NEW YORK — `NATURAL Born Killers'' comes as a surprise. Oliver Stone's past movies have varied widely in quality, from the highs of ``JFK'' and ``Wall Street'' to the lows of ``Talk Radio'' and ``Heaven and Earth,'' his last picture. But he always seemed to be working from a forthright set of ideas - a kind of feisty Hollywood liberalism -
that gave his films a consistency one could identify and respect, whether or not one agreed with them.
What's startling about ``Natural Born Killers'' is that it represents the opposite of everything Stone's earlier work seemed to stand for, including the basic notion of film as a medium for sharing progressive ideas. The main characters, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, are a bone-headed murderer and his air-headed girlfriend, barging through life with nothing but lust and violence on their demented minds.
Why would the rest of us want to see such a spectacle? It's a question Stone and company might ask themselves when their project bombs at the box office, as I expect it will once its prerelease publicity wears off.
The most appalling thing about ``Natural Born Killers'' is not its story, a young-outlaw saga with roots in ``Badlands'' and ``Bonnie and Clyde,'' among other respectable movies. Nor is there anything automatically wrong with Stone's stated intention of satirizing the media's glorification of illicit acts - a subject that cries out for responsible treatment after heavy TV coverage of lurid criminal cases lately.
What's upsetting about ``Natural Born Killers'' is the contempt Stone shows toward virtually all his characters - the murderous protagonists and everyone they run across: friends, family members, the tabloid-TV journalist who tries to exploit them, the ambitious prison warden who tries to jail them. Stone despises them all, and minor characters fare even worse, getting slaughtered like ants in scenes of astonishing misanthropy.
The audience is invited to join Stone in his smirking superiority. But if he loathes the people in his story so much, could he really think much of the audience watching it?
None of this would deserve much mention if Stone's prior reputation and pumped-up promotional machine hadn't made ``Natural Born Killers'' the season's most talked-about movie long before ticket-buyers had a chance to see it. Even negative reviews will add to its notoriety, but to ignore or dismiss it would be to give it a free pass it doesn't deserve.
ADDING to the irony of the picture is the fact that Stone's visual imagination is tremendously impressive here. It is one of Hollywood's most stylistically adventurous films ever. What a pity its brilliant ideas are expended on a failed satire with little but rage on its agenda. Someone should tell Stone about avant-garde cinema, and steer him toward abstract films where his virtuosity could shine without the nasty attitudes he's picked up recently - and without the sad self-delusion that he's attacking media sensationalism, when he's actually playing right into its dirty hands.
* ``Natural Born Killers'' is rated * for violence, sex, and language.