NEW YORK — A FEW scenes into `Unlawful Entry," the new thriller by Jonathan Kaplan, there's a jarring and unexpected moment.
In a dark and lonely place, a burglar is apprehended by two other men - a police officer and a private citizen whose wife was recently threatened when the burglar broke into their home. The cop has caught the burglar so his friend can personally take revenge for the crime. When the friend refuses to assault the now-helpless criminal, the officer does it for him, sadistically.
The burglar is black; the officer is white. Although there's only one policeman on the attack, it's impossible to miss the echo of America's most horrifying home video - the indelible image of four Los Angeles officers beating motorist Rodney King in a shocking incident that touched off rage and rioting in United States cities.
The echo of this real-life event is so strong in "Unlawful Entry" that I can't imagine its presence is an accident. It's upsetting to see a well-armed officer savagely assaulting a suspect who can't fight back, and it's easy to sympathize with the friend who refuses to participate in such a thing - calling for mercy and even stopping the attack, even though he's the one who has most reason for hating the cornered criminal.
"Unlawful Entry" would be an important film if it followed this scene with an intelligent look at the social, political, and institutional problems that lead to such incidents. Unfortunately, the movie isn't serious-minded enough to do this. What could have been an incisive examination of an urgently relevant subject turns into mere melodrama with the usual sex-and-violence twists.
The policeman, we discover, isn't the all-too-revealing product of a priority-skewed culture that puts regrettable faith in violence and force as problem-solving resources. Rather, he's just a movie-style psychotic, and his increasingly dangerous outbursts are as inexplicable as they are uncontrollable. The film invites us to gasp at his exploits, but not to think about the social atmosphere that might bring such a beast into being - and even put him on the police force, where he can do plenty of damage.
The finale is also a letdown, resolving the story in an eruption of mayhem that the formerly nonviolent friend no longer tries to avoid. "Unlawful Entry" thus joins a long string of movies that set up a character as nice and peaceable, but then manipulate the plot so that a violent response seems natural and inevitable. This genre runs from old-time hits like "High Noon" and "Friendly Persuasion" to Paul Schrader's fascinating "Light Sleeper," due soon. A lengthy pedigree doesn't make this kind of film m orally unquestionable, however.
AS a melodrama, "Unlawful Entry" works smoothly and efficiently, yet brutally at times. The story pumps along at a rapid clip, generating the requisite number of thrills with a minimum of gimmicks and distractions. Ray Liotta makes the crazy cop a truly scary figure, although he doesn't give this particular psychotic the uncanny resonance of the characters he played in "Something Wild" and "GoodFellas," his most memorable movies. Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe are properly engaging as the other main ch aracters. The editing and cinematography are solid.
None of which is surprising in a picture directed by Mr. Kaplan, whose career has encompassed first-rate genre exercises as diverse as the truck-driving adventure "White Line Fever" and the teenage melodrama "Over the Edge," not to mention "The Accused," which earned an Oscar for Jodie Foster.
Although his visual imagination is more reliable than his storytelling skill, especially when he doesn't have an excellent screenplay to work with, Kaplan has real talent for spinning vigorous yarns. In terms of sheer technique, "Unlawful Entry" stands with his better achievements. In terms of thoughtfulness and social value, however, it raises high expectations that it has no intention of satisfying. Rated R for scenes of violence, sexuality, and language.