Like "Exorcist II" the weekend before last, "Sorcerer" opened cold this past weekend at hundreds of American theaters, including six locations in the Washington area. While history has not quite repeated itself - "Exorcist II" remains the low-water mark in big-budget losers for the time being - director William Friedkin appears to have spent upwards of three years and $17 million to fabricate a portentous but uninspired adventure melodrama that has a better chance of leaving audiences cold than sending chills up and down their spines.

Since the last move Friendkin directed was "The Exorcist," the title of his new picture could be misinterpreted. "Sorcerer" has no diabolic connotations. Unfortunately, one can't even give Friedkin much credit for gratuitous filmmaking wizardry on this occasion. He certainly tries to be dynamic and impressive, but instead of achieving pleasurable or compelling iullusions of danger, suspense and excitement, he produces only an atmosphere of insistent and sometimes brutal striving.

"Sorcerer" is the word painted on one of the two trucks driven by the principal characters, a quartet of motley fugitives who try to get out of a South American pesthole by ferrying a cargo of explosives to the site of an oil well fire. Not that it matters, but the second truck is called "Lazarus." If Friedkin, screenwriter Walon Green or any of the characters had a reason for these names, he's keeping it to himself. The vehicles would function just as indifferently under combinations like Ishmael and Ahab, Venus and Adonis, Thesis and Antithesis, Back and Front Amos and Andy or Fine and Dandy. The scenario is ingeniously contrived to be structurally unsound and metaphorically meaningless.

"Sorcerer" also happens to be a failed remake of a classic French thriller; "The Wages of Fear," directed by the late Henri-Clouzot in 1952 and released in the United States in 1955. The speedy arrival of "Diabolique" made Clouzot the hottest name in art houses in 1955. Friedkin appends a credit dedicating his film to Clouzot, who died earlier this year, but "Sorcerer" often looks more like a homage to the late Slavko Vorkapich, the dean of pedantic montage sequences in Hollywood for many years.

The Vorkapich influence is especially pronounced in a sequence devoted to showing the trucks being readied for the perilous trek to the inferno. Friedkin appears to regard this impressionistic parade of pistons, cylinders, lugs, wheels, nuts, bolts, grimy fingers and rugged profiles as filmmaking at its most fundamental - and possibly virile.

However, the concept as well as the details are cliches by now, and Friedkin lacks the sense of humor or self-parody that might prevent them from becoming ponderous visual cliches, after he gets through with all the editing-table huffling and puffing, Friedkin has only one strong image to show for his efforts - a night silhouette of a truck as its lights go on that recalls the mood of Max von Sydow's first appearance outside the house on Prospect Street in "The Exorcist."

Both "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" gave Friedkin a reputation as a talented manipulator, but it appears that he may have begun to overestimate the appeal of manipulation for its own sake. The characters and episodes in "Sorcerer" seem totally arbitrary. They're used to implement certain pictorial or inconographic notions, but they're never developed dramatically.

It appears that Friedkin's style may be in danger of deteriorating in the same way that John Frankenheimer's did after such muscle-bound, mechanistic action pictures as "The Train" and "Grand Prix," which were not badly directed but were certainly heavy going after "The Manchurain Candidate" and "Seven Days in May," which were adeptly written as well as directed. In "Sorcerer" Friedkin doesn't sustain a narrative; he asks us sweat off his brow and feel him make muscles.

Movies as assertive yet ineffective as "Exorcist II" and "Sorcerer" could lead one to believe that it's time to bid adieu to the idea of the director as superstar. The self-evident truth, gleefully argued by Gore Vidal in recent months, is that most directors are dependent on reasonably well-structured, explicable scripts, John Boorman, who has gone soaring into cloudcuckooland on "Zardoz" and "Exorcist II," kept fairly honest on "Deliverance." From the look of "Sorcerer," Friedkin's celebrated virtuosity may be expressed more effectively when he's working from a supportable storytelling foundation too.

Friedkin and Green miscalculate right from the start by choosing to sketch in the events that lead the four fugitives to a godforsaken corner of the world. Clouzot left their pasts to our imagination and begin with the men simply rotting away in a dismal setting. It took "The Wages of Fear" perhaps 20 or 30 atmospherically tawdry minutes to get rolling, but once it did, the characters emerged because of the stress they were under, while the near impossibility of their mission - driving loads of nitroglycerin over jungle roads - was brilliantly exploited for nerve-racking suspense and a perversely fatalistic view of human destiny.

Clouzot started with his characters simmering in a pressure cooker. It's conceivable that Friedkin and Green might have intensified the pressure by depicting what brought the men together, but the histories they invent merely slow down the exposition while making the characters look more scummy and reprehensible than they need to be. Francisco Rabal, echoing the beginning of "The French Connection," is introduced assassination someone. Cut to Jerusalem, where terrorist Amidou escapes after participating in a bombing. An extended sojourn in Paris gives us Bruno Cremer as a businessman fleeing financial ruin. Roy Scheider enters as the careless driver of a small-time armed roberry gang which knocks over the bingo bank at the neighborhood parish, killing a priest in the process.

There's calculated brutality about these introductions that backfires almost immediately. Cremer is the only fugitive who could inspire conventional sympathy. It seems a miracle of screenwriting necessity that Scheider gets away at all, considering the bloody car accident he's in. However, the directions he gets for leaving the country are memorably funny - "Go to Pier 47 in Baltimore and ask for Nat Glick."

Certain motifs are established, particularly explosions and flowing blood. Given to kidney-punching ironies, Friedkin stages a blood-spattered suicide outside a posh restaurant, shows us a wedding ceremony where the bride has a black eye and a dead man with currency spilling out his bloody shirtfront. Blood money, eh? One can't help wondering if "Sorcerer" was awarded a "PG" rating before or after it was screened.

What with the introductory gloss, it takes "Sorcerer" over an hour to get rolling on those treacherous jungle roads. Things don't improve, because Friedkin and Green persist in copying the situations from "The Wages of Fear" up to a point and then backing off at the climaxes, an indecisive style of imitation that plunges them abruptly into anticlimax time after time.

On only one occasion do the filmmakers follow through with a transposition of a situation from the original film - Amidou exploding a tree trunk out of their path, as Peter von Eyck had exploded a boulder in "Wages of Fear." Friedkin toys with a reworking of the shattering sequence in Cloucot's movie where Yves Montand must choose between running over his companion or getting mired in a widening crater of oil, but at the crucial juncture he declines to complete the copy. Perhaps it's just as well, because he doesn't have the relationship that helped to make Clouzot's situation so powerful.

Friedkin also seems to have gotten recollections of "Wages of Fear" balled up with recollections of "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Treasure of Sierra Madre." To put it kindly, he does not achieve a daring new synthesis. The concluding scenes are faintly ridiculous, and when Scheider asks a wizened cronfor one last dance, the giggles may begin to reverberate.