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Cajun 12-Step

An old-fashioned detective story. A newfangled detective.

Dave Robicheaux is a former New Orleans homicide detective who stopped being a cop right around the time he quit drinking, because he figured both pursuits were harmful to his health. Along with his supportive but not uncritical wife, Annie, he moved back to the Louisiana bayou country, promising her -- and himself -- that he wouldn't go looking for trouble anymore. So, of course, very early in Heaven's Prisoners, trouble goes looking for Robicheaux. In fact, it crash-lands right in front of him.

Thousands of readers have already made the acquaintance of Dave Robicheaux in the popular series of novels written by James Lee Burke. Heaven's Prisoners, freely adapted from the first of those novels, is obviously intended as the start of an equally popular movie franchise. The movie, a solid and well-crafted piece of work, is largely faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of Burke's original narrative. And like the book -- indeed, like most detective novels -- the movie sustains interest less through the intricacy of its plotting than the complexity of its central character and the vividness of its setting.

As written by Burke and translated by screenwriters Harley Peyton and Scott Frank, Robicheaux is a bit more philosophical, and a lot more guilt-racked, than your classic hard-boiled knight errant. He also has a much shakier grip on his sobriety than, say, Spenser or Philip Marlowe, and is much more willing to admit his failings and turn things over to a Higher Power. (We never actually see him attending an AA meeting, but the movie begins with Robicheaux seeking solace in the confessional of his parish church.) As Robicheaux, Alec Baldwin is very adept at striking the right balance of swagger and self-doubt, macho and melancholy. And he is even better at conveying the anguished torment of the character when fate deals Robicheaux an especially cruel blow.

Robicheaux and his wife are out fishing one morning when a planeload of illegal immigrants falls out of the sky and into the Gulf. They save the only survivor of the crash, a little Salvadoran girl, and decide to keep quiet about her presence in their household. As it turns out, however, immigration authorities are the least of their worries. They have more to fear from such unwelcome visitors as DEA agents, freelance hit men and the minions of a local crime lord, Bubba Rocque (Eric Roberts), who just happens to be Robicheaux's worst friend from high school. Everyone, it seems, has a very special interest in another passenger who was aboard the downed plane.

Under the leisurely but disciplined direction of Phil Joanou, Heaven's Prisoners begins with a bang -- the plane crash -- then settles into the familiar pace of a standard-issue police procedural. Robicheaux talks to this person, then that person, then yet another person, with periodic pauses for fisticuffs and gunshots. The action erupts with steadily increasing frequency in the movie's second half, as the audience is treated to such stunts as a nifty rumble aboard a New Orleans streetcar and an imaginatively staged shootout in a seedy apartment house. But nothing that happens on the mean streets of New Orleans has as much impact as a truly shocking encounter back at Robicheaux's bayou country home. Longtime readers of Burke's novels will know what I'm talking about -- an event that has haunted Robicheaux throughout the subsequent novels in the series. But it wouldn't be fair to describe it, or even to make too many indirect references to it, in this review. Suffice it to say that, for a welcome change, a two-fisted hero reacts to tragedy with a genuinely moving outburst of raw emotion. You don't often see that kind of behavior in this sort of movie. And you hardly ever see it presented as persuasively as it is here.

In a sense, Heaven's Prisoners is a variation on themes previously sounded by director Joanou in State of Grace, another film involving Catholic guilt and bloody acts of contrition. Neither film qualifies as great drama, or even superior crime melodrama. And yet, each is an intelligent and largely successful attempt to infuse genre moviemaking with moral ambiguity and character complexity.

In both films, even the villains are allowed at least one more dimension than is customary for such characters. State of Grace showcased Ed Harris and Gary Oldman as well-rounded bad guys. Heaven's Prisoners does even better by Eric Roberts, giving him the chance to make a menacing yet oddly charismatic impression as a small-time operator who behaves like a condescending monarch. Call him a big shark in a small pond, and you won't be far off the mark.

Bubba Rocque makes a big show of being a gracious host and ingratiating buddy when Robicheaux first comes to call. ("Give me a hug!" he says, with transparently phony cheeriness, by way of farewell.) But even then, he remains intoxicated by his delusions of grandeur. When he finally realizes that he's been played for a fool by his equally treacherous and much brainier wife, his rage is almost as comical as it fearsome.

As the wicked Mrs. Bubba, Teri Hatcher is sexier and craftier than she ever appears to be on TV's Lois and Clark. (She's naked the first time the audience gets a glimpse of her, and she's scarcely any less alluring when totally clothed.) But then again, Kelly Lynch is no slouch herself when it comes to injecting sex appeal into the cliched role of the hero's long-suffering wife. Mary Stewart Masterson also figures into the plot as Robin, a hard-drinking stripper who comes under Robicheaux's protective wing. It's a relatively small role, but Masterson mines it for every nugget of bawdy humor and affecting pathos.

Heaven's Prisoners was filmed on location in and around New Orleans. And while one might quibble about the accents employed by some of the actors -- to put it charitably, Hatcher is not altogether convincing as a Cajun -- the movie is dead-on accurate when it comes to conveying the sultriness of a Louisiana summer. In more than one scene, Baldwin's shirt appears to be freshly pressed one moment, drenched with sweat the next. It's a small detail, but one that indicates the movie's ambition to tell an old-fashioned, maybe even overly familiar, detective story with realistic detail as well as heartfelt emotion.

Heaven's Prisoners. Directed by Phil Joanou. With Alec Baldwin, Eric Roberts and Teri Hatcher.Rated R. 132 minutes.

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