It's a Crime Movie review: 'Eye for an Eye,' bleached of color and nuance, proves tiny Sally Field is no Charles Bronson.

January 12, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Give "Eye for an Eye" some credit for the originality it offers -- it's the first reactionary-feminist-vigilante picture to make it to the big screen. But if the idea of tiny, little Sally Field in the Charles Bronson part strikes you as a bit silly, that's only the beginning of the idiocies.

Derived from a novel by Erika Holzer that I'd prefer to believe is subtler and more resonant, the story has been bleached of color and nuance until it's as black and white as an old-fashioned newspaper. It's a variation on the theme that might be called "When Bad Things Happen to Wealthy White People."

One day in a prosperous Southern California suburb, the sleek Field is motoring home in her BMW and talking by car phone to her teen-age daughter about the preparations for a younger half-sibling's birthday party. Suddenly there's a crash and screams; the mother must listen in helpless horror as someone ** rapes and murders the beautiful young girl.

Atrocities like this are always a chore to watch, but I'm willing to do so if the film takes me somewhere and shows me something I've never seen before, if its characters are particularly meaningful, if the grief expressed is so human it makes my own heart ache. Unhappily, the grotesque scene leads to none of these exalted states, but only sets up a predictable and unidimensional revenge melodrama.

But it's staged with such brio!

John Schlesinger has been a great director, with films such as "Darling" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to his credit, but these are the only few moments in "Eye for an Eye" that could be described as inspired. Field is caught in traffic. She leaves her car and runs to other drivers, begging for help. Of course, they all roll their eyes and look elsewhere, thinking her Prozac has just worn off. Schlesinger cuts these images of modern malaise with scenes of the daughter being brutalized. All in all, it's powerful and deeply disturbing to, as I say, no good end.

From there, recipe and stupidity take over. It doesn't take the cops, represented by a somewhat sullen Joe Mantegna, very long to find the guy, represented by surly Keifer Sutherland, who looks as if he's just gotten the heave-ho from Julia Roberts. In fact, Mantegna looks like he got the heave-ho from Roberts, too! But the inevitable procedural mistake queers the evidence so the indisputably guilty man is let go.

This is, of course, the right-wing fantasy of justice in America: Murderers always walk because some clerk forgets to convey a message, or something like that, and some weenie liberal judge cares more for details than justice. It probably happens, too.

When it happens here, though, it doesn't feel real, but like a convention in a potboiler. Indeed, the construct of the story demands that each of the supposedly "civilized" expressions of punishment be tried against Sutherland, and each fail. Thus we watch as the police, then the justice system, and then the masculine force represented by hubby Ed Harris all fizz out.

So it falls to Field (hubby vanishes for much of the picture) to play the avenger. She joins a grief group, and quickly discovers it's a front for a vigilante outfit, a subplot that really goes nowhere but eats up some screen-time. She begins to tail him, that shiny Volvo sedan being great camouflage in East L.A., where he lives. She acquires a .38 and spends some time practicing at the local range, though if you ask me, anyone thinking of shooting anyone would be an idiot to go shooting at a public facility. Doesn't she think the cops are going to investigate her if the bad guy goes down?

Anyhow, he commits another crime and, unbelievably, is allowed to walk again. Justice system? It's more like a colander for jTC draining celery and lettuce tattooed rapist-murderers. So she, herself, sets up a final showdown, locks and loads, and gets ready to get down and dirty.

One of the guilty pleasures of the revenge formula, however, goes unexperienced here. The recipe demands that the supposedly "civilized" person devolve to the jungle state his or herself, and prove to possess more natural cunning than the savage. There's even a cliche to describe it: She's got to beat him at his own game.

According to the plot, that is, indeed, what happens. But Field is so limited an actress that she's totally incapable of showing any thought behind her bright, perky eyes. Her rage feels phony, her tactical cleverness comes from nowhere, her steely nerve at gunpoint arrives entirely from outer space.

I kept thinking how much more convincing the film would have been -- even on its own narrow, rabble-rousing terms -- with someone capable of demonstrating an inner life and a mind full of dirty tricks. Even Charles Bronson, in drag, would have been better.

'Eye for an Eye'

Starring Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland

Directed by John Schlesinger

Released by Paramount

* Rated R (Extreme violence)

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