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‘Sea of Love’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 15, 1989

AFTER "CRUISING" and "Dog Day Afternoon," Al Pacino again goes fishing in the murky waters of sexual subcultures with "Sea of Love," a murder-mystery buddy movie. This time the erotic twist is the personal ads: Pacino plays Frank Keller, a touchy cop trailing a killer who's offed a chain of Manhattan men, all of whom have placed rhyming personals in the back of New York magazine.

A 20-year vet on the force, Keller has a short fuse -- and his temper has been snipped even shorter by a recent separation from his wife, who now lives with his poker-faced former partner. When Keller gets assigned to the case, he teams up with a new-found big buddy (played by "Roseanne's" John Goodman) and concocts a way to go looking for Ms. Goodbar: Place a rhyming ad, date any women who respond, get their fingerprints off the cocktail glasses -- and bang, the killer's bagged.

In this line of duty, Keller meets up with Helen (Ellen Barkin), a stranger in the night sheathed in lipstick-red leather. First she rejects him, then she devours him, and after some highly theatrical sex, Keller decides he doesn't need to take her prints. But soon there's reason to suspect her, and things get stickier and scarier.

Written by novelist Richard Price, who adapted it from his book "Ladies Man," the movie is suffused with singles-scene sadness, Police Gazette ambiance and tough-guy talk, and cinematographer Ronnie Taylor gives it a sweaty, bleary, bluishly unhealthy look, suggesting the current climate of sexual paranoia. Price's dialogue bristles with antagonisms and callous cracks -- one of the opening scenes sets up a hilariously imaginative police sting; Goodman refers to the first murder victim as "a face-down taxpayer pancaked on a bedframe"; and there's a great scene in which a poets' circle of cops tries to bash out an enticing poem.

Price and director Harold Becker build in enough jumps and scares and good red herrings to be satisfying -- there are a few especially heartpounding moments in which Keller's sense of helplessness in his own bedroom is palpable -- but a few logical holes may appear when you talk about it afterwards. Still, "Sea of Love" is leagues deeper than the average buddy movie.

Looking wiry and weatherbeaten, Pacino has some fun playing the lonely guy dogging Barkin, who has a hot and hard-looking beauty and an unreadable set of attitudes. The sexual chemistry is potent; the two share a scene that is likely to inspire a rash of late-night shopping. Necessary comic relief is provided by Goodman, who does what appears to be a Tom Cruise takeoff when he sings the title song, a 1959 R&B ditty, at a police banquet. As with "Blue Velvet," the song will never sound the same again. -- Joe Brown SEA OF LOVE (R) -- Area theaters.

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