Dead Gal Walking

WHEN SHE WAS 19, CINDY LIGGETT (Sharon Stone), wasted on crack, brutally killed a boy and a girl while committing a burglary. Sentenced to die, she's been on death row for 12 years. The hour of her execution is now fast approaching, and her only hope of escaping lethal injection rests with a young, rich-kid attorney petitioning clemency for her, Rick Hayes (Rob Morrow), who until this moment has frittered his life away. But after meeting Cindy, he's transformed; he surprises and dismays his superiors--a bunch of callow bureaucrats who give him the job, counting on his incompetence--by digging up errors in the trial and passionately fighting to save her life. Of course, he's more than a little in love with his client, whose reformation behind bars is illustrated by her interest in drawing.

Following her Oscar-nominated triumph in "Casino," "Last Dance" is meant to cement Stone's reputation as a prestige actress. This is serious "I Want to Live" stuff--no come-hither glances, no high heels, no eyeliner! Unfortunately for Stone and for the movie, she also has no character to play. At no point in this glum, synthetic film does Cindy Liggett become flesh and blood, a woman with a past, a present, an inner life. A Cracker accent isn't enough--Stone hasn't found any revealing behavioral tics to bring this cipher to life (she was much more interesting in "The Specialist"). It's not all her fault: Ron Koslow's colorless, formulaic screenplay gives Stone little to play (it feels as if crucial scenes have been cut), and Bruce Beresford's direction is strictly by the numbers. The filmmakers haven't a clue who Cindy is; they're far more comfortable shifting the focus to the predictable Hollywood redemption of the ne'er-do-well lawyer, a cliche Morrow tries hard to bring to life.

You don't have to have seen the infinitely superior "Dead Man Walking" to sense the fatal lack of real-life texture in "Last Dance." You don't have to have seen Nick Broomfield's documentary, "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," to recognize how shallowly this dips into the heart and mind of a killer, or "Procedure 769" on Cinemax last week to see how perfunctorily it engages with the issues of capital punishment. But even if all you want is a good emotional wallow, the movie doesn't deliver. If the filmmakers can't wrest suspense and tears from a ticking-clock death-row drama, something's gone mightily awry. They strap Sharon Stone down to a table and sprinkle gentle movie music over her death spasms, and in a mind-boggling coda send the rehabilitated Yuppie lawyer off to the Taj Mahal, which Cindy always wanted to see. The funny thing is, you just know the boys in Hollywood are patting themselves on the back for making such a tough, uncompromising movie. As if.