IF SENSELESS killing, random bombings, a confusing array of political factions, deserted children and jaded journalists have anything to do with Beirut -- and we know they do -- then "Deadline" is right on the mark. A movie ostensibly about a journalist stuck in this recent mess, "Deadline" reiterates the news-as-usual about war: Man is one lethal and stupid creature.

As with "Under Fire" and "Missing," this movie uses an explosive setting, buttressed with documentary-type "realism," to carry the film. In all three films, the danger zone is the main character and some solitary American (Nick Nolte in "Under Fire," Jack Lemmon in "Missing") merely a touchstone to the madness.

Given this shock-education scenario as a genre, "Deadline" is easily as good as its predecessors. It finally puts Beirut on Hollywood's map (even though "Deadline" was shot in Israel). And while the plot's simplistic when it isn't confusing, and most of the characters are reduced to one dimension, the paranoia and sense of absurdity is well drawn. And this movie's American, Christopher Walken, is its best element.

As newly arrived TV journalist Tom Stevens, he brings that same slightly demented edge you saw in "The Deerhunter." Which is perfect for this place.

At first he's jocular and blase', having covered war zones before. When his cameraman says, "I almost got killed in a crossfire," Walken asks, "Can we get two minutes out of it?" After becoming a pawn in a political game (he's duped into broadcasting a hoax interview), he gets more actively involved. Which means contending with the Israeli MOSSAD, the Palestinians, the Christian Phalangists and jaded Brit journalist Mike Jessop (played with sardonic ease by Hywel Bennett).

As he witnesses, firsthand, the senseless (and incomprehensible) warfare, Stevens is grim and sardonic; sometimes shocked, sometimes not sure how to react. The eyes widen, they make acrobatic flips of incomprehension. He's slowly coming to terms with citywide madness and a new compassion for human life. Soon he will be breaking journalistic bounds to save lives -- no longer caring about the political flip-flopping involved. And that "Deadline" doesn't end satisfactorily, in the dramatic sense, seems entirely appropriate, given the subject.


At the MacArthur.