JAMES WOODS is the soul of "Best Seller," but the film has no body. This unlikely pairing of a corporate assassin and cop-author provides flimsy support for Wood's trademark intensity. He flits about the screen like an edgy sprite in search of a story.

Actually, a story is what his character's after in "Best Seller." As Cleve, an adept hit man for a blue-chip corporation, he has had a lifelong career of removing "liabilities" from corporate head David Madlock's (Paul Shenar) balance sheet. His specialty is making it look like an accident.

But after falling out with Madlock, he decides to blab all to incredulous police officer and bestselling author Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy). Cleve wants the story told "right" -- wherein he's the sympathetic pawn of a corporate evil. Considering himself morally removed from his "work," Cleve shows Meechum his bloody trail -- not only for revenge but for vindication. And, as Larry Cohen's script makes Cleve observe more times than a finger-wagging parent, his activities represent the kind of Fortune-500 initiative that Made This Country What It Is.

What "Best Seller" would like to do is convey a Hitchcockian partnership a` la "Strangers on a Train" -- an innocent fellow is forced into crime by a man vacillating between sweet gentleman and killer. And, just to keep things derivative, the ending draws heavily from "North By Northwest"; at other times, Cleve seems to be Norman Bates' yuppie brother.

But, whereas Hitchcock characters' quirks are tied meticulously to the exposition, "Best Seller" director John Flynn and writer Cohen are frenzied Christmas shoppers -- filling the bag haphazardly, forgetting essentials. Dennehy pretty much plays the same character he did in "F/X," a tubby, cynical cop huffing and puffing to keep pace with a speeding, convoluted plot. His interplay with Woods is promising, as far as Cohen allows. But the gunshots and story mechanics get more play.

Only Woods' high screen metabolism keeps things vital. His best scene is in a bar with Dennehy, where he shows the full range of Cleve's complicated personality. He bums a cigarette from the very fingers of a bar customer, picks up a woman right under her macho boyfriend's nose (using Meechum to avoid a fight) and, when Meechum slams him butt-over-breast to the floor, smiles, wipes the blood from his mouth and tells the stunned onlookers this is just a family thing.


At area theaters.