"How could you?" last-gasps the villain in "I, the Jury."

"It was easy," answers hero Mike Hammer.

Maybe for you, Hammer, but the rest of us could use a summation by Charlie Chan. This plot's inscrutable. You'd have a better chance of seeing Godot for supper than figuring out this tangle of sex clinics, psychopaths and mind control.

Nonetheless, Mike Hammer (Armand Assante) takes on the case as cause when his Vietnam buddy Jack -- played by local VA official Frederick Downs -- is found dead. Every time one of Hammer's tropical fish goes belly up, it's symbolic: There's another corpse somewhere.

Hammer's enemies treat him like a nail, always banging the natty gumshoe's head into the floor. But he's tougher than any tenpenny. Mickey Spillane's invincible little PI eats death for breakfast. And he's faster than Polaroid film, the instant sex object. Something's always developing -- most especially with his ever-loving secretary Velda (Laurene Landon), who does his walking through the Yellow Pages in jeans that make our hearts stop and her continued blood circulation unlikely.

The two of them take on stuff so rough it'd turn Dirty Harry's tumtum. One of the first things they do is outrun the CIA, FBI, NYPD, Army Intelligence, the Mafia and a couple of other creeps in a Molotov jeep fueled with Bacardi cocktails.

Then Mike's off to a famous sex clinic where Jack underwent grope therapy by twin surrogates (who show us their therapeutic equipment while wallowing on a waterbed). Later, a mind-controlled psychopath dresses the twins in red wigs, then comes on with them like a Cuisinart. (Twin fish die in Hammer's tank.)

This confusing scenario, which peaks in the major villain's minefield, is backed up by a ludicrous score, mostly for sax, which wails and screams and moans more than Hammer when he finally has his chance with Dr. Charlotte Bennett (Barbara Carrera), come-hither head of the sex clinic.

The dialogue, delivered indifferently and incompetently in some cases, is a mix of good, bad and brilliant, offering such pith to ponder as: "It's the times; even the pope ain't safe."

Silly as the film is overall, there is one standout scene. It's a classic caper, like the time Cagney shoved a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face, or the time Indiana Jones shot the scimitar-twirler in the casbah clash. Don't worry, we'll keep it a suprise, but suffice it to say you'll have a hard time ever enjoying yourself at Benihana's again.

"I, the Jury," full of bare-chested women and bare-fisted men, leaves you hanging. It's a film that's courting disaster, but at least the sentences are short. I, THE JURY -- Friday at area theathers