Blah Bayou

In the press book for Heaven's Prisoners, director Phil Joanou boasts, "Sure, we have shoot-outs in mysterious swamps and across the rooftops. . . . But that's only meant to spice up the meal. The main course is the characters." This is true, alas. The spices in a meal--even a dish of faux-Cajun gumbo like this--shouldn't so obviously outclass the substance they're supposed to enhance.

Dave Robicheaux (Alec Baldwin) is a former New Orleans cop who had to give up his vocation because of a struggle with the bottle. He now runs a bait shop in the swamps with his lovely wife (Kelly Lynch). One day they're out on a boat fishing when a plane crashes into the water nearby.

Dave dives to the wreck, aboard which everyone is dead except for a small Salvadoran girl (Samantha Lagpacan)--an illegal alien being smuggled into the country. Dave is able to pull the child to safety, and he and his wife, who have no kids of their own, decide to keep her, like a stray dog. But it soon becomes clear that the kid was a passenger on a plane in which assorted mob ne'er-do-wells have an interest.

Dave's long-dormant cop instincts are awakened, so he begins to probe the mystery of the crash. Before long, he and his family are at the center of a dangerous intrigue. I caught that it was dangerous because people with guns kept showing up; beyond that, the plot was pretty hard to follow, and nothing much hinted that it would be fascinating enough to care if one did follow it. It all leads somehow to Dave's school pal turned gangster Bubba, played by Eric Roberts--who's getting to be a specialist at this sort of infantile, riding-for-a-fall villain role--and Bubba's grinning, slatternly femme fatale of a wife (Teri Hatcher).

The first 20 minutes of plot (adapted from a James Lee Burke novel) have enough coincidences to strain even the minimal demand for credibility that one puts on a noir thriller. But Heaven's Prisoners is so well-acted and atmospheric that one cuts it a little extra slack--it seems like there might be a great payoff at the bottom of this murky stew. After a while, though, it begins to seem as if maybe there is no bottom--just more murk. The story drags on and on and makes less and less sense, and even the swamp shoot-outs and rooftop chases seem to peter out, replaced by long passages of Baldwin suffering some rather picturesque, glamorized grief.

All that gloom makes the gaps in the plot stand out even more. A horrible murder takes place in Dave's house, and yet we never see him questioned about it--there isn't even a police tape on the door later. And what about the kid? Are Dave and his wife such ding-a-lings that they expect to be allowed to adopt her after they've hidden her from the authorities? And when the identity of the evil behind it all is unveiled, there's no thrill--it's a "so what?" sort of a revelation.

Joanou (U2: Rattle and Hum) is good at the steamy New Orleans stuff, but what he calls the main course--the characters--doesn't come across at all. The concept of Dave Robicheaux as a hero has some potential. An unironic portrait of an openhearted nice guy who struggles with his problems, is faithful to his wife and even goes to confession is downright exotic.

But Baldwin, though entertaining, isn't giving us a fully rounded character--he's doing his movie-star bit. His silky-voiced bad-boy routine is engaging enough, though it was more so in his last picture, The Juror, where he was playing a bad boy. Lousy as that film was--it was much worse than Heaven's Prisoners--it benefited more from Baldwin, since he could turn on the twinkly, sexy self-parody that much more outrageously as a villain. In Heaven's Prisoners, he's trying to have it both ways, to play it both sly and heartfelt.

Hatcher, the eye-filling brunette who currently plays Lois Lane on TV, figures heavily in the film's marketing campaign, but she's not much of an actress, and her role, though key, is small. The female lead is Mary Stuart Masterson in an amusingly mannered performance as Robin, an old stripper pal of Dave's, who nobly suffers love for him.

Near the beginning, Dave sends Robin away to Key West to get her out of harm's way, telling her he's gotten her a waitressing job at a "nice place . . . Tennessee Williams had dinner there once." Late in the film, when Robin shows up at Dave's place, she looks around and drawls, "Mah, this place is really out among the pelicans an' the alligatahs!" as she climbs out of a taxicab (named Desire?). Sounds like the ghost of Williams is along for the ride.--M. V. Moorhead

Heaven's Prisoners:
Directed by Phil Joanou; with Alec Baldwin, Kelly Lynch, Mary Stuart Masterson, Eric Roberts, Teri Hatcher and Vondie Curtis-Hall.

Rated

 
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