'Boiling Point' never builds up a head of steam

April 20, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

There's not a moment in "Boiling Point" that could be said to achieve a narrative temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Boil? This limpid pool of cliche and predictability never even bubbles.

Wesley Snipes plays that overly familiar character, the war-weary policeman -- in this case a T-man -- who's been so debauched by what he's seen "on the streets" that he no longer is capable of sustaining personal relations (he's divorced) and only believes in personal loyalty. He's therefore on a personal quest for vengeance on the two criminals who have murdered his partner, undercover agent, in a sting operation. Problem No. 1: We never meet the partner, so it's difficult to invest emotionally in his death. Problem No. 2: The sting itself is so poorly managed it suggests that Snipes is incompetent.

The origin of the story is a novel by former Secret Service Agent Gerald Petievich, who also wrote the book on which the flashy William Friedkin film "To Live and Die in L.A." was based. Much of the material -- the concern with counterfeit money rather than narcotics, the elaborate games of sting and counter-sting -- is familiar. In fact, the plots are virtually identical: that old partner's revenge thing. Believe me, if you're going to try that old stroke this late in the game, you'd better come up with a hell of a new wrinkle, which "Boiling Point" never does.

The differences, however, are interesting. In "To Live and Die," the villain was a sleek Nietzschean superman, amoral and cunning, played by Willem Dafoe; in "Boiling Point," the villains are all squalid, white trash, pro criminals: one is a sleazy con man named Red Diamond played by the ever-irritating Dennis Hopper and the other a hotheaded shooter, a pretty-boy stone killer, played by a bland nonentity named Viggo Mortensen. The twitchy Hopper grows ever more agonizing to watch as the movie progresses; the dreary Mortensen seems even less there.

Two vivid minor performances give the film its only goose: Jonathan Banks, who, with his hooded eyes and bullet-shaped head would be natural for "The Roy Cohn Story,"plays a money man, a lawyer who invests in criminal enterprise. He's shrewd, he's tough, he's interesting, but he's also gone in a few minutes. Then there's another wily old pro, Seymour Cassel, as a professional criminal several notches down the food chain from Banks. He's also shrewd, tough and interesting, and he's also gone much too fast.

The director, James Harris, keeps trying to heat up the proceedings with artificial plot gambits like overdue gambling debts or time limits on finding suspects. Or, he'll do some irritating parallelism, by pointing out that on a single night all three principals -- Snipes, Hopper and Mortensen -- are trying to coax women they used to be involved with into bed with them. Or he works a theme in which the camera and the audience realize how Snipes and Hopper keep passing through each other's wake, unknowing -- all to no effect.

Throw in some standard issue items from the movie attic -- whores with hearts of gold, ex-wives with hearts of gold, brusque, exasperated superior officers, a dim partner -- and you get exactly what "Boiling Point" does best: nothing.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Boiling Point."

Starring Wesley Snipes and Dennis Hopper.

Directed by James B. Harris.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

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