The intelligence and artistry with which "Cutter's Way" dresses up the top few cliches of the 1980s is amazing. This is a film with brittle dialogue, complicated acting and visual subtlety in the service of a trite and unworkable story. Directed by Ivan Passer and with a screenplay by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin based on a novel by Newton Thornburg, the movie has an odd history. Under the book's title of "Cutter and Bone" (the surnames of the two chief characters), it was quickly released and withdrawn in New York -- written off, it's now being said, before it had a chance to find its audience. This is a rare second chance. The written roles of a maimed veteran and his wife, and the performances in them by John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn, are of unusual interest. The man is a viciously satiric drunk and the woman a battleground between loyalty and reality. Scene after scene is done with startling freshness. Yet all of this goes into telling yet another tale of a crazed American tycoon who kills casually and can't be touched, and who somehow represents the ubiqutous and invisible evil of America. Jeff Bridges plays Bones, the stereotypical easygoing drifter whose sin is a refusal to get involved in anything complicated; and Heard's Cutter, a stereotypical Vietnam veteran left insanely bitter and unable to participate in civilization, embodies the ultimate virtue of taking the law into his own hands. It's of no use to ask why, if the oil tycoon was seen to have murderered an innocent teenager in passing, he symbolizes all the evil of the nation; why the witness cannot simply testify against him in court; and why the formula for saving the nation from evil includes violating its laws and circumventing its justice system. Movie convention has ignored such questions for so long as to make them seem pedantic in comparision to the swift dramatics we are accustomed to. It's just strange to see so much talent spent to accomplish what other murder films do without apparent thought.

CUTTER'S WAY -- At the Key.