Greed glitters like gold in the urban ruins of 'Trespass'

December 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Trespass" has one virtue: It is at least routinely competent, high praise in light of the recent Hollywood product encompassing such bone-headed odysseys through time as "Hoffa" and "Toys."But that's about as far as it goes.

Sort of an MTV version of "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" with Ice Cube in the Bogart part, it watches as a group of men become brutally unhinged by the prospect of lots of free gold. Greed is bad, it says, although it offers nothing to replace it with and presumably everybody involved in the film did so for large amounts of money.

It takes off from a coincidence as big as all New York. On the same day and in the same place that an all-black and very tough East St. Louis gang decides to hold its office picnic, two white Arkansas firemen show up to look for buried treasure. The setting is a long-abandoned manufacturing complex in that ruined city that sits across the Mississippi from St. Louis.

The firemen -- William Sadler and Bill Paxton, two good character actors finally getting a shot at Hollywood-style stardom -- have recovered a map from a dying old man (in another fire) that suggests that looted, pure-gold religious artifacts were stashed under the floorboards there back in 1940.

Meanwhile, Ice-T and Ice Cube (together at last, but it had to happen!) are, respectively, CEO and operations director of an organization that appears -- I wouldn't want to be too hasty -- to arrange finance and distribution for controlled substances for profit. They've scheduled a business retreat that involves pitching a snitch through a plate glass skylight and sending him to hell in a cascading sleet of broken glass.

Broken glass being a specialty of director Walter Hill, it's no surprise that everywhere in this Stalingrad-like warren of rubble there remain pristine sheets of the stuff, just waiting to be fractured at the sound of the whirring movie camera.

Though the imagery of fragmentation has become somewhat overused in the last, say, 60 years of movie history, it is weirdly appropriate here, since fracture is the theme of the movie. Under the pressure of greed, every social contract -- the partnership between the two firemen, the rigid hierarchical lines in the gang, the bond between brothers -- shatters over the course of the movie.

The movie's longest set piece actually turns on the notion of siege. The firemen have bumbled into capturing the drug dealer's junkie brother, and hold him hostage in a seemingly impregnable apartment while the drug gang scurries through the wreckage trying to figure out what to do next.

At the same time, alliances are de-aligning and recombining more swiftly than atoms in a nuclear reaction. Sometimes you can't tell the betrayals without a score card, though Hill, a legendary action director ("48 HRS.," "Red Heat"), manages to keep the thing perking along neatly.

Its problem is the problem of all "modern" thrillers; perhaps, as a genre, the thriller itself has become somewhat moribund in a morally provisional time. In this one, as in most of them, there's no real rooting interest. Each side is equally despicable, each side equally racist. This leads Hill to an appropriate expression of contempt: he uses the old "they both kill each other" ploy over and over. Maybe he had no where else to go, but it gets kind of boring toward the end.

'Trespass'

Starring Ice-T, Ice Cube, Bill Paxton and William Sadler.

Directed by Walter Hill.

Released by Universal.

R-rated.

** 1/2

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