`Sunset' falls short of Blake Edwards's best

Once upon a time there was an excellent filmmaker named Blake Edwards, who directed movies like ``Breakfast at Tiffany's.'' He made smooth and glossy-looking films that attracted huge audiences. They also pleased serious critics with their sharp performances and sophisticated styles. Several years ago, however, another Blake Edwards seemed to take his place. Movies by this Blake Edwards were still very popular. But some reviewers (this one, at least) felt they were generally overrated. ``10'' was obviously a sincere comedy, but its script was lumpy, its acting uneven. ``SOB'' was too frantic to be funny. ``Victor/Victoria'' didn't quite work as uproarious farce or high drama, although it tried to be both.

Lately a third version of Blake Edwards has come along, and I'm sorry to report he's the least successful of them all. He cranks out a lot of movies - maybe that's part of the problem - and almost all of them are terrible. I'm thinking of ``That's Life'' and ``A Fine Mess'' and ``Blind Date.'' They all have decent moments, but the disappointment factor has been mighty high.

Which brings us to ``Sunset.'' In some ways, it's the most presentable Edwards film in quite a while. It has a good cast, from stars James Garner and Bruce Willis to supporting players Mariel Hemingway and Kathleen Quinlan, Malcolm McDowell and Richard Bradford, M. Emmet Walsh and Joe Dallesandro. Most important, cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond gets the kind of strikingly glamorous images that mark Edwards's best films.

It also has a potentially cute story idea. It is set in the 1920s, when talkies were revolutionizing Hollywood. The hero is a fictionalized version of cowboy-movie star Tom Mix. He's working for an old-fashioned studio that hasn't figured out how to put a microphone on a galloping horse. To produce a new movie sensation of its own, it decides to import Wyatt Earp, the most famous marshal of the Wild West, to give Mix's next movie an injection of realism. In no time at all, Mix is mixed up with off-screen bad guys. Earp helps him shoot them down and clean up the town. Then they ride both ride off into the you-know-what.

The trouble with ``Sunset'' is that it can't make up its mind about anything. It's part fact - Mix and Earp were real people - and part unbelievable fiction. It's part comedy, with snappy dialogue and slapstick fights, and part melodrama, with nasty violence and even nastier sex. It's also much too long: Just when you think the finale is on the horizon, the story plods into a whole new go-round.

Garner is fun to watch, in a low-key sort of way, and Willis musters more charisma than he's had before on the movie screen. But their good-natured grins aren't enough to make ``Sunset'' an eye-opener. If anyone knows where the old Blake Edwards is - the one who made ``Breakfast at Tiffany's'' and its ilk - put him on the next train to Hollywood, will you? We need him badly.

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