In 'Lightning Jack,' Hogan's hero is, predictably, Hogan

March 15, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Consider both the arrogance and the shame of Paul Hogan, the smart- aleck Australian nitwit who conned his way into a fluke hit some years back with "Crocodile Dundee" and has since unleashed one turkey after another, of which "Lightning Jack" is yet another big, dopey, dirty bird.

The arrogance: In his own screenplay, he gives himself not merely all the good lines, but all the lines, period. That's right: His sidekick is mute!

The shame: The mute sidekick, Cuba Gooding Jr., still manages to wipe him off the screen!

The movie is to westerns as "Crocodile Dundee" was to comedies. In other words, it's a mild tracing that replicates the themes and situations of the genre but somehow doesn't get the deeper point. It recycles ancient gags under the mistaken impression they are still amusing, and it takes its own amusement quotient so for granted that it pokes along like a burro nibbling on the grass. Setting itself in the most rigorously narrative of genres, it barely bothers with story at all, content instead to wallow in the delusion that its star and writer is charismatic.

Hogan plays the title character -- how big a surprise can that be? Lightning Jack, of course, is the fastest man with a gun ever, although he's not terribly smart nor is he terribly ambitious or bloodthirsty. Why is he an outlaw? Because Paul Hogan thought it would be funny to play an outlaw.

The film opens with a fairly good re-creation of something like either the Great Northfield, Minn., raid or the Coffeeville, Kan., massacre -- director Simon Wincer learned a little something directing "Lonesome Dove" for CBS -- but then turns mild and dreary as it follows Lightning, the only survivor, in his attempt to keep his gang's honor by knocking over the bank.

He's joined in this quixotic and pointless effort by Gooding's Ben Doyle, who is mute but not deaf and certainly not stupid. A much put-upon storekeeper's assistant, Gooding is accidentally swept up in one of Jack's misbegotten robbery attempts, and through the wheezy conventions of farce soon joins him on the outlaw trail.

Still, Gooding gets the movie's only consistent strain of laughter: An able pantomime mining the most primitive but potent vein of humor, he's able to get blasts of goodwill out of such set pieces as "accidentally shooting himself in the foot" and "learning to make love" and "his first drink." This has all been done before, but not in at least 60 years.

Moreover, it's a deep pleasure to discover a new side of an actor's personality. Gooding has been so serious and bruised in his films -- "Boyz 'N the Hood" and "Gladiator" -- that it's truly delightful to discover the gifted clown underneath all that sensitivity.

Alas, with Hogan there are no surprises. He's playing exactly the same character he's always played, which is the Aussie outsider who is natively gifted but completely unselfconscious and always able to outperform the even-dumber Americans without cracking a sweat -- all while wisecracking at the lowest possible level imaginable.

And the movie is utterly contemptuous of its co-stars: Beverly D'Angelo and Roger Daltrey are utterly trashed by their participation on the far and blurry outskirts of the mighty Hogan shadow.

As I say, almost no story. The perambulating adventures of master and acolyte bank robbers roaming a Disney-like version of the west.

The scenery is the best thing going: From the magnificence of Monument Valley to the magnificence of old L.Q. Jones' storied cheekbones, the movie is much more amusing if you pay no attention to the showboating narcissism of its dim star and writer.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Lightning Jack"

Starring Paul Hogan and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Directed by Simon Wincer

Released by Savoy

PG-13

**

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