The Sick and the Dead

Only in the movies could a therapist speak inconsiderately to a frayed patient, watch her commit suicide by jumping out his office window, quit his practice in shame, try to repair himself by seeking out an old college friend who is himself a psychologist, sit in on one of his friend's group sessions, be told by his friend that one of the group is a potential killer, mourn when his friend is then stabbed to death, be coaxed by a cop to tell the group what has happened and then report back possible suspects, be coaxed by the group to take over the sessions, sleuth around in their minds and, in the process, become a target for murder himself as well as the object of desire of a mysterious young beauty who figures heavily into things -- when, that is, she's not lifting off clingy little dresses.

That's the extraordinary setup of Color of Night. This interestingly confused but ultimately ludicrous movie received pre-release hype for containing full frontal nudity shots of star Bruce Willis. To achieve the wider audience of an R rating, though, director Richard Rush edited them out (though not all of those of Willis' co-star, Jane March, who's an old hand about these things, what with her steamy debut in The Lover), packaging them off to the unrated video version unquestionably waiting in the wings. Since the story line is fantastical and the titillation routine, there's nothing really thrilling about this erotic, neurotic thriller, except for the acting, which makes it worth seeing. At least at matinee prices.

Showing no symptoms that he ever died hard or moonlighted, Willis is vulnerable and sympathetic as Dr. Bill Capa, a behaviorist up to his ears in behavior. Willis is quite good at staring penetratingly at his patients and crying penitently in front of them. He-man he's not. Or smart aleck. Or hipster. Though the Willis-faithful might be disappointed by the character (as opposed to the body) he lays bare, the problem with the movie is not who Willis is, but what he says and does. Spouting self-help aphorisms and calling himself "a genuine tuning fork," he pegs each patient's neurosis after sitting with them for only an hour. (We do the same after five minutes, since screenwriters Matthew Chapman and Billy Ray create textbook-types rather than real people.) That the group lets him join them in the first place strains credibility, as does how quickly they open up to him. And the decision by Willis' Dr. Capa to risk his life to keep seeing them suggests he needs help, too.

But except for such cinematic tricks as having him turn colorblind after seeing blood pool around the suicide's green dress and end up being chased by a red Camaro and a red skirt named Rose (March) who drives a green Jeep, screen-time isn't devoted to Capa's state of mind. And the group sessions do the film a disservice by eliminating suspense. Kevin J. O'Connor, Lance Henriksen, Brad Dourif and Lesley Ann Warren make their characters so needy that you start to like them, and feel they couldn't be homicidal. The movie could have been a winner if it had focused more on these pained patients, or, in another direction, milked its occasional wicked glee, like when the obsessive-compulsive demands to know how many times his original therapist, Dr. Moore (Scott Bakula), was stabbed, or the throwaway that Dr. Moore had written a book with arrows on it called Way to Go. Another underdeveloped relationship is between Capa and Lt. Martinez (scene-stealing Ruben Blades), who carries on his scruffy investigation like a hostile Columbo.

March displays an impressive acting feat not to be revealed here, but mostly she's relegated to asking what color her nipples are and falling into a pool for underwater sex. That, I guess, explains why it takes Capa so long to figure out she's not just a secretive love machine. You'll figure her deal out quickly -- too quickly, thanks to Rush's unconvincing direction. He throws in the standard crucial journal, has Capa become terribly short-sighted and muddies the details of far-fetched explications. He also floods a house for no reason, overlooks any family Moore and Capa might have, shows a suicide splatter as if the blacktop street was made of glass and has Capa say, "I certainly lost my belief in the Scriptures" while tossing aside a handy volume of Freud. That good doctor would have had a field day with this film's ending, which involves multiple schizos and a nail gun.

Color of Night.
Directed by Richard Rush. With Bruce Willis, Jane March, Scott Bakula, Ruben Blades and Lesley Ann Warren.

Rated R.
120 minutes.


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