JOHN BADHAM's "Stakeout" takes the vogue odd-cop flick ("Two cops! They had a job to do! And they got on each other's nerves!") and uses it as a backdrop for a mature human farce that values characters' foibles over their firearms.

There is, to be sure, straightforward cop action. A convict escapes jail, beating a guard bloody. And there is the usual big car chase. But even within the cop-cliche's are original touches. Cinematographer John Seale (who also shot "Children of a Lesser God," "Mosquito Coast" and "Witness") uses a hardnosed, grainy look, not the high-gloss satin of most Big Cop Flicks. Central cop Chris Lecce (played with admirable comic pathos by Richard Dreyfuss), chasing a crook around a fish-processing plant, ends up scrambling and slithering in a fish chute. And the details of the convict's escape, a riveting mixture of gore and suspense, are carefully drawn.

But the real original touch is to put a human drama above the action. Mean, hardened prisoner Richard Montgomery (Aidan Quinn) has broken jail. As part of a nationwide FBI alert, four Seattle cops are assigned to watch his girlfriend Maria's pad. Partners Lecce and Bill Reimers (Emilio Estevez) get the night shift, which means holing up in a dingy attic with a phone tap and a telephoto lens.

Chris likes what he sees through the lens. And when he pays Maria a visit disguised as a phone repair man (to plant bugs), he finds himself irretrievably in love. But duty forbids. And it doesn't help Chris' waning commitment to crime-fighting that Maria likes the nice phone man, too. With the grumbling help of partner Bill, he struggles to achieve an impossible balance of love and duty. And he gets no sleep.

The danger grows by the scene; at one point Chris wakes up in bed with Maria after the dayshift cops have begun their watch. He must escape through back alleys in a pink dress and clashing hat, chased by a dog and screaming police cars.

Screenwriter Jim Kouf has tapped a rich comic vein. The Maria stakeout -- normally a subsidiary moment to the Big Shootout and/or Big Chase -- becomes the focus of the movie. Instead of Magnum-force missions and Eddie Murphy braying, it's all hormones and tapped phones as underrated Dreyfuss creates a memorable character: A hardworking man with doubts, wit and a huge romantic streak. He proves that his recent standout performance in "Tin Men" was no accident.

And Emilio Estevez -- finally playing an adult -- is much more than functional as Chris' helpmate. With his moustache and quiet shrugging manner, he suggests an American Jules to Chris' Jim -- helping his amorous partner against his better judgment, and doomed to watching, "Rear Window"-style, from the freezing attic.

If the conventional West Coast wisdom that you're as good as your last movie is true, Badham has purged his abysmal "Short Circuit" from the record; and Dreyfuss, Estevez and company can sit pretty for a while.

STAKEOUT (R) --

At area theaters.