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LOSERS INTO WINNERS

The late Sam Peckinpah's lively chase movie The Getaway is unlikely to catch The Wild Bunch or Major Dundee on the all-time Peckinpah hit parade. For one thing, the acting skills of ex-model Ali McGraw, who co-starred with Steve McQueen 22 years ago, will never be the stuff of cult legend. Still, Australian-born director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, White Sands) and the folks at Universal Pictures think enough of the Peckinpah canon to come up with a Getaway remake that's down-and-dirty for the Nineties.

This is not the greatest action picture ever made, and mere mechanics like Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme have long since ripped off the old Peckinpah style of screen violence. But there's enough slo-mo mayhem and slimy double-cross here to remind you of the old master and of a time when balletic slaughter at the movies was still original fun.

Moreover, the new leading lady, slinky Kim Basinger, is a huge improvement over McGraw, whose sole expression of character was the nostril insouciantly flared. Basinger sizzles here, and while her offscreen husband, Alec Baldwin, may have trouble competing with McQueen's tough-guy myth, he's an able replacement--cool and handsome. By the way, the Baldwins' sex scenes, which provoked some heavy breathing on tabloid TV prior to release, have apparently been toned down.

Screenwriter Walter Hill, now a director himself, has updated his original Getaway script with collaborator Amy Jones, and both writers still owe a sizeable debt to the late hard-boiled crime novelist Jim Thompson, currently a vogue in Hollywood. It is from Thompson's cynical, sharp-edged book that both Getaway movies devolve, and you can still hear Thompson's embittered, world-weary voice behind almost every line of dialogue.

The plot's been altered but remains standard. Honorable thief and master safecracker Doc McCoy (Baldwin) is double-crossed on a prison breakout job, and his loyal wife, Carol (Basinger), must offer Doc's future services--and some services of her own--to a slick Phoenix mobster named Benyan (the great James Woods) to spring her man from a Mexican jail. After Doc brings off a major Benyan caper at the dog track--a cleverly paced, excitingly shot sequence--a whole new series of betrayals involving the dog-track loot gets rolling. In a sexually charged atmosphere where a fugitive husband and wife no longer trust each other, three factions of bad guys are destined to collide in a fleabag hotel in El Paso.

As in other films made from Thompson's work (The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet), we get powerful scents here of moral decay in the desert sun and the windburned driftiness of Southwestern crooks. Among the several bows to Peckinpah's blood-spattered original (and to his notorious misogyny) are a reprise of the famous garbage-truck scene in which hero and heroine are literally dumped onto life's trash heap, and an alternately funny and gruesome subplot in which a psychotic killer (not Al Lettieri this time, but Michael Madsen) takes a square veterinarian and his buttoned-up wife (Jennifer Tilly) hostage, then swiftly unbuttons the wife.

There's plenty of slow-motion gunfire, too, before tough-minded, competent Doc and Carol ride off into their version of the sunset. Meanwhile, we are reminded that Peckinpah and Thompson may be gone, but they've left tracks: Lesser lights are obliged to watch their step while following along.

 
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