Religious leaders can be martyrs. Political leaders can be martyrs. Ordinary people can be martyrs. But a conscience-free former drug smuggler who goes to the feds only to escape a long prison term?
Please. Martyrdom simply does not become Dennis Hopper, nor the admittedly intriguing character he plays in "Doublecrossed," a world premiere movie on the HBO premium cable service tonight.
Yet this film (at 9 p.m., with repeats July 22, 25, 28 and Aug. 2 and 7) seemingly asks us to sympathize with and make a hero of the real-life Barry Seal, an undercover operative for federal officials in the fight against the influx of drugs from Central America. He's fascinating, yes. But sympathetic? Not very.
In the film's portrayal, the former smuggler who helped nail key figures in the south-of-the-border drug business -- and whose work perhaps even touched upon Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama -- was finally betrayed by U.S. officials as part of the effort by Lt. Col. Oliver North to support the contra movement in Nicaragua.
Remember when movies did not constitute a current events quiz? But with the Iran-contra investigation once again making news in Washington, "Doublecrossed" is timely, if not necessarily relevant.
What is more curious about the film is how its action relates to LTC the life of its star and his most famous film role. Hopper, of course, was a carefree drug-running motorcyclist in "Easy Rider" (1969), subsequently became notorious for a private life of substance abuse and other excesses (weirdly mirrored in "Blue Velvet"), and now preaches gratitude for having survived (as he did for host Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" earlier this week).
In "Doublecrossed," Hopper plays Seal, a manic, high-living pilot who drops his twin-engined Cessna into jungle airstrips for loads of cocaine. After he is hired to fly for Colombia kingpin Jorge Ochoa, we see him happily living the drug-funded good life with his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and family in their swanky Baton Rouge, La., home.
Then Seal is arrested in Florida. His lawyer says they are looking at a 60-year prison term unless Seal turns informant. Before long, the smuggler is brashly telling bureaucrats of the Drug Enforcement Agency "you need me" to make their careers.
Soon, he's flying off with his buddy Emille (played by G. W. Bailey in the freshest performance of the film) to do drug deals with the big guys, and to film them in the act for prosecutors.
Although portrayed as pretty dopey at first, the DEA feds (especially Robert Carradine as a shaggy agent) turn out to be the good feds. But they are ultimately powerless victims of the bad feds -- namely the CIA, North and (by hardly subtle extension) President Ronald Reagan.
At one point Seal -- much like Hopper in real life -- makes a speech professing to have seen the evil of his old ways and to be sincerely committed to curbing the horrors of the drug flood into the United States. But it does not persuade, for it seems clear he is still playing the game for the thrill of it all.
And in the end, there's no thrill whatever in "Doublecrossed." While Hopper occasionally seems to convey persuasively Greek tragedy's fatal flaw of hubris, just as often he seems merely to by trying for an award in histrionics.
The movie bogs down in confusing legal maneuvering, good feds/bad feds politics and a belated and thoroughly bogus attempt to make us think Seal was just trying to take care of his family, so how bad could his drug smuggling have been?
Even worse is the implicit argument that by putting his life on the line to finger his one-time compadres, Seal deserved complete immunity from punishment.
Yet when he asks his lawyer in one scene, "Why should I plead guilty in Louisiana?" viewers would be justified in saying, "Because you were guilty."
Seal may not have deserved the fate he received -- shown here in gratuitously ugly fashion -- but it is hard to accept him as a hero, either.
THE COMEDY CONNECTION -- It is easy to imagine the laughs be had in another premium cable special tonight.
"The Montreal International Comedy Festival" is scheduled to be screened live from the Canadian city at 10 tonight (with repeats July 23 and 29). Among the attractions are host Mary Tyler Moore's first attempt to do stand-up comedy and a special award being presented to legendary jokemeister Milton Berle.
Also on the bill: Jane Curtin, Kevin Nealon, Mark Schiff, Carol Leifer and Brian Regan.