Buoyed by John ("Halloween") Carpenter's slick writing and Tommy Lee Jones' Texas charm, "Black Moon Rising" is a cut above the usual exploitation fare. This may be like parsing the difference between an exotic dancer and a stripper, but hey, it's a living, okay?

Jones plays Quint, a thief-for-hire whose employer, these days, is the government -- they want a computer tape for a tax prosecution against a big corporation. Fleeing the corporate security patrol, Quint sneaks the tape into the handy McGuffin compartment of a car called the Black Moon, a futuristic dragster that goes more than 200 mph on ordinary tap water. Unfortunately, just when Quint catches up with the Black Moon, it's ripped off by a high-class car thief (Linda Hamilton) who works for a big-time gangster (Robert Vaughn).

The story, in other words, is a well-built thrill machine, as Quint is pursued by corporadoes and car-poradoes, as well as the government agents who give him three days to come up with the tape. Unfortunately, writer John Carpenter isn't also director John Carpenter here; at the helm instead is first-time director Harley Cokliss, who also seems to be running on ordinary tap water. The movie is mostly one long close-up of Jones -- it might have been directed by his dermatologist. Cokliss keeps the action at the level of a TV movie, and it doesn't help that composer Lalo Schifrin has written another Lalo Schifrin score. Dee dee dee-dee dee-dee-dee-dee-dee. Tinkling piano key in accelerating tempo -- now that's suspense!

Still, Cokliss never lets the pace flag, and hats off to his stunt coordinator, Bud Davis, who has constructed a series of intricately gothic fight sequences. What draws you into "Black Moon Rising," though, is Jones, a skilled actor busy with character hooks, with a smile as swirly as a breakfast danish. In the opening scene, a gun-toting hoodlum who bursts into the convenience store where Quint's buying coffee gets a good-natured lecture on his stickup technique; Carpenter has written Quint as a figure of wry fearlessness, and Jones runs with it. He warbles his lines in the sometimes drawly, sometimes staccato blurt of Rip Torn, and like Torn, he has a petulant dolorousness and a comically prissy way of pursing his lips. He's more of a kidder than a killer.

With her gumdrop eyes and swollen lips, Hamilton makes an unobjectionable action heroine. Vaughn elegantly reprises his usual crisp sleaziness (hilariously, he's regularly introduced by a booming bass chord followed by a pan up to his insistent jaw). Bubba Smith gets in some good thwacks as one of the government agents. Keenan Wynn wheezes engagingly as an emphysemic buddy of Quint's named Iron John. And in the end, I guess I'm just a sucker for any movie that has a character named Iron John.

Black Moon Rising, opening today at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity, sexual situations and graphic violence.