Current screen criminals can't hold a candle to Hannibal Lecter and his predecessors. Yesterday's brainy bad guys brought an icy intelligence to the evil they did -- today's naughty boys never get beyond Random Violence 101.

DUMBED-DOWN AND DEADLY

September 16, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Why," said Goldfinger, with a cosmopolitan smirk way back in 1964, "I don't expect you to talk at all, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die." As he spoke, a laser beam began to melt its way up toward the elegantly attired but otherwise helpless 007.

Of course, James Bond figured out a way to escape, but, alas, all these many years later, it is Goldfinger -- or at least what he represented -- who faces extinction.

As an icon, the super criminal, the master of dark arts and deep conspiracy, can probably be traced back to Conan Doyle's archfiend Moriarty and, further, to King Arthur's bastard son Mordred. In a thousand, or a hundred thousand, pulp permutations, we knew him well: a coolly elegant, cold-minded and -blooded intellectual debauchee, almost always upper-class, whose superiority was so effortless and malevolence so deep that it sustained thousands of plots and kept hack screenwriters and blowhard Brit character actors out of the unemployment lines for years.

The most recent of these was one of the best: Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning portrait of the queasily charming Hannibal Lecter, the king-bull-stud of the world of sociopathic predation, who could read serial killers so well because he was one and spoke their secret language. The most romantic was Coppola's chivalric Don Corleone, a puppet master with a conscience who administered his empire like a good king, but had the geopolitical smarts of a Kissinger.

But the face of the movie criminal has changed radically in the last few years: no longer is he the suave continental or the ironic psycho or the shrewd manipulator; now he's just as likely to be a moron. As in: duh!

That's what'd so scary about him -- not that he's any less violent than his predecessor, or any less ruthless, but that he's so stupid. He doesn't think rationally, and he improvises terribly; the only suspense in his life is if he manages to bumble his way out of the mess he's created, usually by killing everyone who is hanging around.

These thoughts are prompted by the arrival of two new films, "Feeling Minnesota," which opened Friday, and "Two Days in the Valley," which opens in two weeks. Though superficially similar, being stories of random violence as it plays across the lives of quirky "real people" in self-consciously deglamorized backgrounds, the two stand almost opposite each other in their approach to movie villainy. In "Feeling Minnesota," a loopy retelling of Cain and Abel in St. Paul, Minn., the villain is Vincent D'Onofrio's loser brother Sam, hungry for love, who thinks he's ,, smarter than he really is or can be. Fat, pasty, sweaty and wearing a powder-blue polyester tuxedo most of the time, he makes Peewee Herman look like Pierce Brosnan. Just about every move he makes is wrong but that's all right because just about every countermove made by his antagonist -- Keanu Reeves, as his brother Jjaks, equally immoral but spared harsh judgment because he's better looking -- is equally stupid. In fact, in some dark comic sense, "Feeling Minnesota" is a study in stupidity.

These two blithering idiots bungle their way around a tough-but-tender tart played by Cameron Diaz, also no Rhodes scholar candidate. They are pursued by a cheap, crooked cop -- Dan Aykroyd -- and a small-time gangster -- Delroy Lindo. Everybody is stupid, but everybody thinks he's smart. They pull guns with absurd abandon, don't know how to use them, and blow big holes in the world and each other without giving it much thought. It's a kind of nightmare inverse of the world in which we take it that we live, a world completely untrammeled by any concept of consequence, because nobody has the imagination to consider consequence.

Don't forget 'Fargo'

The ne plus ultra of the genre of stupid films is probably another Minnesota-based work, the Coen brothers' wondrous "Fargo," though of course Fargo is in North Dakota. Somehow Minnesota has become the capital of American stupidity: is Garrison Keillor to blame? (Yes!) But that movie, far superior to this one, was another expression of the stupid criminal's highest vanity, his self-delusional folly in believing that he was capable of figuring out a plan which would work. In "Fargo," nothing works except the thermometer, as a callow, scheme-smart-big-picture-dumb car salesman tries to put together a phony kidnapping of his rich wife and ends up precipitating a bloodbath.

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