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‘Undercover Blues’ (PG-13)

By Jane Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 10, 1993

Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner act so darn cute in "Undercover Blues" that they risk fallen archness. It's kind of fun to watch them dance around on tiptoe instead of creating real characters, but one can't help wondering what the whole enterprise would have been like with a director who knew how to make them play against the material a little.

In this sunny, silly riff on "The Thin Man," Nick and Nora Charles have evolved -- or devolved -- into Jeff and Jane Blue, CIA/FBI super-agents who have taken a sabbatical now that they have an adorable little one to care for at home.

But trouble just follows the Blues around on their jazzy New Orleans vacation. First, Jeff faces down a couple of boneheaded muggers while walking baby Jane Louise (the super sweet Michelle Schuelke) down a mean street. A couple of whacks with the stroller, and he humiliates the bums. One of them, a dodo named Muerte ("death" in Spanish), vows revenge. He pops up every few minutes like Wile E. Coyote, gets thwacked by Jeff or Jane, spits out a few teeth and keels over. As Muerte, Stanley Tucci plays to the second balcony and pushes the Latino stereotype to the edge of bad taste.

But the Blues can handle their rendezvous with Muerte. He's just a subplot. It's an old buddy from the FBI or the CIA (it's not clear which) who lures them out of their hyperactive maternity leave for a quickie mission in the neighborhood.

A former Czech agent -- a libidinous commie gun moll named Novacek (Fiona Shaw) -- has been buying top-secret contraband explosives from a traitorous chemist in the New Orleans burbs. Jeff and Jane's job, should they choose to accept it, is to catch Novacek in the act and send her home to the Czech and Slovak republics for her comeuppance.

Into this gumbo toss a bumbling pair of salt-and-pepper cops named Halsey (Larry Miller, with a lisp atop his thick N'awlins accent) and Sawyer (Obba Babatunde), who follow the Blues around out of bald curiosity, and an amusingly unhappy tourist couple, well and edgily played by Tom Arnold and Park Overall.

Actually seeing "Undercover Blues" won't make the plot any clearer than a Louisiana bog. This movie is all about style, not story. Like Nick and Nora Charles (played in the '30s and '40s by William Powell and Myrna Loy), Jeff and Jane Blue are smarter and more chic than the rest of us. Unlike Nick and Nora, the Blues actually sweat on screen, but they never secrete a real emotion, and they have nothing but scorn for everyone, good or bad, whom they meet.

Add to this brittle lack of warmth director Herbert Ross's sense of timing, which, despite his dance background, is pretty flat-footed. You can almost count it out: snappy repartee between Jeff and Jane, followed by action gambit, followed by cozy love scene, interrupted by more action, every 3 1/2 minutes or so. No surprises here.

Ross is blessed in his leading man; Quaid can charm the gators out of a swamp. Turner, no slouch in the charm department, lumbers through the action sequences, vaguely miscast. The script by Ian Abrams brims with overwritten cleverness.

"Undercover Blues" offers a perfectly enjoyable, completely forgettable hour and a half. After all, how hard is it to watch pros like Quaid and Turner have a good time knocking around with a lovable baby? As Quaid coos to the toddler, "It's a bad world, isn't it, sweetheart? You 'n me 'n Mom are gonna make it better, right?" Quaid, Turner and the kid do make this movie better, but it isn't good enough.

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