NEW YORK — `WHITE Sands" has something in common with classics like "The Big Sleep" and "The Lady From Shanghai."
No, the new movie isn't remotely as exciting or memorable as those earlier pictures. What it shares with them is an eccentricity: The plot is so fast, furious, and complicated that it's sometimes hard to figure out what is going on.
In itself, this doesn't make a movie into a failure. "The Big Sleep," directed by Howard Hawks, has been captivating Humphrey Bogart fans since 1946, even though its private-eye story is so discombobulated that its own makers, including screenwriter William Faulkner, couldn't resolve all the intricacies. "The Lady From Shangai" has exercised a similar magic since its 1948 premiere, soaring over an ultimately inexplicable plot with help from Rita Hayworth's glamour and Orson Welles's peripatetic camera.
"White Sands" would probably make sense if you sat down and read the screenplay. But its director, Roger Donaldson, fires the story across the screen at such a frantic pace that you can't blink without missing some key detail.
The movie does have assets to compensate for its plot-holes and other problems such as frequent bursts of graphic violence. These include a solid star performance by Willem Dafoe, good supporting work by Mickey Rourke and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and occasional signs that director Donaldson and screenwriter Daniel Pyne have something serious in mind: the excesses of government power when it falls into the wrong hands. But all these good points would be more effective if the picture's basic story were
more carefully handled.
Mr. Dafoe plays a small-town police officer investigating a mysterious suicide. The mystery widens to include a suitcase full of money, an FBI agent with uncertain motives, a wealthy political activist, and a menacing power broker. Our hero's task is complicated by the fact that he's posing as someone else - a dead man about whom he knows less than the people he's trying to fool. Then the CIA enters the picture....
And so it goes, one new wrinkle after another. The movie's speed and energy are often impressive, but the scenario is so overstuffed that details and digressions drown out the picture's most interesting element, which is the suggestion that federal power has become so arrogant and diffuse that it's no longer under control. What begins as healthy skepticism in Mr. Pyne's screenplay is subjected to so many twists that it grows into sour cynicism, spread thinly over so many characters and events that it los es its impact.
This isn't the first time that shallow notions of entertainment value have taken over what could have been a thought-provoking thriller. It's too bad the strengths of "White Sands" aren't parlayed into a more meaningful experience. Donaldson's directorial career has been uneven, ranging from the heights of "No Way Out" to the depths of "Cocktail." "White Sands" has some merits - but it certainly isn't "The Lady From Shanghai." Rated R for violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.