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‘The Underneath’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 28, 1995

ANEO-NOIR for the '90s, "The Underneath" should mark the bounceback of that "sex, lies, and videotape" guy, director Steven Soderbergh. Downbeat, laconically funny, arty (maybe a touch too arty), it's simmering, smoldering lowlife fun, like a good episode of "Twin Peaks" without the self-conscious weirdness.

Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) is about to find out if he can go home again. While riding the bus back to Austin, Tex., for his mother's wedding, he daydreams vaguely about some crime committed in an irresponsible previous life.

His return crackles with static-charged confrontations: We meet his sibling, David (Adam Trese), a cop who holds some kind of unexplained grudge against big brother; his mom (Anjanette Comer), mooning distractedly over lottery dreams; and her affable fiance (Paul Dooley), who invites Gallagher to join his armored truck company.

So Gallagher decides to start a new life in his hometown. Sure, he's burned people in this town. Lots of people. But he's squared with everyone.

Everyone but her.

Soon enough, he crosses paths with Rachel (Alison Elliott), his gamin, betrayed ex-wife, who's now involved with Tommy (William Fichtner) a small-time Mack the Knife with the requisite hair-trigger temper. More static.

In spite of the obvious danger, and the attraction-repulsion created by their hot chemistry and chilling past, Gallagher and Elliott begin carrying on in secret.

And, as always happens in good film noir stories (this one's based on a 1948 Burt Lancaster-Yvonne De Carlo movie called "Criss Cross," in fact), the lowlife sort-of-good-guy gets in some really deep and dangerous trouble for the love of his inscrutable, probably vengeful lady.

It's a Battle of the Lips between Gallagher and Elliott—gigantic kissers dominate the close-up love scenes. Gallagher is fun to watch and has a way with terse lines, but he's really too smart for the part—he doesn't dumb himself down enough for this slack character. Elliott, who resembles a dissolute Meg Ryan, is the classic noir femme fatale brought up to date. As her "overprotective" boyfriend Tommy, Fichtner creates hilariously out-there echoes of Christopher Walken.

Soderbergh soaks the screen in moody, swimming pool hues to suggest the characters' murky motivations, and uses different textures of film stock to distinguish between the multiple layers of flashback. Movie buffs will enjoy Soderbergh's wittily perverse casting coups: Watch for Shelley Duvall as a hospital nurse, Joe Don Baker as a security company boss and "Slackers" director Richard Linklater as a nightclub doorman.

THE UNDERNEATH (R) — Contains violence and brief nudity.

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