Most Wanted

1997, R, 99 min. Directed by David Hogan. Starring Keenen Ivory Wayans, Jill Hennessy, Jon Voight, Robert Culp, Paul Sorvino.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Oct. 17, 1997

Most Wanted has the feel -- and I mean this as a compliment -- of having been written by a committee of 12-year-old boys. Writer and star Wayans is clearly a stone devotee of the school of action-espionage cinema characterized by rogue spy agencies, enigmatically code-named conspiracies, exotic weaponry, and jumpsuit-intensive haberdashery. Blessedly, though, his appreciation seems to focus on the superficial, relatively innocent pleasures of derring-do, cool stunts, and convoluted narrative, not the humorless macho-gothic sensibilities of most recent Seagal and Van Damme vehicles. Wayans plays James Dunn, a Marine sharpshooter who gets recruited for an officially unsanctioned rub-out of a chemical weapons dealer. The hit, staged at a ceremony attended by the President's wife, goes awry when the First Lady is accidentally (?) killed instead. Dunn quickly learns that he's been set up as the patsy as part of a plot to suppress a scandal involving medical experiments on American soldiers. While on the lam, Dunn teams up with a doctor (Hennessy) whose videotape of the crime scene could help exonerate him. Director Hogan, who also made last year's campily enjoyable Pamela Anderson Lee hoot, Barb Wire, demonstrates a surprising flair for the kinetic language of action moviemaking. Though this is by no stretch another A Bullet in the Head, fans of John Woo should at least salute Hogan's ability to create excitement with creative blocking and camera positioning, not gimmicky editing, as well as his flair for turning patently ridiculous concepts into moments of visual grandeur. But Wayans is the meal ticket here. With his buff physique, irreverent wit, and mechanical omnicompetence (in just over 90 minutes he displays mastery of electronics, riflery, martial arts, WestLaw database searches, and parachuting), he's every pubescent male's dream alter ego. Equally nifty is his script, basically a fan-designed action-movie theme park, in which enjoyably cartoonish characters are put through their paces for an audience that's let in on the joke from the get-go. Voight, who seems to have been liberated as an actor by the loss of his cherubic good looks, has a gleeful romp as the creepy Army general who's framing Dunn. Sorvino, as a morally ambiguous CIA official (as if there were any other kind) adds sly, understated counterpart to the testosterone-steeped madness churning around him. At the risk of clogging the Chronicle's server with hate e-mail from outraged actionoids, I'll argue that the modern action movie has lapsed into a persistent vegetative state and that its best hope for revival (barring the unlikely prospect of a massive transfusion of originality) is the approach taken by Most Wanted: playing it light, ironic, and basically for laughs.

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