Murder Most Fine

Film noir might soon experience a renaissance, thanks to John Dahl, one of the most exciting American directors to come along in years. His slick, sexy The Last Seduction was a standout at this year's Houston WorldFest. Stylish and moody, it tailed a brainy femme fatale who's so determined to pull off a big-bucks scam that she solicits rape for her own deviant purposes and turns a driver-side airbag into a weapon when pistol-whipping fails her. Incredibly, there's no news that Seduction is coming to theaters, so look for it on video.

Video, as it happens, is where Dahl's witty and suspenseful -- and earlier -- Red Rock West is currently being rescued from. A few years ago, movie executives didn't know how to market this cowboy noir -- part thriller, part western, part comedy, part drama -- so they packed it off to the small screen. Big mistake. Red Rock West is every bit as accomplished as the Coen brothers' double-barreled Blood Simple.

Red Rock West stars Nicholas Cage as Michael, an ex-Marine fallen on hard times who drives from Texas to Wyoming for a drilling-crew job, only to be rebuffed when he admits on the application he has a bum knee. On a lead from a gas station attendant, he goes to the local watering hole in the dusty town of Red Rock, looking for work. Shifty barkeep Wayne (J.T. Walsh) mistakes Michael for the Texas hit man he's hired to bump off the missus, apparently because she's been unfaithful. No killer, but no saint either, Michael takes Wayne's advance but, before leaving town, warns Wayne's wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), who, unfazed, offers Michael double Wayne's fee if he'll bump off hubbie instead.

Sizing things up, Michael pockets her money too, writes a letter to the Red Rock sheriff about the dual murder offers, and skedaddles. But he accidentally runs over someone who, as doctors discover when Michael rushes him to the hospital, has bullets lodged in his stomach. The sheriff arrives, in the form of Wayne. The victim turns out to be Suzanne's lover. Soon the real hit man (Dennis Hopper) shows up; he's professional enough (black hat, black clothes, black Buick) but has a teensy inferiority complex, even if he, too, is an ex-Marine.

Dahl, who co-wrote the movie with his brother Rick, has deadpan fun with such noir staples as inevitable coincidences, mistaken identities, hidden pasts, double crosses, near escapes, secret rendezvous and swigs of scotch. Every time the plot twists take Michael up and down the town highway, we see shots of "You are leaving Red Rock" and "Welcome to Red Rock." There are creative uses of red neon. Lovers on the lam hole up at -- where else? -- the Comfort Inn, and one says to the other, "I kinda like you, don't make me shoot you."

With an Elvis twang and a pensive expression, Cage is an enormously likable cowpoke in over his head. The actor, who frequently gives over-the-top performances, restrains himself here. Hopper, who makes lunatics appealing like nobody else can, gesticulates and spews and encourages and menaces when saying stuff such as, "Don't piss on the seat, even if they did -- it's bad luck." Boyle has the thick eyebrows of a dame who says she's sorry only as a ploy. And Walsh is, as always, a wily and oily villain.

Guns, cops, a train and the dark: noir, front and center. Dahl even knows that a good ole Texas boy like Michael would drive a white Caddie and, when tempted by sexy Suzanne with "Marriage is just a state of mind," would say, "Not in Texas" -- and then succumb, since they're in Wyoming. This is grade-A B-moviemaking.

Red Rock West.
Directed by John Dahl. Starring Nicholas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle and J.T. Walsh.

Rated R.

98 minutes.


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