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Playing God

movie review out of 4 Movie Review: Playing God

Starring: David Duchovny, Timothy Hutton
Director: Andy Wilson
Rated: R
RunTime: 94 Minutes
Release Date: October 1997
Genres: Action, Suspense, Thriller

*Also starring: Michael Massee, Angelina Jolie

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

A favorite question of ethics professors in college departments of philosophy is this. Let's say you have one last final exam to pass in order to graduate, at which time you will head for your Peace Corps assignment in Guatemala. You have agricultural expertise which the Central American country can very much use. If you do not pass this exam you will not graduate and your Peace Corps assignment will evaporate. You haven't had time to study for this test (it's in a field unrelated to your interests) and will probably flunk it. But you have an opportunity to copy answers from the whiz kid sitting to you. It is ethical, in this particular case, to do so?

Mark Haskell Smith poses a similar question in his "Playing God," a 1970s-style gangster drama updated to the California of the 1990s under Andy Wilson's direction. A surgeon has squandered his license to practice medicine after losing a patient while he was high on illegal drugs. He is kidnapped by gangsters and offered the chance to perform life-saving surgery on some bad guys who cannot be sent to hospitals for fear of bringing in the police. He loves being a doctor and can, if he chooses, decline the offer, and in the process lose a fee of $10,000 per procedure. Should he perform surgery without a license under these conditions?

The doctor in question is named Eugene Sands, played by TV personality David Duchovny of Fox's program "The X- Files." He is still addicted to drugs, particularly synthetic heroin, and when he does not have a supply handy he'll settle for cough syrup and liquor. He plays God in this film by saving the life of a hoodlum who is shot in a bar (which the doctor frequents to meet his drug contact) and by so doing impresses the lovely Claire (the 21-year-old Angelina Jolie here playing a 28-year-old beauty) and also a mobster known as Raymond (Timothy Hutton). Kidnapped by Hutton, he gets his chance to remove bullets from baddies, live the high life in more ways than one, and even to make goo-goo eyes at Raymond's girlfriend, Claire. In one case he brings a guy back from the brink of death only to find out that the victim was shot after he reveals information about the location of some merchandise.

In the press notes, a producer is quoted as saying, "This film has some unlikely twists and nasty turns. It's got lies, love, action, and enough gunplay for a small Central American war. What more can you want?" Well, now, as long as you ask, for one thing we want some dialogue. In an effort to be California cool, Mark Haskell Smith puts words in his people's mouths that are embarrassing rather than chic. Involved in a formulaic car chase, Raymond says to his girl Claire, who is no longer excited about being with him: "This is a car chase...I went to considerable expense to set it up. I've even considered couples therapy." For his part, the doctor intones, "Hell doesn't always look like Hell. On a good day it looks a lot like L.A."

For another thing, you could have better casting. Timothy Hutton will always come across better as a Vassar College landscape instructor (Jon Robin Baitz's "The Substance of Fire") than as a desperate, wildly envious hood in films like this. When Hutton contorts his face and goes into an off-the- wall screaming act, you're tempted to say, "Wait a're Timothy Hutton!" And a lisping, nerdy FBI agent played by Al Ahlf is really strange. Is he meant to be? And if Raymond is chased by the FBI, why does he wind up in a state correctional facility?

If nothing else, the picture is politically correct. Bad Chinese drug dealer, good Chinese FBI man. And Russians, African-Americans and Latinos are cast. Duchovny comes off best as a low-key guy who is half good, half bad, matched by the fickle Ms. Jolie who is good when she is with Duchovny, bad when working the hoodlums.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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