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‘Rush’ (R)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 1992
"Rush" has the cold, unblinking stare of a rattlesnake. It's a tough movie, scathingly violent, intense and emotionally raw; like a swaggering bar brawler, it never backs down an inch. This world of druggies and undercover narcs is, by now, all too familiar, but director Lili Fini Zanuck's descent into it is so visceral that the familiarity is burned away. Plus, she's given her junkie saga a raging human center that lifts it out of its debased cop genre.
"Rush" is less a story about drugs and guns than about the people who use them. Like "The Silence of the Lambs," it's really about assaults against innocence. Zanuck focuses our attention on Kristen (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an earnest rookie cop who's chosen as a partner for a battle-toughened veteran named Raynor (Jason Patric) to do undercover work in their small Texas town. Naively idealistic, Kristen was drawn to police work out of a noble drive to make a difference. The job she's signed up for, though, is far from noble. To trap her drug-dealing prey, she must take on their colorations, not only buying drugs but, in order not to blow her cover, swallowing, snorting and shooting them too. "It's ugly, and you get ugly with it," Raynor tells her.
She may not have realized just how ugly, though. Quickly the job becomes a kind of lethal tar baby, and there's no way to get unstuck. Every night, she and Raynor, who acts as her guide through this pharmacological hell, troll the bars looking for action, and with each buy the landscape becomes darker and more threatening. Zanuck presents Kristen's initiation as a journey through doors, with each door slamming and locking behind her. In one scene, she snorts cocaine and comes away surprised but exhilarated by her own moxie. "I can't believe I did that," she says proudly. Then, in an amazing scene where she and Raynor buy heroin from a pistol-waving dealer (Special K McCray) with a mellifluous bedroom banter, she is forced to shoot up, and the thrill of passing through that final door leaves her hungry for more. She's crossed over, leaving not only her old world behind but her old self as well.
This is Zanuck's first film as a director (she and her husband, Richard, produced "Driving Miss Daisy"), and it's rare to see this kind of brass-knuckle confidence in a novice. Zanuck keeps the heat up, cooking her characters and the audience along with them. And when the story -- which is based on Kim Wozencraft's account of her career as a '70s undercover cop -- gets dirty, she gets dirty with it. "Rush" is a harrowing experience; it leaves you devastated, wiped out.
Surprisingly, though, most of the violence is emotional. The more drugs Kristen and Raynor take, the farther they wander off the map, and it's their attempts to navigate these uncharted moral waters that are most gripping. They're a unit, both partners and lovers, but to which world do they belong? Both Patric and Leigh get this feeling of estrangement, of inching out onto a dangerous limb, into their performances.
Patric may be the most magnetic young actor of his generation; he has some of the power and inner violence that the young Brando had -- some of the angry vulnerability too. And the work he does here has a scary frankness. Patric's Raynor is supposed to be the one with the compass; he knows the depth-charge allure of their double lives, where the thrill of fudging the line between cop and criminal is as potent as the drugs themselves. But instead of protecting him, Raynor's experience only tempts him to take even greater chances. When he goes down, he goes down big time.
Leigh's Kristen is the Alice in Junkieland character; she follows Raynor down a rabbit hole and is then abandoned when her mentor passes through the drug looking glass to join the crazies on the other side. She almost joins them too, but at the last moment, catches a glimpse of her bruised, drug-abused body in the mirror. The sight horrifies her and brings her back to earth; she kicks, but not before falling so low that she is on her hands and knees, picking through the shag carpet for a pill, a snowflake of powder, anything that will get her off.
Leigh has been a stunning presence in smaller films and supporting roles for years, but "Rush" gives this gifted young actress her first real showcase, and she goes all the way with it. As worldly as they might seem, Leigh's on-screen women have a lot of little girl left in them; there's a fragile quality just below the confidence and self-possession. The performance that Leigh gives here seems almost as risky as the one Kristen has to give; it's a role that takes her to the edge, and the sense that, like Kristen, she's working without a net makes us all the more frightened for her. Because Kristen is undercover, Leigh is an actress playing an actress, and this double-tracking gives Leigh's work -- more so than Patric's -- a dizzying, puzzle-box feel. It's a resonant, multilayered performance -- real Oscar stuff.
There is other standout work scattered throughout the film. Max Perlich, who played the sniveling speed freak in "Drugstore Cowboy," does a marvelously empathetic, little-boy-lost routine as Walker, the dealer turned informer. And, as the Barry White of junkies, McCray (who is also a stand-up comic) is simply amazing. Also, Gregg Allman, who has only a handful of lines as the nightclub owner at the center of the police drug probe, moves through the film leaving an oil slick of malevolence in his wake. He's perfect.
Nearly every detail of the picture is just as good, down to Eric Clapton's scalding blues score and Kenneth MacMillan's voluptuously gritty cinematography. Zanuck keeps the screws tightened here without catering to the cliches of the genre; her impressive roughneck style is always in the service of her themes. "Rush" is a powerhouse movie but not a cheap one. It hits you hard, but never below the belt.
"Rush" is rated R for violence, drug use, harsh language and sensuality.
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