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Off the Tracks

Moviegoers with a taste for nasty villains will get all they can handle from the heavy in Swedish director Mikael Håfstrom's Derailed. Philippe LaRoche — played with obvious relish by a craggy-faced Vincent Cassel — is not the kind of effete Frenchman you find reading poetry in the corner bistro while he sips a nice glass of Cotes du Rhone. This cat is Robespierre incarnate, and the reign of terror he inflicts on Chicago advertising exec Clive Owen includes bashing his face in with an automatic pistol the size of a Corolla, kicking him in the stomach like a Nazi prison guard, and twisting his testicles into a knot right there in the poor guy's own living room. LaRoche is no shrinking violet when its comes to extortion either. By the time Håfstrom has littered the set with bullet-riddled corpses and the credits finally roll, this cold-blooded psychopath has extracted every last nickel from Owen's savings account — yes, even the $100,000 he's socked away to save his sick daughter's life — and laughed in his victim's face to boot. Sam Peckinpah would love the guy.

Aside from Jennifer Aniston's legs, Cassel is the best thing about Derailed. With the possible exceptions of The Grifters, The Last Seduction, and a couple of other titles, the transplantation of film noir from the 1940s to the age of nose rings and Viagra hasn't borne a lot of fruit. For one thing, Technicolor doesn't do much for deceit and double-cross. For another, Barbara Stanwyck is dead. Still, moviemakers persist in their attempts to make noir neo, and with his first English-language film, Håfstrom dedicates himself to just that. This is by no means the lamest effort you'll ever see, but don't come expecting originality.

Adapted from a potboiler by James Siegel, Stuart Beattie's screenplay (he also wrote Collateral) baits the hook in a familiar way: Charles Schine (Owen), an unhappily married suburbanite, is taking a commuter train into the city when he meets a gorgeous banker with a sharp tongue named Lucinda Harris (Aniston). She's got problems in the matrimony department too, and before you can say "femme fatale," Charles and Lucinda are slamming shots at a bar in the Loop and thinking grown-up thoughts. But even before Chuck can get his pants off, LaRoche bursts into the lovers' sleazy hotel room and starts wailing on them. Between the gruesome pistol-whipping he gives to Charles and the stomach-turning rape he administers to Lucinda — this is, after all, film noir for the slasher-movie set — our villain has a high time indeed. Next on the agenda: blackmail, and lots of it.

Those acquainted with the pivotal seduction in Double Indemnity, the single-minded terrorism in Cape Fear, the violence-makes-the-man ethic of Straw Dogs, or, for that matter, the one-night-stand-from-hell that fuels Fatal Attraction, may have a pretty good idea about what happens next. Pushed further and further toward his limits by a madman, the civilized hero of the piece takes ever more radical action. Guilty, desperate, and half-crazed himself, he tries to turn into an avenging angel. For Owen, Derailed doesn't put as much meat on the plate as he got with Closer or even Sin City, but he's always interesting to watch, especially when his nose is broken and he's carrying a briefcase stuffed with a hundred thousand bucks. For Aniston, a nice girl no longer, this represents another move out of the Friends box, and if she's not exactly convincing as a steamy adulteress with a couple of ulterior motives, we may as well give her credit for trying.

Actually, the supporting players carry a lot of the load here. Rapper RZA is terrific as Winston, a likable, street-smart ex-con who serves as Schine's guide to the underworld of mayhem, and Giancarlo Esposito brings a hip, slick touch to a stock character, the suspicious police detective who senses that there's more than meets the eye in this little drama of a man, a woman, and a vicious thug. In the end, it may be the thug who intrigues you most. Whenever he's onscreen, Cassel's icy berserker provides the kind of transgressive pleasure we take in gaping at a grisly auto accident or seeing that the boss has spaghetti sauce on his tie. As has happened in many previous movies, this villain invades his victim's home, and when he lays his line of synthetic French charm on Charles' unsuspecting wife (Melissa George), it's a thing of beauty. So is the casual banter with his second-in-command, Dexter (another rapper, Xzibit), laced with enough cocky irony to one-up Elmore Leonard.

Do we have plot twists? Sure, a couple of them. Dramatic tension? Some, but nothing that Hitchcock didn't do better a couple of hundred times. Carnal heat? Not much. In fact, a little more flesh and a little less gunplay might have been a good thing. Villain? Great. Verdict? Average.

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Bill Gallo

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