'The Chase' is a criminal-as-victim film, and it's not worth pursuing

March 04, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Charlie Chaplin once said that the only truly cinematic subjects were fights and chases. But if he saw "The Chase," he might reconsider. He might even throw up.

Let's skip the lecture on the dubious ethics of the premise -- another one of those criminal-as-victim jobs that looks with only mildly raised eyebrows at kidnapping, carjacking, unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, reckless endangerment and speeding -- and concentrate on the sheer stupidity of the movie.

Charlie Sheen plays a convict whose escape is justified because he's "innocent," though the film makes no convincing case for his innocence other than his own self-interested account. Trapped by two cops at a convenience store, he takes a beautiful young woman (Kristy Swanson) hostage and roars off down the highway toward Mexico, threatening to kill her every time the cops get close.

This is played for laughs, of course, and it's soon revealed that the cops, the prison, the courts, her parents -- they're all the true villains. There's no sense of police procedure and more than once the story is stopped from going belly up by total police incompetence. And, of course, between generic car crashes and unlikely napalm explosions, Swanson and Sheen are busy falling in love.

Meanwhile, the meretricious and sensation-driven media gloms onto the situation like a pack of killer fish, pumping images of Sheen and Swanson into a million homes in hope of jacking up ratings. They're obviously guilty, guilty, guilty of a very big crime: covering the news. To make matters more urgent and more incoherent, the whole thing is set in something very close to "real time," roughly a couple or three hours.

At some inchoate level, "The Chase" means to be taken as satire, particularly of crude media manipulations of an ongoing urgent situation. The writer-director Adam Rifkin is simply too coarse and bumbling a technician, and he wholly lacks the penetrating insight as well as actual familiarity with media practices to make the "satirical" component anything other than an oafish joke.

Moreover, Rifkin simply doesn't understand irony: The satire might work if it were pointed and played off some intrinsic tension in the situation -- if, for example, Sheen were a crude sociopath and the TV jerks sentimentalized him into some kind of populist saint. But no: That's beyond him -- Sheen is just a nice misunderstood guy and the media coverage really doesn't express an attitude toward him.

It would help if the peripheral characters were less cartoony, but they all appear drafted in colored pencil on cellophane. The worst is Ray Wise as Swanson's blowhard and inevitably rich father; get this guy into a straight-jacket, will you? Eat the scenery? I was afraid he was going to come off screen and start eating the critics!

But the real joke is Sheen. Who ever thought this humorless young man had an ounce of warmth or charisma to him? He's as cold and remote a fish as they come. Color him carp. He makes a fine earnest, repressed intellectual -- see "Platoon" or "Wall Street" -- but beyond that his rage is nil. He's entirely too heavy a presence for the film and he and Swanson have exactly zero chemistry. A scene where the two of them make love while continuing to drive at 90 miles per toward the border comes NTC close to taking the cake for biggest absurdity of the year, though I don't quite think it tops Steven Segal's ecology lecture at the end of "On Deadly Ground."

Somebody should chase "The Chase" into a hole in the ground.

"The Chase"

Starring Charlie Sheen and Kristy Swanson

Directed by Adam Rifkin

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

PG-13 rated

No stars

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