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HARD-BOILED TO PERFECTION

Amid the clatter of summer blockbusters, Red Rock West is the kind of terrific sleeper that could get lost. That would be a shame. Here is a taut little thriller that depends on such classic virtues as the well-timed double-cross, clever plotting and vivid low-life characters, rather than on high-octane stars or empty-headed special effects. It cost $9 million--lunch money on a Schwarzenegger set--and in the absence of studio backing, good word of mouth is the only thing moving it quietly from city to city.

Written and directed by a young Montanan named John Dahl (his brother Rick pitched in on the screenplay), Red Rock West fits loosely into the genre some call "cowboy noir"--a countrified update of the suit, gun and fedora movie of the Forties, now transplanted to the fly-specked roadhouses and $12 motels of the Western deserts. Witness the Coen brothers' overrated Blood Simple or the two best examples of the new breed, the 1992 surprise One False Move and Stephen Frears's The Grifters.

While the youngish directors who make these pictures may think they're the second coming of Nicholas Ray or Jules Dassin, Dahl looks like the real thing. I don't know what to admire most--the movie's sure sense of style, its down-and-dirty passions or its sly wit. In any event, it's hugely entertaining.

Sleepy-eyed Nicolas Cage, fast becoming one of moviedom's most versatile actors, shows up here as a luckless Texan ex-Marine named Michael. Living in a beat-up Cadillac and worn down to his last five bucks, he arrives at a godforsaken Wyoming oil rig with a promise of work. But his gimpy leg soon nixes that. There's nothing left to do but stop for a beer in the hellish town of Red Rock, get himself mistaken for a Dallas hit man named Lyle and trip headlong into a murder plot. Armed only with Old West decency and a touch of Nineties attitude, Michael will face many trials.

As in the heyday of Richard Widmark and Barbara Stanwyck, director Dahl stocks the dark, tough prairie town of Red Rock with demons aplenty. There's veteran character man J.T. Walsh as the coldhearted saloon keeper Wayne, who will pay $5,000 to have his wayward wife knocked off. There's steamy Lara Flynn Boyle (late of Twin Peaks) as the vodka-soaked femme fatale Suzanne, who will pony up twice as much to turn the tables. Best of all, there's Dennis Hopper in a classic Dennis Hopper part, the sinister yet oddly self-doubting killer, Lyle, who shows up in town after all. Sheathed in bad-guy black and toting a chrome automatic, Hopper once again trots out all his poisonous quirks (we last saw these in another "cowboy noir" effort, Flesh and Bone). But this time he seems to be having just as much fun as the rest of the cast, and that may be the movie's real secret to success.

Even as the betrayals mount, the gunfire grows louder and the corruptions of the human soul multiply (guess what? There's an ill-gotten fortune at the heart of things), Dahl and the actors buoy up this dark bit of business with barely concealed glee. It's a fine line, the balance between grimy depravity and yuks, but Cage walks it with particular boldness: This Michael's no angel, but we care enough about his survival to pull for him, despite our higher instincts.

The threatening, seemingly inescapable town of Red Rock, meanwhile, will remind moviegoers as much of the dark, dangerous big cities of classic film noir as of rip-roarin' Tombstone or Deadwood. Dahl has so deftly combined Western gunfighter mythology with hard-boiled crime fiction that we scarcely notice the oddity of the marriage. He's an extraordinarily inventive young filmmaker, and Red Rock West is one of the most impressive films of the year--at any price. So before you go traipsing off to wait in line at Maverick or The Flintstones, why not give a hungry man a break. Because his work is killer.

 
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