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'DANCER UPSTAIRS' AMBITIOUS BUT SLOW OF FOOT.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

IT'S GETTING harder and harder to tell the good actors' mediocre directing efforts apart. Robert Duvall's ``Assassination Tango'' is about deadly intrigue in Argentina, Matt Dillon's ``City of Ghosts'' uncovers risky intrigue in Cambodia, and now John Malkovich's ``The Dancer Upstairs'' takes us to an unnamed South American nation where, yep, deadliness and intrigue are the order of the day.

Two things distinguish Malkovich's work from his esteemed colleagues', though. First, he isn't in it; perhaps the actor decided, rightly, that donating his brain space for a great movie with his name in the title was enough vanity for any career.

More significantly, the film, based on Nicholas Shakespeare's acclaimed novel (and adapted for the screen by the author), makes only one crucially wrongheaded concession to American tastes. This is not a tale of some devious/naive Graham Greene-ish First Worlder romantically caught up in a poorer country's political spasms. It's entirely about locals who are trying their darnedest to remain true to themselves and their ideals against overwhelming, brutal forces of revolution and repression.

Unfortunately, the actors here, almost all of whose native tongues are Spanish or Italian, speak most of their lines in heavily accented English. Perhaps this helped to get the long-unfinanced project off the ground, but it results in stilted line deliveries and a sense of remove from the complex, passionate emotions that are supposed to be driving the narrative. And inevitably, it makes several very serious scenes just sound silly.

Filmed in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador, the picture follows the real-life search for the intellectual leader of Peru's Marxist Shining Path guerrilla movement fairly closely. Here called Ezequiel, he's a mysterious, messianic master terrorist who deploys child suicide bombers, can engineer power blackouts around the capital, and likes to hang dead dogs with dynamite sticks and biblical manifestos from poles and wires.

Leading the police investigation is Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem, the Spanish Oscar nominee from ``Before Night Falls''). A former attorney from a small rural village, Rejas longs to apply the law as it should be done. But with Ezequiel's outrages increasing, the barely elected government sees little wrong with putting the military in charge, and they aren't about to sweat the procedural niceties.

Rejas and his methodical but crack team get relieved of the investigation, but that doesn't stop them from continuing it (the film is fuzzy about when and whether the army or the police are actually tracking Ezequiel down). But the detective has other problems. Apparently, a high-ranking officer doesn't get paid much in this place, but his superficial wife insists on living above their means. This includes sending their adorable daughter to ballet school, which is taught by the intriguing, if oddly phobic, Yolanda (Italy's Laura Morante).

Despite the fact that she gets hysterical whenever the lights go out, Yolanda beguiles Rejas. Something to do with her dedication to dancing, I guess, but it's hard to say because this clearly obsessive relationship never boils past the polite-conversation phase. Until, that is, the noose tightening around Ezequiel contracts to Yolanda's district.

Much like the film's quizzical romance, its mystery aspects often lead to head-scratching. I'm still unclear as to how a sexy magazine model got fingered as a gun-runner, or why the past connections between Rejas and Ezequiel should be considered anything more than bad, unnecessary plot devices.

Clearly, ``The Dancer Upstairs'' has big statements to make about justice, fairness and the abuses of power in pseudo-democratic countries, and Malkovich deserves praise for keeping his eye on that ball. But too often, the film's other story imperatives get away from him, and he seems to make the obvious mistake of letting actors indulge their moments to the detriment of the movie's urgency.

Some typically cryptic tributes to the recently departed singer Nina Simone are among the film's more pleasing enigmas.

THE DANCER UPSTAIRS - Two and one half stars

(R: violence, language, nudity)

Starring: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto.

Director: John Malkovich.

Running time: 2 hr. 8 min.

Playing: Town Center 5, Encino; Paseo Stadium 14, Pasadena; Sunset 5, West Hollywood; NuWilshire, Santa Monica; South Coast Village 3, Costa Mesa.

In a nutshell: John Malkovich's directing debut gets points for intelligence, but it's too long and listless.
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 2, 2003
Words:712
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