LOUIS MALLE, director of "Atlantic City," founders in the troubled waters of "Alamo Bay," an ineffective and simplistic drama about racial conflict between small-town Texans and Vietnamese refugees.
Malle, usually a perceptive and complex filmmaker, understands neither of the cultures clashing here -- not the blustering, bigoted ol' boys, nor the quiet, clustering Vietnamese. He offers action without character, motive without soul.
"Alamo Bay," like most movies about bigotry, is set in the South, which, as we all know, is where all the bigots live. Ed Harris, the philanderer of "Places in the Heart," is still cheating here, but with co-star Amy Madigan, his real-life wife. Harris takes the thankless role of Shang, a sour Vietnam veteran who leads a gang of angry Anglo fishermen against the more proficient Vietnamese.
Madigan plays a terse, shrimp-thin fisherman's daughter named Glory, the moral conscience of the film. Despite her lover's racist predilections, she befriends the Asians who work in her father's fish factory, a friendship that further inflames the troubled, Klan- agitated community.
Ho Nguyen, a DNA researcher turned actor, is her proteg,e Dinh, a spunky youth who, unlike the film's other emigr,es, adapts quickly to western ways. He says "Howdy," wears a Stetson, but mostly is quick on the draw. Nguyen, a natural actor, steals the story from the stars of the film.
Scriptwriter Alice Arlen, co-author of the radically chic "Silkwood," bases the plot on actual incidents of violence against the Vietnamese. Right's on her side, but her partisan tack fails in the end. It has the feel of a hanging-party film.
Malle compounds the matter with clumsy visual indictments, cutting from worshipping Asians to rabble-rousing Anglos; from a loving Vietnamese family at mealtime to Shang and his humiliated wife eating greasy food and having a row. Well, maybe the Vietnamese are the sweetest people on earth, and the Texans the vilest. But how did they get that way? Even Texans have mothers, don't they?
Issues are raised, but consciousness isn't. Economic pressure, ignorance, infidelity are all valid causes for racial unrest. But nobody seems to feel personal pain. Good prevails, but you learn more and feel more in a Buford Pusser movie where the bigoted, rotten southern sheriff represents about all the evils of society rolled up into one and everybody gets together and justifiably shoots the s.o.b. That's manipulative, but at least it's honest.
ALAMO BAY (PG-13) -- At AMC Carrollton 6, KB Cinema, Roth's Randolph and Roth's Tysons Corner.