The underground film opens with an action scene -- a real-life felony in progress.

The two perpetrators, one of them wearing a bulbous red clown nose, are committing their crime in broad daylight on an Adams-Morgan street. Strangers pause to give encouragement and to scan the area for approaching police cars.

Grunting and straining, the two men are trying to free the tire of an old van from its 25-pound steel "boot" -- a big orange claw that stops the scofflaw in his tracks after he has failed to pay four parking tickets.

"We bought this thing," one perpetrator says, using the taxpayer's universal argument. "I don't see why we can't own it."

One of the challenges of living and working in the District is parking. One of the most effective penalties for unlawful parking is the boot.

Most people react to booting with indignation and profound feelings of unfair treatment, regardless of the number of pink tickets piled unheeded in their cars. But jolted by the reality of an immobilized vehicle, they eventually end up downtown before an impassive cashier to make their peace with the city.

Last summer, however, when the van's owner discovered the boot clamped to his left-front wheel, he called, not the authorities, but two friends who make films often shown at dc space, a club at Seventh and E streets NW.

The 20-minute boot drama was recorded and eventually intercut with other thematic shots such as a blood-red sun, a cold blue moon and an eyeball. The title of the work: "Cinema of Revenge."

"The little man against the big government," Clown-Nose said recently.

The elevator opens on the third floor at the traffic adjudication bureau, 1111 E St. NW, and a glowering man with a peaked rain cap and a reddish beard steps out. Booted and bellicose.

Alex Wright, a 37-year-old artist, has come on this recent afternoon to bail out his 1963 blue truck, immobilized in an alley near 15th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW. He must pay $190 in tickets and penalties, including the $25 boot fee.

"It's all a game in the first place, and I'm an acknowledged player, but what can I do?" said Wright. "It's not a matter of mending one's ways and not getting tickets. It doesn't work that way. Who wants to drive around for an hour looking for a place to park? I think they're eliminating parking places on purpose."

The D.C. Bureau of Parking has given the boot to parking offenders since 1979; the D.C. police, on a smaller scale, since 1973.

Last year, the bureau and the police issued a combined total of about 1.7 million parking tickets, said Fred Caponiti, chief of the parking bureau. About 21,000 vehicles are booted each year, and about 17,000 automobiles (including some of the booting victims) end up being towed to the Brentwood impoundment lot. For the fiscal year that just ended, the ticket revenues totaled about $25 million, Caponiti said.

"We were the first American city to boot on a large scale," he said. "We can get to D.C. motorists by withholding registration, but most people are from out of town, so that's where the boot helps."

In the prebooting days, the ticket collection rate was about 40 percent, he said; with booting, it has climbed to 70 percent.

"Occasionally, somebody will get away with taking a boot off," Caponiti said. "They'll tow it to a garage and torch it off. A parking ticket is not criminal, but steal a boot and it's a felony.

"The irony is, we know who you are."

But then again, maybe not always.

Which brings us back to the Cinema of Revenge.

The two men sit in the street, one on each side of the boot, tugging at the heavy orange clamp.

"If we get this off before the police come," gasps the van owner, bracing his feet against the tire and pulling with all his might, "we can beat them at their own . . . stupid . . . game."

A man wanders up and offers his help; he is thanked and asked to keep an eye open for authorities.

"Everybody's willing to help," says the owner as an approving crowd gathers.

"Yep, that's what made this country great," says the accomplice, his grin turning to a grimace of exertion.

The tugging becomes feverish, the two men seesawing back and forth like a couple of cartoon characters. Although the tire and wheel rim are quickly ruined, nobody cares in the heat of the struggle.

Finally, the contraption, which apparently had not been properly locked onto the wheel, pops off into their hands. The men jump up gleefully, congratulating each other and shaking hands with the bystanders.

"We'll just call this a victory in general," the accomplice says into the camera.

The owner gets into his freed van and prepares to drive off, flat tire and all.

A plaintive traveling song begins to play in the background. The camera lingers on the vanishing back of the speckled, rusted van as it merges with the afternoon traffic. The driver leans out the window, waves expansively and, in the words of his accomplice, "disappears into the sunset and around the corner to the Gulf station.