three hours, here are the key sermon points of "Which Way Home," spoken by stars Cybill Shepherd and John Waters, respectively:

"Sooner or later we all have to learn to take responsibility for each other."

"Sometimes things happen because we need to learn something."

Naturally there is much more dialogue in this latest world premiere movie from the TNT cable network, at 8 tonight (and repeating at 11 p.m.) on the basic cable service.

Shepherd says "Oh my God!" numerous times, for instance. Unfortunately, this is as close as she comes to conveying actual emotional involvement in what could have been a riveting story.

The timing of "Which Way Home," however, makes it worth a look by viewers who appreciate the sad historical irony that bad things happen over and over again to innocent people. It was only last August that thousands of refugees jammed filthy camps on the borders of Iraq. And with a Middle East ground war now looming, we may see worse.

The fall of Cambodia in 1979 is the setting for "Which Way Home," and the movie even has a television reporter describe the scene as "the killing fields," a reference to a much better film about the subject.

Shepherd plays an American nurse who assumes responsibility for four children of a Cambodian couple killed in an artillery hit on her hospital. Striking out for a border refugee camp, she must face Khmer Rouge execution squads and other dangers, plus the cultural bias of her young charges who object to a tagalong group of despised Vietnamese children.

Waters, meanwhile, (the actor, not Baltimore's director) is a boozing Australian smuggler making a run into Thailand for illegal antiques in hopes of staving off repossession of his boat.

He's drinking to forget something ugly in his past, of course. And viewers can predict from the first few scenes that his course will soon intersect with the refugees, and that worthwhile lessons will be learned by all who survive. And not all do.

The elements of a good adventure tale are all here, as well as a we-are-the-world message which is hard to challenge. And to be fair, things even come together now and then well enough to let us forget that former cover-girl Shepherd really cannot act.

But in total, this is coloring-book filmmaking where the outlines of a morality lecture constrict any sense of real, human feeling among the characters. As a consequence, the viewer may absorb less of the message than intended.

TOGETHER AGAIN -- Tonight's episode of "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" (at 10, Channel 11) features Tyne Daly in a guest-star role. She co-starred with "Rosie" star Sharon Gless, of course, in "Cagney & Lacey."

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