Some day Dennis Hopper will make a great movie, you can see it in his eyes. But "Nails" is not the one.
The movie premieres at 9 tonight on Showtime, and stars Mr. Hopper as a randy, renegade cop relentlessly on the trail of the killers of his partner. Now there's an original idea, right?
Nope. It's formula, formula, formula of the cable variety, with Los Angeles street chases, gratuitously vulgar language and a little nudity -- the longest scene, surprisingly, of Mr. Hopper himself, chasing a suspect into the street right from the shower.
So many nasty villains are Hispanic (specifically Cuban) that an ethnic interest group could file a bias action, and so could the NAACP because the high kingpin drug lord is black. Even Democratic Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts might be aggrieved, for Cliff DeYoung as a shady congressman looks startlingly like the politician.
Only an occasionally engaging moment from Mr. Hopper as Det. Harry "Nails" Niles and a stereotypical-but-at-least-funny turn from Tomas Milian as his reluctant new partner give "Nails" some intermittent life.
Actress Anne Archer ("Fatal Attraction") plays in the movie, too, as Harry's estranged wife, although this relationship is initially unclear. In her first appearance, she seems to be a high-class hooker.
No matter. The movie clearly revolves around Mr. Hopper, whose character startles colleagues and suspects alike as being borderline crazy, as in "Dirty Harry"-Clint Eastwood-"Lethal Weapon"-Mel Gibson crazy.
As in some other recent cable movies in which Mr. Hopper played psychologically challenged characters -- "Backtrack," "Doublecrossed" and "Paris Trout" -- the actor's personal notoriety adds an interesting reflection to the part.
Indeed, production notes quote director John Flynn as saying the actor "has a certain sense of danger about him. He can be quite emotional, angry and exciting, yet melancholy at the same time."
Mr. Hopper, of course, played a carefree drug-running motorcyclist in the landmark "Easy Rider" (1969), and was held to be a rising Hollywood star, another young James Dean. But he gained more subsequent attention for a private life of substance abuse and other excesses, which he now publicly decries.
In a recent appearance on NBC's "Later," with Bob Costas, Mr. Hopper lamented the work that he might have done during those lost years.
Production notes say Mr. Hopper trained for "Nails" by working out in a gym and running, losing 20 pounds to fit the character's tough-edged nickname.
If only he had managed to make the guy remotely believable. Instead, viewers will be almost constantly aware of the artifice of acting. The cynical plot developments seem easy to predict, and the action scenes drip with artificial blood.
One moment is worth a special note, however. After a spectacular shootout, a TV reporter -- by the way, when did it become a rule that TV reporters in TV movies had to be Oriental women, like Connie Chung? -- shoves her microphone into Harry's face and asks for his reaction.
The blunt answer cannot be printed here, but you wish it might be given more often in the real TV news, when tragedy victims are forced to face the cameras to share their feelings.