John Belushi sheathes his samurai slapstick, the better to press his full figure against the tender, slender flesh of his leading liberated lady, Blair Brown, in "Continental Divide," a refreshing fall film directed by Michael Apted. Belushi takes a giant leap in "Divide," making his midlife career change successfully against Colorado's magnificent Rocky Mountains while flights of nearly extinct bald eagles celebrate the new everyman with celestial barrel rolls. The former food-fighter turned romantic lead is, believe it or not, believable, even squeezable, as Ernie Souchak, muckraking columnist for the Chicago Sun- Times. Unfortunately, the film's pretty sluggish until Souchak, who's been beaten up by experts for exposing a little good old-fashioned civic skulduggery, is sent to the mountains for a cooling-off period. Ostensibly, he's out to get an impossible interview with an out- back ornithologist, played by Blair Brown. As long as Souchak's stuck in Belushi's home town, the acting's turgid and the comedy's pale. No sparks. But in the Rockies, Belushi, done up like a silly slicker in brightly colored parka and oversize rucksack, unpacks the pratfalls blending body chemistry with a heroic new style. So our Marlboro man, a sincere smoker, climbs the mountain. At the summit are Blair and her American bald eagles. They don't smoke or drink or eat too many M&Ms. And so, for a while, Brown and Belushi have to work through a little wooden dialogue so that Souchak and Nell, the eagle lady, can get out from under the hostility and on with an impossible love match. Do groat cakes and Four Roses mix? In this film, they're like franks and beans, quiche and Lorraine. But then, "Continental Divide" rigorously stretches the limits of plausibility. The characters are of the larger- than-life school fancied by writer Lawrence Kasdan, who's had a great year with "Body Heat" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." He sees Souchak as a comedic superhero with snappy patter for all occasions, like a good mauling by a mountain lion. And Nell -- what a woman! She makes Wonder Woman look like Phyllis Schlafly. She's no bigger around than a sapling, but she drags, shoves and carries her fat, battered beau from the timberline to the meadowlands aboard an ice sled, handmade on the spot. Of course, in addition to Girl Scout survival skills, she has her doctorate and a way with a film camera. The subjects of her cinematography -- bald eagles hunting, nesting and mating in the high country -- accent the film as symbols of loss and freedom. Of itself, the footage of these magnificent predators is worth the price of the film, a scenic high that would make even old Watts-his-name gasp at the glory of it. Eventually, Souchak leaves the eagles, the mountains and Nell, returning to the grimy pigeons of Chicago and the grim business of writing a daily column. He's a lovestruck stranger around the newsroom until the plot thickens and the pace slows to a clot. Then Nell comes down from the mountain for a speech in Chicago. After some slogging through the mean streets, Nell and Ernie must decide if they would be like the eagles, meeting for sex in freefall, or go their own ways, lovesick, but hard-nosed, she with her birds and he with his words. They make a messianic duo, Belushi and Brown, a romantic odd couple now continents arift from Delta House and Bill Hurt's not tub. Luckily, Brown's role called for the strong, silent type, since her emotional repertoire remains rarefied as the alpine air in which she played it. "Contintental Divide." It's a separate, but equal, experience.
CONTINENTAL DIVIDE: Jennifer, Seven Locks, Springfield Mall Cinema, Skyline and Roth's Tyson.