"Southern Comfort," a smoothly misleading title, is designed to provoke excruciating suspense and murky significance in a beautifully ominous locale -- the bayous of the Atchafalaya Basin in south-central Louisiana. The director, Walter Hill, has been evolving into a dynamic pictorial stylist, and in some respects "Southern Comfort" suggests a deliberate attempt to synthesize a new genre classic out of aspects of John Boorman's film version of "Deliverance" and Hill's own controversial dazzler, the urban chase fantasy, "The Warriors."

Set in the winter of 1973, "Southern Comfort" depicts the mortal peril awaiting a squadron of foolish weekend warriors, nine National Guardsmen stalked by a shadowy party of Cajun hunters who take offense after the outsiders, lost in the swamp, appropriate their canoes and fire off a provocative round of blank ammo upon being detected. Actually, only one member of the squad is reponsible for this trigger-happy folly, but no matter. The Cajuns plug the squadron leader and terrorize the remaining members of the lost patrol. The plot must be sustained by examining character under stress, springing gruesome deathtraps at unexpected moments and deciding which of the characters, if any, deserve to come out of the crisis alive.

There's not much doubt about who is most deserving -- the affable, good-looking Keith Carradine and the seething, heavy-jawed Powers Boothe as rational guys appalled by the stupes and psychos in the squad -- although their fate is kept hanging in the balance right up to the rather abrupt and inconclusive denouement.

Although obviously the work of a gifted, intuitive moviemaker, "Southern Comfort" seems to fall short of classic tension in a couple of conspicuous ways. The characterizations remain so perfunctory that it's difficult to accept the pretense that danger is somehow revealing what each man is made of. There really aren't any intriguing facets planted to emerge under stress. One guy who appears to be reliable is exposed as a closet whacko, but that's the only "surprise." As a rule, the cool customers remain cool while the loose screws get screwier.

At about the halfway point you detect the filmmakers' beginning to run out of ingenuity. Carradine and Boothe keep having the same how-can-we-get-ourselves-out-of-here conversation; the corporal who assumes nominal command of the squad keeps issuing the same futile orders; the entire exposition seems to be bogging down and chasing its tail for want of clever, credible twists of plot. Suddenly conscious of the sputtering development, you begin to question the original premise and the vaguely formulated allegorical pretensions, which suggest an allusion to operations in Vietnam, transposed to an exotic American locale, with the Cajuns as an indigenous population which mystifies or entraps the blundering Guardsmen.

The allusion may have something suggestive to recommend it, but "Southern Comfort" isn't sufficiently rationalized to transform hazy suggestion into coherent, devastating metaphor. You're not persuaded that Hill himself has a definite idea of what this lethal misunderstanding or clash of cultures is supposed to mean. Like Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma, he's becoming the sort of formidable, spell-binding director who tends to lose you around the curves of his intuitions and obsessions in every other picture.

What you're left with are impressive fragments and hints, a pictorially majestic setting and a distinctive new score from Ry Cooder, who worked on "The Long Riders" with Hill and now immerses himself in Cajun musical motifs. Boothe is an actor who can impose a presence as brooding and formidable as the great, gnarled cypresses which rise out of the bayous, but the role never releases the pent-up fury or latent heroism or whatever it is that his gruff, explosive personality is built to suggest. I suspect that he and Carradine need to act much earlier on the intelligence and physical authority they appear to possess. "Southern Comfort" sets up a potentially compelling switch on The Most Dangerous Game, but Hill's tactical manuevers prove too diffuse and uncoordinated to carry out a successful variation.