What James Foley has done with the Jim Thompson thriller "After Dark, My Sweet" is probably somebody's idea of tough. Probably somebody in Beverly Hills. Nobody bothers much with clean glasses or mixers in Thompson's novels. His characters take their liquor neat, sometimes straight out of the bottle, and they're not too particular about the brand or the time of day.
Because of this the atmosphere of Foley's "After Dark, My Sweet" is a little off, a little too fancy-pants to capture the hard-core Thompson spirit. The book on which the movie is based -- published in 1955 -- is a lurid blast of buckshot in the face. Like all of Thompson's work, it's about how life is a dusty road to Hell. (The drinks are necessary to cut the crust.) Still, Thompson wasn't a gun-barrel philosopher; his vision was based on basic, violent foundations -- blood pillars. But Foley wants to make more of him, to drench his raw pulp in existential perfume and sweeten its animal musk. Nobody, it seems, wants just to sweat it out straight with him.
Certainly not Foley. What the director -- who adapted the novel with Robert Radlin -- has done in transposing Thompson's story about a boxer named Kid Collins (Jason Patric) on the run from the memory of a man he killed in the ring, is to pump it full of MTV metaphysics. His images have a sensuous glide; they slither onto the screen with a low, rich purr. Everything in the picture is sanitized. Because there's no stink of the back alley in it, its fatalism becomes a kind of chic affectation. It's designer cynicism. When his characters sweat, it's as if they're sweating Dom Perignon.
What's funny, though, is how easy it is to give in to the thing. The story has a sexy kick, and an old-movie glamour mixes in with Foley's rock-video style. Except for the occasional mental institution, Collins never stays in one place for too long, usually because things get bad or are about to or just because moving on makes more sense than staying. All this changes, though, when he wanders into a bar and meets Fay (Rachel Ward), a beautiful widower who likes to be an early bird in the burgundy department. Fay is a classic pulp heroine -- the kind men go to Hell for, willingly. Through Fay, Collins is introduced to Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern), a hustling former detective who's cooked up a kidnapping scheme to make them all rich and needs the Kid to make it work.
The movie holds us not because the story is engaging -- it's standard stuff, mostly -- but because Foley keeps us plugged into the Kid's thinking. It's easy, at first, to dismiss Patric as a Tiger Beat hunk, but there's a real actor at work here. He plays Collins in a low, protective crouch, as if he were still in the ring, still fending off destiny's punches. Like the characters in the movie, you expect Collins to be a punch-drunk simpleton, but he's smart -- smarter than the people he's partnered with -- and it's fun watching his thoughts move around behind his cloudy brow.
Ward, who has just the right brand of neglected, stringy allure for her role, never seems quite sure what her thoughts are, but then Fay spends so much time with her lips hung over the edge of a glass that her liquored vacillations are perfectly within character. Uncle Bud, on the other hand, has a scuzzy purity of vision, and Dern gives him a scrambling, lowlife vitality. The demonic intensity in Dern's eyes has been simmered down for this performance; believe it or not, he's almost mellow. But there's desperation in Uncle Bud's seductions; he knows this is his final play, the loser's last of the ninth.
Dern's dirtball performance gives "After Dark, My Sweet" a desperately needed quality of slugged-out authenticity -- he gives the movie its edge. If anything, though, Foley makes Thompson's killing universe too inviting, too sunny and comfortable. He's missed the essence of Thompson, but all in all, there are worse ways of failing.