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'Out of Sight': Quite a Looker

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 1998

  Movie Critic

Out of Sight
Ving Rhames and George Clooney plan a diamond heist in "Out of Sight." (Universal)

Steven Soderbergh
George Clooney;
Jennifer Lopez;
Ving Rhames;
Dennis Farina;
Don Cheadle;
Albert Brooks;
Steve Zahn;
Catherine Keener
Running Time:
2 hours, 9 minutes
Violence, sex and profanity
What place is this? Where are we now?

Well, the beautiful woman pulls a Remington 12-gauge pump out of her car trunk, jacks a shell into the chamber and collars a filthy escapee from a Florida prison camp. Unfazed by the .70-caliber bore looming before him, he strips her of the gun, dumps her in the same trunk, climbs in with her, and a cohort drives them away.

He's a career criminal; she's a U.S. marshal.

Naturally he begins to flirt.

Naturally, she flirts back, even as she reaches for her new SIG-Sauer .380, a gift from Dad.

Where are we now? We could only be one place: in the loopy, vivid, funny, crazed dangerous world of Elmore Leonard, our preeminent crime novelist, whose "Out of Sight" has just made it to the screen, with George Clooney as the good-bad guy and Jennifer Lopez bad bad-good girl.

Note the punctuation in the qualifiers, please. That small jot between the words explains what's so fascinating about Leonard. The key to nearly everyone's character and motive is the hyphen that balances an equipoise of contradictions, the opposing values. Almost no one is pure, as in pure evil or pure good. It's a universe of the ambivalent, the constantly shifting, the occasionally impulsive; it's the universe of uncertainty, where each character has a touch of darkness and light to him or her, a constant war between nurture and aggression, and behind their cunning eyes, we can watch these dynamic forces battle it out bitterly.

This is true of all of Leonard, but it's particularly true of this Leonard, as directed by the on-again/off-again Steven Soderbergh, here on again. Pro bank robber Jack Foley (Clooney) pulls an all-time dumb job and for his trouble is sent to Glades Correctional Facility deep in the jungle primeval of the Sunshine State. This is an unpleasant situation for him, since, as a three-time loser, he'll be in until either Paramount or Disney's asteroid crunches us to dust. But Jack is the man with the plan. Clever (but not smart), he essentially hijacks another escape attempt as cover for his own, and makes it out at the other guys' expense. That's a debt that will have to be paid. But it turns out he's not just out, he's on a mission, though not from God but from mammon.

His victimized marshal, Karen Sisco (Lopez), her pride hurt and her hormones addled, wants a job on the FBI's fugitive task force, charged with rounding up the runaways, though her motives baffle even her. Clearly she's a woman drawn to dangerous men, and her current squeeze is a married, strung-out FBI agent (Michael Keaton, reprising the role he played in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," the last film based on a Leonard book). She wants Jack back, but she also wants Jack, period, and eventually follows him to snowy Detroit, where his caper is coming down. So this is a cat-and-mouse game, except it's not; it's really a cat-and-cat game, since neither of the protagonists is without considerable resources (one scene, where Karen deals with a would-be rapist, using a folding steel baton, is truly terrifying).

It sounds simple; it's not. The movie, from the hard diamond of a start in that trunk, floats forward and backward in time, eventually sketching an entire community of those involved with the law, fighting either for it or against it. Like Montagues and Capulets they all know one other, they have a common culture and natural aggression, and they're all professional.

Clooney is the most impressive he's been on film. Jack Foley feels real, not like some Hollywood improvisation. Foley is charming, handsome, graceful, cultured, energetic and disciplined. He just can't stop committing crimes. He's the eternal enigma of the human soul, a man somehow miswired so thoroughly that he can't begin to imagine a life on the other side of the fence, a man who can express himself meaningfully only by taking what is not his. He cannot be cured; he can only be incarcerated or executed.

On the other hand, Lopez makes you feel the complexities of Karen, and her little twitch to run with the wolves. She has the beautiful woman's trick of hearing only what she wants to hear, and as much as she loves being beautiful, she also loves stepping from behind that beauty and dealing with reality with the professional police agent's untrammeled use of force. This can be physical or psychological, and watching her chew up a pickup-minded Detroit ad guy in a bar is another dark pleasure in the film.

In some ways Soderbergh does a much better job than Tarantino. He handles the time shifts more adroitly, always keeping us on track; he goes easy on the violence, and when he does unleash it, it's short, fast and ugly. He understands the dangers of guns. And he captures Leonard's trademark fascination with truly bad guys.

This would be Snoopy Miller, a dead-eyed Detroit operator who uses violence more readily than necessary, but who hides it behind extravagant social graces. Don Cheadle brings real chill to this bad boy's badness. His advantage is that unlike all the others in the cast, he has no hyphens in his character; there's no opposition in him at all, only hard, cold hunger. He's as scary as they come, and his nastiness gives "Out of Sight" its special sting. The movie is good-good.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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