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After a suspiciously long abstention, Hollywood has finally deemed the death penalty an Important Issue once again. But the two current movies on the subject reveal the huge gap between the best minds of the "entertainment industry" and its low-rent hucksters.

The good news: While redneck double murderer Sean Penn sweats out his looming execution in the impressive Dead Man Walking (with Sister Susan Sarandon close at hand, gripping her Oscar), writer/ director Tim Robbins carefully and intelligently weighs both sides of a hot-button debate, giving us great performances and high drama in the bargain.

The bad news: In Last Dance, redneck double murderer Sharon Stone, also awaiting lethal injection, falls in love with the handsome, idealistic young lawyer who's trying to save her skin.

Never the twain shall meet at Hollywood and Vine.
Clearly, Last Dance has a couple of items on the agenda. First, it's a soggy plea for the abolition of capital punishment built on some shamelessly trumped-up evidence of its own--a politically motivated Southern governor, a crooked district attorney and the fact that Stone's heroine, Cindy Liggett, has taken a mail-order art course during her twelve years on death row. In the face of a stacked deck like this one, individual audience opinions on state-sanctioned killing quickly become irrelevant: Hang-'em-high types will be livid, but even the most fervent death-penalty opponent simply has to acknowledge the movie's crude manipulations and intellectual dishonesty. By logical extension, director Bruce Beresford and the gang might have shipped Jeffrey Dahmer off to a daycare center.

On the other hand, the capital-punishment debate is not really the point of Last Dance. The point is to market Sharon Stone--if only for a moment--as a "serious" actress. The 1990s' answer to Lana Turner has frequently committed murder on screen, usually with great relish and in a state of half-nakedness. But this is the first time Stone has ever regretted knocking anyone off. Evidently, that is meant to signal the emergence of "artist" from the chrysalis of "movie star." But Stone just doesn't have the goods. She's outranked in the death-row-melodrama department even by the mediocre Susan Hayward, who trotted off to the gas chamber in 1958's I Want to Live, and she's no match, either, for the cartoonish female inmates in hilarious exploitation flicks like Caged Heat.

It's not Stone's fault that, even draped in baggy prison coveralls and bereft of makeup, she cannot disguise her steamy glamour. And she certainly isn't responsible for a dreadful script: Into the Night's Ron Koslow is. But the absurdity of this modestly talented major sex queen tackling redemptive "tragedy" is everywhere evident--as though Jim Carrey were doing Hamlet. Or Mel Gibson.

Here are some of the gruesome details:
Our Cindy, a hard-bitten, drug-addled lass from the customary abusive family, has a dozen years earlier committed a youthful crime of passion in an unnamed Southern state. She's still got the hard shell. But it doesn't take that long for the novice clemency-department lawyer Rick Hayes (Rob Morrow)--a well-heeled Princeton playboy who drives a blue Porsche, no less--to break through and provide a glimmer of hope as Cindy's execution date grows near. The spectacle of the aimless rich boy going to bat for the tattered trailer-park reject (and finding himself in the process) is hackneyed enough, but writer Koslow and slumping director Beresford don't quit there. There's an apathetic governor (Jack Thompson) who has never commuted any death sentence. There's Rick's ambitious big brother (Peter Gallagher), who sucks up to the guv. Rick's got a cynical boss (Randy Quaid). There's also a black male death-row inmate who will probably get the benefit of the doubt because his memoirs have been on the New York Times bestseller list. And a corrupt prosecutor who suppressed mitigating evidence at Cindy's trial. And a co-defendant who lied.

Meanwhile, who wouldn't fall in love with Cindy Liggett's horse sketches? If we aren't already appalled that the governor is about to execute Sharon Stone instead of inviting her to Barbados for three weeks, her girlish, innocent sketches of horses and people and--yes--even the Taj Mahal are meant to do the trick. To impress us with her good heart. To show evidence of her complete rehabilitation. To demonstrate how it is possible that this tough, savvy convict can fall for an insufferable yuppie jerk like the goody-goody Rick.

"I'm not begging for mercy I'm not gonna get," Cindy tells us, a rather direct echo of Matthew Poncelet's defiance in Dead Man Walking. She wants, instead, to die on her own terms. Unless loverboy can get her life with parole.

All of this would make some kind of sense, might even add something to the death-penalty debate, if it weren't such a prepackaged, pat, commercial load of crap designed to exalt its star. Breaker Morant director Beresford, who's been in a horrendous slump since Driving Miss Daisy, has made some real clunkers in the last few years--Black Robe, Rich in Love and A Good Man in Africa, just for a start. But this thing retires the trophy. Even the inevitable eleventh-hour crises, so dramatically handled by Robbins, Penn and Sarandon, are corn mush this time around--Sharon changing into her brown dress, Sharon strapped to the table, Rick wondering about that stay of execution, the guards and wardens looking grave. We're supposed to feel all that emotion, but Last Dance has already used us so badly that it's hard to care.

Gimme that needle. Let's put this whole unfortunate episode out of its misery and get Sharon Stone back into her authentic metier--flashing Michael Douglas down at the police station or blowing up the joint with Sylvester Stallone. The woman is simply not made for confinement--or for social debate.

Last Dance.
Screenplay by Ron Koslow. Directed by Bruce Beresford. With Sharon Stone, Rob Morrow, Randy Quaid and Peter Gallagher.

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