You can tell a great thriller from a merely good thriller simply by the territory in which it is set. Great thrillers are set in the world and obey the laws of the world, including physics and probability; good thrillers are set in a country called Stupidland, and obey nothing except the writer's imagination.
Alas, "Unlawful Entry" is set in Stupidland.
It follows as an unstable cop, played in high geeky splendor by Ray Liotta, acquires an unhealthy fascination with a yuppie couple to whose assistance he comes after a traumatic house break-in. One look at the wife and the life, and he slyly sets about to insinuate himself into their world, with the ultimate goal of replacing husband Kurt Russell and becoming the lover of his wife Madeleine Stowe.
And when the movie is smart, it compels. Of course a cop has a vast fund of knowledge about the secret processes of the world that a square businessman can't begin to know. Thus he's able to manipulate the system against his adversary in intimidating ways, by having his car booted or his credit cards canceled. The businessman can only hire a lawyer and hope for the best, which is not very much at all.
And again, the cop is comfortable in the world of violence and can easily navigate in tricky waters of high-stress personal confrontation; the businessman's craw fills with phlegm, his breath goes on vacation and his knees begin to dance the hoochy goochy.
This cat-and-dope game is both fascinating and unsettling for the longest time. It's a particular genius of Liotta's that he can make his Officer Pete Davis initially likable and yet peels back the filigrees of seeming sincerity until the character's unblinking nuttiness is bald as a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake. Behind those baby-blue beauties and those sensitive long lashes, there lurks a true madman.
And both Russell and Stowe are effective, too, as innocents caught in a world turned adroitly upside down. Moreover, the movie acquires an interesting buzz from the events of the last few months, where for many people an instinctive trust in the police has suddenly turned to paranoia. There's even a scene -- evidently much edited in the post Rodney King verdict reality -- that's eerily suggestive of the eagerness and impunity with which some members of the L.A.P.D. turn to their batons.
All that is smart. But then the movie sails blithely into Stupidland. Like Columbus claiming the new world for Ferdinand, Isabella and God, Liotta claims the movie in the name of morons everywhere.
Strange things begin happening. When the policeman's behavior becomes truly bizarre, Russell goes to the officer's sergeant, then his partner. Why not Internal Affairs, who specialize in bad cops? Why not to a good criminal lawyer who knows the system? Why not to the FBI, who eat lunch off bad cops? Only in Stupidland is a man so helpless.
As for Liotta, why, after displaying unbelievable street smarts and cunning, does he suddenly start killing people in ways that would trip him up in seconds in a real world? Only in Stupidland could he survive forever.
And poor Stowe. When her husband is carted off on a bogus narcotics rap obviously cooked up by the demented policeman, why doesn't she go to the cops or to a friend's house? Instead, she goes to the bathroom and takes a nice shower so that she can be naked and dripping when the cop arrives.
And the climax. I won't give it away, but besides not being terribly original, it leaves our heroes in a situation where, as Ricky said to Lucy, they got a lot of 'splaining to do. What's next? "Unlawful Entry II: The Trial and Sentencing"?
Thus it is that "Unlawful Entry" distracts but never truly engages. Sleek and, particularly in the early going, deeply unsettling, it ultimately becomes trite and predictable. What began as a voyage through aberrant psychology becomes just another shoot 'em up. And that's why it's only good, never great.
Starring Ray Liotta, Madeleine Stowe and Kurt Russell.
Directed by Jonathan Kaplan.
Released by Twentieth-Century Fox.