Bloody Good And Bloody Awful

From the start of his career, Clint Eastwood has been pushing the Western into new, dangerous territory. In his breakthrough role as the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" (1967), he replaced the traditional heroic idealism of the Western hero with a more ruthless pragmatism. In the first one he directed, "High Plains Drifter" (1973), he played a ghost from hell, wreaking bloody Biblical vengeance; he was a ghostly presence in the last Western he directed, " Pale Rider" (1985), again blurring the line between good and evil.

He's disturbingly human in Unforgiven, a stunning, dark Western that may stand as actor/director Eastwood's summation of the form. It's a classical tale of the Old West that's a radical critique of Western-movie conventions. William Munny, like many Eastwood heroes, is a man with a reputation. He was a vicious killer, a legend feared by all, but the love of a young woman converted him: for 11 years, he's given up drinking and the gun. When we meet him, in 1880, two years after her death, he's struggling to raise his two kids on a Kansas pig farm. To anyone who regales him with tales of his former glory, he repeats, " I ain't like that anymore. I gave up drink and wickedness." But why does he sound more like a hollow shell than a man redeemed?

When a callow, nearsighted young gunslinger called The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) tells him about a $1,000 reward to murder two men who have cut up a Wyoming whore, Munny jumps with odd haste, telling himself he's taking the job only for his hungry children. He rounds up his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), and with the Kid, they head for Big Whiskey, Wyo., where the local lawman, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), is determined there will be no violence on his turf. Daggett had decided that the culprits who mutilated the woman should pay for their crime by giving her pimp seven ponies. Outraged, the local hookers took up a collection to pay the assassins for vengeance.

The moral issues start out cloudy, and just get murkier. Hackman's law-and-order sheriff, who doesn't allow weapons in his town, pursues his anti-killing crusade with sadistic zeal. But Munny and his confederates won't back down, and in the brilliantly staged, sickeningly dispassionate scene when they ambush their first victim, Eastwood turns the screws on the audience. Though we are outraged by the original crime, we know this isn't about retribution-it's about cash, and the Old West's delusional codes of manhood. The deeper "Unforgiven" plunges into violence, the more powerfully Eastwood reveals his disgust for the false mythology of the Western hero. A lot of violent movies have pushed an anti-violent message, but there's no taint of hypocrisy in Eastwood's methods here. The killings are nasty, there are no white hats to root for and even the villains are ambivalent figures. The darkness at the core of this film is in Eastwood's sorrowful view of human nature, Protestant in its sense of original sin.

David Webb Peoples's solidly carpentered screenplay uses familiar Western archetypes to new effect. "Unforgiven" unfolds with an unhurried, calm-before-the-storm confidence. And with a cast that includes Hackman, Freeman, Richard Harris as a flamboyant English killer and the talented newcomer Woolvett, the performances have a depth sometimes missing in Eastwood's films. His growing ambition as a filmmaker, in movies such as "Bird" and "White Hunter, Black Heart," has often exceeded his grasp. In this powerful Western, they finally meet.

DAVID ANSEN

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Funny business, these vampire flicks. How fortunate the filmmaker who can say that his leading man is Count Dracula; yet how unfortunate when the script itself sucks. The screenplay for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"--the cinematic debut of "Beverly Hills, 90210" heartthrob Luke Perry--manages to be both simple and hard to fathom. You quickly get the concept (high-school student discovers she's been chosen by fate to battle blood-lusting ghouls). But why vampires have become a plague and why Buffy (Kristy Swanson) harbors mixed emotions about their leader, Lothos (Rutger Hauer), go unexplained. "Bully" wastes the talents of Swanson, who resembles a young Cybill Shepherd. The romantic angle doesn't pan out, either-how can it when the principals are a Valley Girlish cheerleader and a leading man who's strictly James Dean Lite? Yet the film's basic problem is that it fails to create what might be called the vanilla-fudge effect, the delicious swirling of the scary and the funny that marked, say, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." As a comedy, "Bully" is a horror show, and vice versa.

CHARLES LEERHSEN

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