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‘White Sands’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 24, 1992

"White Sands" starts out with atmospheric promise. Against the majestic scenery of New Mexico, a car tears along a desert road, dust billowing behind it. Deputy sheriff Willem Dafoe is rushing to a murder site, where the victim lies face down, a gun in one hand and a briefcase containing half a million dollars lying close by.

It's a provocative beginning and, for a time at least, the mystery remains rich and tantalizing. Dafoe doesn't buy coroner M. Emmet Walsh's initial verdict of suicide. He becomes convinced the unidentified man was involved in shady business and that he was murdered as a result of it. He's right, of course. There wouldn't be a movie otherwise. Dafoe, who lives a rather humdrum life in his small town, decides to get to the bottom of it. It becomes an obsession. Why? It's not clear to bewildered wife Mimi Rogers -- or us.

In a bizarre discovery, which involves some icky, gastrointestinal detective work, Dafoe uncovers a vital clue. Posing as the dead man, Dafoe takes the money and heads for the victim's next appointment. He soon finds himself on the wrong side of the law, crossing paths with FBI agent Samuel L. Jackson (the memorable crack addict in "Jungle Fever"), mystery woman Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and even more mysterious man Mickey Rourke.

He also has an unceremonious meeting with two deadly ninja-women who seem to have stepped out of "Basic Instinct." The women are the first of many absurdities to follow. The movie loses all authority, despite wonderful work from cinematographer Peter Menzies and composer Patrick O'Hearn. In screenwriter Daniel Pyne's hands, every character becomes a disappointment. Even Dafoe loses his zest as the movie progresses. His existential "discovery" of the good-bad divide in his soul is the stuff of very tired film noir. Mastrantonio, who falls in love with Dafoe for no apparent reason, is meant to be his bad-girl temptation. But she lacks the necessary edge. Rourke, who in the worst of movies maintains a wonderfully oily-machismo quality, seems a ghost of himself. And Rogers, who remains spaniel-like at home for the duration, must be hurting for work.

There are moments to savor, however. Walsh makes a wonderfully macabre coroner. "Looks like a radish," he says picking through some intestinal unmentionables at the autopsy. "They in season?" On another occasion, Mastrantonio tells undercover Dafoe: "You don't have to be straight with me, it's OK. But it doesn't lend itself to intimacy."

But these moments are empty joys in the movie's poorly painted context. Director Roger Donaldson seems unduly rushed; the movie lacks the care and precision of his superior thriller, "No Way Out." His efforts reflect a misguided conceit that you can evoke classic murder mystery merely by throwing all the cliches together. For most of this movvie, he has his head in the sand.

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