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'Albino Alligator' Lacks Bite

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 17, 1997

  Movie Critic

Scene from this movie

Kevin Spacey
Matt Dillon;
Faye Dunaway;
Gary Sinise;
William Fichner;
Viggo Mortensen;
John Spencer;
Skeet Ulrich;
M. Emmet Walsh;
Joe Mantegna
Running Time:
1 hour, 37 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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Kevin Spacey slips into the director's chair quite comfortably with "Albino Alligator." It's what you'd expect from an actor whose career has been built mostly on subtly nuanced roles in which true character is slowly revealed, albeit to sometimes shocking effect. Just think of his unusual twists and turns in "The Usual Suspects."

Unfortunately, "Albino Alligator" is neither as complex nor as devious as "The Usual Suspects," though it aims for some of the same shadings and themes. The film imagines a not unfamiliar criminal venture -- bungled burglary leads to hostage crisis -- but the plot is pedestrian and simplistic. There's not even much action.

As with "The Petrified Forest," the 1936 classic that "Alligator" resembles, the emphasis is on argument, discussion and moral duplicity. These are played out against survival scenarios that come as no surprise once the film's title is explained as animal allegory about "deliberate sacrifice for deliberate gain."

From the start, "Albino Alligator" roots itself in mistaken identities: After three small-time hoods bungle a break-in, their escape route takes them through a police stakeout at almost the same moment as the prime suspect in another nonspecified crime; when some feds are killed in the chase, the burglars abandon their car and look for a quick hideaway. What they find is a sparsely populated after-hours bar that seems to have pickled itself since Prohibition days. It's called Dino's Last Chance Bar and only after they're inside, trapped by the police out front, do the bad guys realize there's . . . No Other Exit!

Theater lovers may be excused for thinking they've stumbled into an off-Broadway production of a previously unknown work by Beckett, Pirandello or Sartre; most of the film takes place inside Dino's and seems to unfold in surreal time. As a result, "Albino Alligator" feels like a filmed play, sort of a "Playhouse 90" for the '90s.

The hostage situation pits the three intruders against five denizens, several of whom are not what they appear to be. The robbers hardly present a united front: there's Dova (Matt Dillon), a control freak and bad planner; Milo (Gary Sinise), a soul-weary hood; and Law (William Fichtner), a hardened criminal who clearly has no intention of ever going back to prison.

The beleaguered crew -- M. Emmet Walsh as the bartender, Faye Dunaway as the waitress, Skeet Ulrich, John Spencer and Viggo Mortensen -- are sketchily drawn at best, while Joe Mantegna is vivid but unnecessary as the head cop trying to manage a situation through an escalating media watch.

The problem with Christian Forte's script -- one that even solid acting can't overcome -- is that it's a character study with underdeveloped characters. Forte gives too little information to make us care what happens to either perpetrators or victims, and his cleverness is reduced to slowly revealed relationships that tie his players up with emotional knots that don't hold particularly true.

Though the crooks' worst-laid plans quickly spin out of control, Spacey maintains a coolly deliberate pace. With the help of cinematographer Mark Plummer, he navigates the claustrophobic confines of Dino's with fluid assurance and draws solid performances from the players. It's Dunaway, the only woman in the cast, who provides the most complex, internalized reading, particularly when she's put in the position of making a life-and-death choice that requires the ultimate moral compromise.

Albino Alligator is rated R and contains graphic violence and adult language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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