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Dead Woman Walking

Sharon Stone's Last Dance has good intentions, and absolutely awful timing

What happens next is not, to put it charitably, surprising. Rick begins to behave like a born-again idealist, risking his job and any possible future in state politics. In turn, Cindy slowly emerges from her protective shell of surliness, and even dares to hope that, somehow, Rick might at least manage to get her death sentence commuted to life without parole. In the process, Cindy reveals that she's a much better person than she was when she killed two people. But will that be enough to keep from paying the ultimate price for her actions?

At its frequent best, Last Dance raises some intelligent questions about the arbitrariness of state-mandated murder, showing that, sometimes, the difference between life and death can be a competent lawyer, an election-year poll or a savvy PR campaign. (Another condemned prisoner gains clemency by turning himself into a national celebrity. "How," he asks, "they gonna go and kill a man who's been on the New York Times bestseller list?") The film is considerably less impressive when, midway through, it clouds the waters by suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Cindy is actually innocent. For a brief but discomforting stretch, Last Dance appears ready to do in dead earnest what The Player did for laughs and give moviegoers the comfort of a ludicrously upbeat ending. Ultimately, however, reality kicks in.

The final scenes of Last Dance would likely be a lot more gut-churning if they weren't so similar to scenes played out so recently by Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking. For that matter, there are several scenes that, while convincingly acted and believably written, pale dramatically when compared to scenes that cover the same ground in Tim Robbins' film. Compare Morrow's meetings with the parents of murder victims here to Sarandon's encounters in Dead Man Walking, and you see the difference between well-constructed melodrama and straight-to-the-heart art.

Even so, a well-constructed melodrama can be enthralling when it's directed with as much skill as Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies) brings to this project. The movie also benefits from the work of a strong supporting cast. Gallagher and Thompson bring conviction and authority to thinly written roles, while Quaid has a surprisingly powerful scene in which he discusses the downside of getting too close to a condemned prisoner.

Northern Exposure veteran Rob Morrow is appreciably less cocky here than he was as the gung ho investigator in Quiz Show. That isn't necessarily a good thing -- a bit more edginess and a lot more sibling rivalry might have made his character less noble, but it would also have made him more colorful. Still, Morrow and Stone are adept at establishing and sustaining a relationship that, while entirely platonic, has a subtle but unmistakable erotic undercurrent. Rather than distract the audience from the heart of the story, their unspoken and impossible romance actually brings greater depth and sharper focus to Cindy and Rick. Here are two people who have written themselves off as hopeless cases, who can jump-start their self-esteem only when they join forces in a lost cause. In losing, they win something back. In Cindy's case, the victory comes at the absolute last moment -- just like a governor's reprieve in a more conventional kind of death row drama.

Last Dance.
Directed by Bruce Beresford. With Sharon Stone and Rob Morrow.
Rated R.
103 minutes.

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