Just when we thought Mel Gibson had plumbed the lowest depths of big-studio nastiness in "Payback," along comes Nicolas Cage to do him one better. "8MM," named after a reel of ultrapornographic film, takes us into what Hollywood publicists like to call the "dark underbelly" of urban life.
That's legitimate terrain for storytellers to explore, but this particular excursion is so pointless and meandering that you can't help wondering why major players like Cage and his collaborators signed onto it.
Cage plays Tom Welles, a smooth-talking private eye who's hired by a wealthy widow to solve a mystery. Among the belongings left by her late husband is what appears to be a "snuff" film, showing the murder of a helpless teenage girl. The widow believes it's a fake - the porno equivalent of a special-effects fantasy - but she can't rest easily until she's certain. So she employs Welles to track down the young "actress" and establish that she's alive and well. If that's indeed the case.
Although it's hardly a complicated movie, "8MM" draws on different kinds of filmmaking for its techniques. It often looks like a horror picture, complete with monstrous characters and exaggerated violence. At other times it toys with devices used in low-grade documentaries - mannered lighting, odd-sounding music - to tantalize viewers with spookily "foreign" and "exotic" material.
And all too often it bears a creepy resemblance to the kind of movie its hero supposedly deplores. To be sure, it stays far enough short of true bottom-feeding pornography to not push beyond an R rating. But in the context of a heavily promoted mainstream entertainment, its titillating glimpses of sexual degradation seem almost as coarse, crass, and cynical as the real thing.
Throughout the nightmarish story, director Joel Schumacher plays the old sin-and-spectacle game of pairing salacious material with a main character who's shocked, shocked by the awful stuff the plot keeps surrounding him with.
At the end we're supposed to think Welles has passed through Purgatory and earned a measure of redemption from the horrors he's endured. But this doesn't counteract the movie's basically regressive message, which suggests that evil is not a condition to be conquered through its opposite, but a force to be battered with its own ugly weapons. "8MM" revels in that ugliness, making its patina of morality seem as false as it is superficial.
*Rated R; contains prolonged scenes of sex, violence, and combinations thereof. David Sterritt's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org