Film Reviews

Washington Press Corpse

On the run from a professional assassin in Shadow Conspiracy, Washington, D.C., insider Charlie Sheen stops to make a furtive cell-phone call right in front of the Lincoln Memorial--out in the open, in front of God and Honest Abe and everyone. It's a brilliant tactical move, since the Lincoln Memorial is the last place anyone would go looking for a true Washington insider. If a hired killer were stalking large groups of high school kids from Nebraska, he'd hit pay dirt, but Abe Lincoln is about the only D.C. power player who would be caught dead there, and he's been out of the loop now for too long to count.

Shadow Conspiracy unfolds during the course of roughly a 24-hour period. During that time, Sheen and those who wish him dead (in the movie, that is) zip between such places as the Georgetown Canal, Wisconsin Avenue, the Watergate area, the monuments, that freaky statue of the guy who looks like he's drowning on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and the big stone staircase down which Jason Miller took his climactic header in The Exorcist. I kept wondering how they made such good time, where they parked, how much cab fares were costing them and . . .

George P. Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Tombstone) isn't the first director of a Washington thriller who couldn't resist using all those grand D.C. locations as backdrops, but he may be the most insistent about it (even though much of the film was actually shot in Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland). I lived in Washington for about five years, and have considerable affection for the place. I was anything but an insider, but even I would know enough not to elude a chase by fleeing to the most inconvenient spots in town.

Would that the biggest hoot in this laborious bit of late-night Cinemax bait was its geographical casualness. Alas, there is a giggle inducer to which even those who've never visited our nation's capital won't be immune: Sheen's two-fisted, man-of-action hero is pretty clearly based on . . . George Stephanopoulos.

If SCTV were still on the air, the notion of a bullet-dodging Stephanopoulos might serve it well for a sketch. Shadow Conspiracy, on the other hand, obviously sees Wee Georgie as a figure of genuine glamour. At the opening, we are shown what a cool, populist guy Sheen's character is--he's playing pickup basketball, decked out in a Princeton sweat shirt, with river-front dudes when a chopper comes to pick him up and take him to the White House. It's remarkable how irony-free Hollywood's infatuation with the Clinton administration seems to be.

But the former chief policy adviser, however weaselly and twerpish, in real life is a smart fellow; if I were Stephanopoulos, I'd be steamed at the density of this fictitious counterpart. Sheen goes to meet his old think-tank mentor (Theodore Bikel), who wants to give him evidence of a shadow government within the administration of the heroic president (Sam Waterston)--a wishful-thinking version of Clinton if ever there was one. Instead of allowing Sheen to laugh off Bikel as a crackpot, the conspirators take the incredibly stupid expedient of shooting the poor guy dead in front of Sheen. After the second or third murder happens in his presence, it dawns on him that he's being set up. Nothing gets past these Princeton boys.

Sheen spends the rest of the film running away from Stephen Lang, in a wordless role as a steely-eyed, murderous operative. Running with the terrified wonk is Linda Hamilton, as a reporter for the Washington Herald. Some good actors--Bikel, Donald Sutherland, Nicholas Turturro, Charles Cioffi and Ben Gazzara--are wasted in the supporting cast of this shoddy, tedious rehash of elements from Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate and the raft of post-Watergate political thrillers. A number of first-rate D.C. stage actors (Stanley Anderson, Tom Quinn, Henry Strozier, Richard Bauer) also plays galling second fiddle to Sheen.

Poor Sheen. I've always sort of liked him, but he's really not much of an actor and his choice of material is usually so atrocious that it makes him look worse than he is. (I do recommend, however, his facetious action vehicle The Chase as a good slow-night video rental--it may be the Perfect Charlie Sheen Movie.) But like his last disaster, The Arrival, Shadow Conspiracy demonstrates one of Sheen's major strengths as a star--he looks great in sunglasses.

Fashion is not so kind to Hamilton in this film. Some spiteful costumer has placed her in a series of large, bizarre hats which might be okay for an Easter parade, but which would probably get a woman under 60 laughed out of the White House pressroom. She looks like she's auditioning for a regional theater production of Steel Magnolias, and after a few more movies like Shadow Conspiracy, that might start to sound like a good gig to her.

Shadow Conspiracy
Directed by George P. Cosmatos; with Charlie Sheen, Linda Hamilton, Donald Sutherland, Sam Waterson, Ben Gazzara and Theodore Bikel.