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'Off Limits' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 15, 1988

The heat is jacked up real high in "Off Limits," the cacophonous new cop thriller starring Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines, and sweat cascades off the stars in sheets.

The place is Saigon, the time 1968, and Dafoe and Hines are plainclothes military cops assigned to track down the Army colonel behind a series of brutal prostitute murders. To find the killer, the team has to not only prowl through strip joints and brothels, but also outsmart their superiors, who are trying to cover up the crimes.

This is big-time Hollywood filmmaking at its most calculating and unimaginative. "Off Limits" is nothing more than a revved-up, high-octane variation on the same black-white cop formula that's become a mainstay of movies today. It's "Lethal Weapon" in Vietnam, and it's proficiently made, and the director, Christopher Crowe, treats it as if it were the first of its kind. But that's scant compensation.

The only difference between this and movies like it is that the filmmakers here have raised the sleaze content a notch higher. The look of the film, which was shot in Bangkok, is a marriage of neon and putrefaction; it's stylishly grungy. And the filmmakers never miss a chance to shove a corpse or a gunshot wound in your face. Just watching the thing, you begin to feel sticky and uncomfortable, as if the movie's septic atmosphere had rubbed off on you.

The only clean patch of turf in the film is the ground walked on by the striking young Catholic novice (Amanda Pays) who runs a care center for children of the prostitutes and helps the detectives run down the killer. But her reason for being here couldn't be more obvious if she had "Love Interest" stenciled on her habit.

The stars both keep their heads down and punch away, but though Dafoe has a kind of cruel, reptilian charisma and has great features for the camera, neither of them manages to bring any excitement to his role. It's a buddy-buddy movie made with two sidekicks.

Other actors make garish cameo appearances, most notably Scott Glenn as a sadomasochistic officer who gets his kicks tossing VC out the door of his chopper. Fred Ward, who plays the cops' commanding officer, gives a gruff, chewed-down performance, but ultimately he's brought down by the implausibility of the movie's twist ending.

The film's Saigon backdrop is supposed to make the premise seem original, but it creates the opposite effect. Saigon -- and Vietnam in general -- have become an easy form of shorthand for contemporary filmmakers, a ready-made metaphor, and what it's come to stand for is what the urban landscapes of New York and L.A. have always stood for -- decadence, corruption and slimy evil. The way it's used here, Vietnam becomes just another cliche'.

"Off Limits" contains gratuitous profanity and violence.

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