Deja Vu

Because of the special circumstances of the murder, Brenner is joined in the investigation by a rape specialist with CID named Sarah Sunhill (Stowe). From the moment Sunhill comes on board, it becomes clear that she and Brenner are anything but strangers. For the audience, this is a blessing, because the banter between them makes their scenes together the funniest -- and the sexiest -- in the film.

But Travolta isn't good just in his scenes with Stowe. As Brenner, Travolta may look heavier than usual and rumpled from the humidity, but the actor has seldom been sharper or more focused in his work. Both physically and intellectually, he's a formidable presence. In addition to his scenes with Stowe, he is also at the top of his game in his encounters with James Woods, who plays the late captain's immediate superior in SyOps and everyone's primary suspect. Their first meeting together, during which the two adversaries size each other up, is a tour de force for both performers and easily the movie's most electrifying scene.

As Travolta's sidekick, Stowe does her best work in Sunhill's early scenes with Brenner and is mostly forgotten later on. (Brenner and Sunhill's relationship is dropped, too, as the film progresses.) She is given one vital scene, in the last part of the film, that shows what a smart, sassy actress she can be when given the chance. The rest of the supporting cast -- including Timothy Hutton, Williams and Cromwell -- give serviceable performances, but they are mostly held in tight-lipped check to heighten the possibility that one of them might be guilty. The one exceptional supporting performance is given by John Beasley, who, as Capt. Campbell's psychiatrist during her West Point days, is sensitive and affecting as he fills in some important information from the murdered woman's past.

In general, it's good that the level of the acting in the film is so extraordinarily high, because the further we are drawn into the story, the more preposterous and less satisfying the movie becomes. From the beginning, the filmmakers rely on the lurid sexuality at the heart of the story to create a sense of impending violence. But audiences are more likely to be disgusted and even turned off by this aspect of the film than shocked into a state of foreboding.

Also, West, who comes to filmmaking after a successful advertising career in England, doesn't so much direct his story as hype it with his supercharged technique. (He made his feature debut with Con Air and instantly established himself as School of Tony Scott.) To their credit, he and his creative team -- cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. and production designer Dennis Washington -- have given the film a beautiful, haunted look in which the landscape seems almost to be rotting before your very eyes. This, together with Carter Burwell's destabilizing, gutbucket-blues score, make nearly every frame seem eerie and threatening, as if at any moment violence is ready to spring.

Still, neither West nor his actors can disguise the essential thinness of the source material, Nelson DeMille's 1992 bestselling novel. Yes, the picture is engrossing, but not especially because of anything in the story itself, which seems not only farfetched and arbitrary but also unfounded psychologically. And, though Paramount has taken special precautions to make sure the ending is not revealed, the twists and turns in the plot are easier than usual to figure out. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes, in other words, to put together "who done it."

Opens June 18.
-- Hal Hinson

The Red Violin
Co-written and directed by Francois Girard

Anthology films are an odd-duck genre: Though there once was a time -- long gone -- when books of short stories were published with nearly the frequency of novels, their cinematic equivalent has never amounted to even 1 percent of the fictional films released. You could argue that Pulp Fiction counts as an anthology, but its stories are too inextricably intertwined. Far on the other end of the spectrum are true anthology films, like The Yellow Rolls-Royce, Twilight Zone: The Movie and Tales from the Hood.

On that loosely improvised spectrum, The Red Violin falls about two-thirds of the way toward the latter films. It has five stories, one of which also serves as a framing device for the other four. As in the amusing 1993 Twenty Bucks, the separate narratives are linked by the titular object, but whereas Twenty Bucks managed eventually to bring its stories together a little, The Red Violin makes its central spine a mystery ... a mystery that is cleverly revealed near the end.

The film starts in Montreal, where an auctioneer (Colm Feore) is about to start the bidding on a reddish-tinted violin, which, we learn, is the most fabled and sought-after instrument of its kind in the world. Among those in attendance are Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), the expert who has authenticated it, and Evan Williams (Don McKellar), the techie who aided him. Each time we meet one of the prime bidders, the film flashes back to reveal the incident that has inspired them to pony up millions for this 300-year-old curio.

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