Hal Hinson - Style section,
Cindy Liggett (Sharon Stone) is a white-trash killer on death row whose flimsy hope of last-minute clemency rests squarely with wet-behind-the-ears advocate Rob Morrow. The story's actually about the redemption of Rick Hayes (Morrow), a spoiled kid whose older brother, chief of staff for a hawkish southern governor, has lobbed him a soft sinecure: a job with the state's Clemency Board.
The younger Hayes, an untested lawyer, is given Liggett's case to
process. Convicted for the brutal murder of two victims 12 years
before, she has exhausted all legal appeals. Determined to prove
he's more than a rich-kid loser, Hayes dutifully visits Liggett. -- Desson Howe
Sit Out 'Last Dance'
By Desson Howe
Sharon Stone's transition from vamping to acting continues its slow, painful progress in "Last Dance." In her latest thespian venture, she's Cindy Liggett, a white-trash killer on death row whose flimsy hope of last-minute clemency rests squarely with wet-behind-the-ears advocate Rob Morrow.
This movie isn't quite "Dumb Blonde Walking" (for one thing, she's a brunette in this picture), but that satirical slur isn't so far off the mark. The Touchstone Pictures release, which has innumerable similarities to Tim Robbins's superior death row drama, "Dead Man Walking," is about as formulaic a picture as screenwriter Ron Koslow can hack. (Whenever you hear the phrase "open-and-shut case" in a film, rest assured that no original moments will interrupt the proceedings.)
For all the marquee attention she's getting, Stone isn't the movie's central character. The story's actually about the redemption of Rick Hayes (Morrow), a spoiled kid whose older brother, John (Peter Gallagher), chief of staff for a hawkish southern governor, has lobbed him a soft sinecure: a job with the state's Clemency Board.
The younger Hayes, an untested lawyer, is given Liggett's case to process. Convicted for the brutal murder of two victims 12 years before, she has exhausted all legal appeals. Determined to prove he's more than a rich-kid loser, Hayes dutifully visits Liggett.
But the prisoner, who doesn't believe she has a hope or that he's sincere, refuses to cooperate. Hayes also learns that the governor (Jack Thompson), who has never granted clemency, has personal connections to one victim's father. Yep, this is an open-and-shut case, all right. Although the film is vaguely watchable, it feels like little more than an acting-workshop project for Stone -- a safe opportunity for the actor to practice four basic emotional states: coldly cynical, tearfully fearful, tearfully proud and tearfully loving. Keeping her trademark sexuality under prison-issue wraps, Stone works those baby blues overtime. She becomes a sad-eyed, incarcerated doe, who punctuates her stoic death wait with hackneyed, defiant-prisoner lines.
"I don't wanna die," she tells Hayes, eyes flashing. "But if I do, it's going to be on my terms. Got that?"
Liggett's prison seems no worse than, say, a benevolent rehab center. Even though her fellow inmates spout official jailbird profanities, they're not particularly colorful or inspired. Her most immediate neighbors are a sweet, supportive woman who killed two husbands but offers Liggett all kinds of sisterly, self-help advice and a quiet prisoner who spends her time embroidering such homilies as "Happy Thoughts." Then there's the shy, female warden who melts into tears when Stone says her apparent final farewell. You meet the nicest people on death row.
For all the cliched motions he has to go through, Morrow (last seen as the good guy lawyer in "Quiz Show") is a surprisingly effective personality. His character evolution isn't much. His mission comes across like a really cool summer-intern project rather than the saving of Liggett's life, but he achieves more than you'd expect with this second-rate script.
As the governor's jaded right-hand man, who gives Hayes begrudging moral support, Randy Quaid also imbues a minor role with more than it deserves. But no one, not even director Bruce Beresford, can transform this movie. Although, one feels more disposed to saving Stone than having her killed, the emotional effect of "Last Dance" is strangely distancing. Perhaps that's because there's no sense of a vulnerable life on the line -- just an acting career.
'Dance': Jail House Schlock
By Hal Hinson
"Last Dance," Sharon Stone's "Dead Girl Walking" movie, feels phony right from the start.
Based on a shamelessly thin script by Ron ("Lifeguard") Koslow that recycles the worst of issue melodramas and jail house formulas, the movie pretends to be a serious, restrained examination of an inflammatory issue. What it really is, however, is the acting equivalent of a photo op. With her hair dyed dull brown and hanging limp around her un-Max Factored face, Stone uses the story of Cindy Liggett, a prisoner on death row, as an occasion to do a little grandstanding on behalf of forgiveness and humanity.
The movie takes place "down there," somewhere in the South where folks are backward and speak with a generic Southern accent. Cindy is a low-rent hick, while her lawyer Rick appears, from the looks of his red Porsche, to be one of those shallow rich boys. Except that Rick, as played by former "Northern Exposure" star Rob Morrow, has experienced real pain. He knows what it's like for people to give up on you. And so, when he meets Liggett to prepare her case before the state clemency board, he's primed to sign on as her savior.
Problem is that you don't believe a frame of it -- first, because Morrow's Rick is such an ineffectual drip, and second, because he sees a transformation in Cindy that the movie doesn't really support. The blame mostly lies with Koslow's script, which is a masterpiece of non-moments and moral waffling. In the initial confrontation between Cindy and her callow defender, the prisoner refuses to cooperate in the state's attempts to save her life. "If I'm gonna die," she barks, "it's gonna be on my terms." Yet almost immediately after proclaiming that she won't "dance" with her would-be executioners, Cindy then proceeds to cooperate in her defense.
Then, there's the problem of two actors trying to do probing, interior work when their actual talents are for something else (though in Morrow's case, I'm not sure what that something else might be). The result is that the two stars have no rapport, no connection. As always, Stone is a compelling camera subject, but if there are storms of anger and frustration raging within Cindy, they aren't conveyed to the audience. And with this aspect of her character lacking, her death row transformation into a sensitive person who spends her last hours creating delicate drawings of the Taj Mahal becomes a meaningless event, referred to but never witnessed.
In the end, the picture disintegrates further into a soppy romance, with Cindy waiting patiently in her cell for Rick's kindly visits. The work here of director Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy," "Crimes of the Heart") is studied and restrained. He does a great job of describing the inhuman environment prisoners are subjected to, but his style lacks the muscle the picture needs to shape its theme of sin and redemption. Cindy never claims to be innocent; just the same, we're supposed to feel as if her execution is an injustice.
In interviews, Stone has said that she herself had a spiritual transformation during the making of this film. If so, it's too bad she didn't share it with us.