IF the title didn't warn you that "Cape Fear" is going to be scary, the opening shots leave little doubt.Eyes glare balefully into the camera; Robert De Niro's torso glistens with menacing tattoos; when Nick Nolte plays the piano we see the hammers thumping on the strings; the picture wobbles between vivid color and hallucinatory black-and-white. Everything signals mayhem to come, and with Martin Scorsese in charge of the show - his first since "GoodFellas," one of last year's most hard-hitting films - you know the signals aren't kidding. Mr. Scorsese has a complex attitude toward on-screen violence. He often uses it to explore the darkest layers of human experience with seriousness and candor, as in "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," which rank with his most respected pictures. Occasionally, though, he appears to use violent actions more for their powerful cinematic impact than for anything they can teach about the characters behind them. "Cape Fear" falls into this trap. For all its visual virtuosity and slam-bang storytelling style, it's just an audience-grabbing Hollywood blockbuster at heart. Scorsese may feel he needs a Hollywood hit at this point in his career, to prove he's not obsessed with hornet's-nest controversies such as those in "The Last Temptation of Christ" and that the popularity of "GoodFellas" is something he can repeat any time. But the shallowness of "Cape Fear" is disappointing from a filmmaker with Scorsese's imagi nation and intelligence - especially since the screenplay deals with material calling for thoughtful treatment, such as sexual abuse and the tension between social order and individual safety. The movie takes its title, its basic plot, and even its background music from a memorable J. Lee Thompson thriller of 1962, about an ex-convict (Robert Mitchum) who menaces the wife and daughter of a lawyer (Gregory Peck) who helped send him up the river. Scorsese follows the original in broad outline, but bows to current fashion by making the violence and sexuality of the story a good deal more explicit. Wesley Strick's screenplay also taps contemporary anxieties about the legal system's approach to sexual matters, with much talk about why the convicted rapist so despises his former lawyer: During the trial, the attorney deliberately undermined his client's defense because the victim was "promiscuous" and would have found herself "on trial" as much as th e man who assaulted her. Scorsese and De Niro have carried on one of the most productive director-actor partnerships in film history, and it's interesting to see them return to the avenging-angel theme they explored so searingly in "Taxi Driver.Cape Fear" gives its horrifying "angel" a cultish religious background - he's emblazoned with Biblical tatoos and speaks in tongues at the height of his insanity - and eventually turns him into a near-supernatural figure, horrendously strong and seemingly impervious to pain. Yet the fierc e resonance of "Taxi Driver" gives way here to shock effects and horror-movie twists geared to making audiences shriek rather than think. On a technical level, "Cape Fear" reflects Scorsese's usual high standard. The performances are also excellent. De Niro is close to his scarifying best, Mr. Nolte and Jessica Lange are well cast as the lawyer and his wife, and Juliette Lewis is heartbreakingly good as their daughter. Also on hand are Mr. Mitchum and Mr. Peck from the 1962 version, and Joe Don Baker in a supporting role that could have been written for him. Freddie Francis did the fine cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker edited the pict ure. Elmer Bernstein adapted the late Bernard Herrmann's original music score, one giant in tandem with another.
Rated * for violence and language.