TOTAL RECALL

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox. Directed by Paul Verhoeven. 1990. Rated R. (LIVE tape, 113 min., HI-Fi stereo, CC, $24.99)

"Total Recall" raises the question of whether it is possible for an action movie to have too much action.

From the opening dream sequence to the final dream-like fadeout, the audience is never allowed to catch its breath as Schwarzenegger's mind-juggled hero runs from one planet to another, from one set of memories to another, and from one martial-arts mistress (Stone) to another (Ticotin), all the while being pursued by master villains Ironside and Cox.

A futuristic fantasy with satiric elements, "Total Recall" makes up in detail what it lacks in coherence. The premise of a cut-rate travel agency that implants a memory of an otherwise forbiddingly expensive vacation is derived from (and credited to) Philip K. Dick's sci-fi story, "We Can Remember for You Wholesale." The gimmick is that the agency can also implant a more glamorous identity for the economy-minded traveler.

Schwarzenegger's working-class earthling opts for the secret agent role for his trip to Mars, a planet exploited by a mysteriously omnipresent organization. There he finds that his body, at least, has had a previous existence on the planet. Soon we are confronted with two Schwarzeneggers battling for one body.

In the midst of its enormous popular success at theaters this past summer, "Total Recall" has become the center of a debate over the appropriateness of its R rating when far less violent movies have been burdened with an X. American censors are notorious for being more stringent on sex than violence, but even so, "Total Recall" is hardly "Mary Poppins" in its degree of sexual display.

Is "Total Recall" getting special treatment by the ratings system because of its financial status as a superproduction? Perhaps. But the fast pacing of the movie takes a lot of the sting out of what would otherwise be sickening simulations of dismemberment and death. Also, the sci-fi setting makes the movie's callousness toward killing almost cartoonish.

My objection is thus based less on the movie's grossness than on its failure to take its story and politics seriously enough. Verhoeven, however, has enough visual and kinetic talent to make "Total Recall" a rousing entertainment that loses little of its excitement on video.

Andrew Sarris is a professor of film at Columbia University.