Dying On The Vine -- `Jungle Fever' Loses Its Way At The End

XX 1/2 "Jungle Fever," with Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Lonette McKee, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Spike Lee, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Quinn. Written and directed by Spike Lee. Broadway Market, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kirkland Parkplace, Metro, Parkway Plaza, SeaTac Mall Cinemas. "R" - Restricted, due to language, nudity. ------------------------------------------------------------ Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" begins as a believable and compelling interracial love story. It ends with a lot of tedious stereotypes shouting at each other.

Something happens about midway through that robs the movie of its juice and character. Lee establishes a number of people we care about, then proceeds to turn them into hysterical cliches. What starts out as one of the year's most provocative major-studio movies loses its momentum and turns into a 132-minute exercise in speechmaking.

Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra play the couple at the center of the story. Happily married to a light-skinned African-American (Lonette McKee), Snipes is the only black architect in a successful firm that he helped build. Sciorra is his new office assistant, a Bensonhurst Italian who has been dating a sweet-natured Italian boy (John Turturro) since high school.

The early scenes of Snipes and Sciorra falling in love at the office are electric. They're so good, so full of idiosyncratic detail about the way two people mutually discover their attraction

to each other, that they put to shame most recent movies about budding romantic relationships.

Partly it's because there's something at stake here. The architect's marriage is nearly idyllic; his wife and young daughter have done nothing to "deserve" this. Neither has the Turturro character, who has always treated Sciorra with sensitivity and respect. It's not their fault that Snipes and Sciorra have suddenly discovered something in each other that neither can do without.

Unfortunately, Lee drifts away from these four characters, who should be the heart of the movie, and introduces too many friends and relatives who have nothing to contribute but their noisy intolerance.

Snipes' father (Ossie Davis) invites the couple to dinner only to insult them. Turturro's father (Anthony Quinn) and his friends are dismayed. Sciorra's brothers and girlfriends disapprove, and her father beats her up and throws her out of the house. Snipes' crackhead brother (Samuel L. Jackson) begs for money, steals his father's color TV and ends up in junkie hell. Meanwhile, Snipes quits his job because he thinks his bosses (Tim Robbins, Brad Dourif) should make him a partner.

It's all too much for Lee to handle. "Jungle Fever" is overlong, yet he hasn't found the screen time to give each of these people his or her reasons, and even the Snipes and Sciorra characters slip away from him. They start doing stupid things: Snipes playfully attacks Sciorra on the street and is surprised to find the police shoving him against a wall; a lovers' spat suddenly becomes the reason for a permanent separation. By film's end, there's almost nothing left but a collection of one-note characters who behave with a minimum of logic.

Lee's technical expertise is always evident, beginning with a jazzy credit sequence that uses street signs to list the cast and crew. Ernest Dickerson's cinematography is as fluid as ever (he has photographed all of Lee's feature films), and Sam Pollard's editing provides some subtly jolting moments. The performances, especially by Snipes, Sciorra and Jackson, are as strong as they've ever been in Lee's films.

But the pacing is off, particularly during a rush of scenes in which the actors do little but scream insults and hold war councils. Lee's reliance on songs and background music to carry a scene often threatens to drown out the dialog. The use of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Hello, Young Lovers" is particularly ludicrous.

So is the final shot of Snipes, which calls too much attention to Dickerson's tour-de-force camerawork - and to Lee's overwrought, deck-stacking attempts to prove that interracial passion is doomed. Is there really no one in this couple's world who would side with them?

Like Lee's last film, "Mo' Better Blues," this one seems to disintegrate before your eyes. Both movies lack the drive and assurance of his masterpiece, "Do the Right Thing." Yet so much of the first half of "Jungle Fever" is first-rate that you wish Lee could go back, rewrite and reshoot the rest.