`One False Move,' One Fine Movie

XXX 1/2 "One False Move," with Bill Paxton, Cynda Williams, Michael Beach. Directed by Carl Franklin, from a script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. Metro. "R" - Restricted due to violence, strong language. --------------------------------------------------------------- An intelligent thriller.

That's such a rare commodity in the movies these days that at first "One False Move," Carl Franklin's feature debut, is downright disorienting. It starts out with a brutal drug-slaying of half a dozen Los Angeles partiers that seems to set up the viewer for a standard cops vs. pushers, guns-and-car-chases action film.

But the under-your-skin camerawork indicates that something more is going on. And the rapid change in tone - from shocking opener to quiet siege of nerves, with some anxious comedy thrown in - serves notice that Franklin isn't following any routine Hollywood formula.

As each component of the plot kicks in, the film's scope widens until, by its end, it covers an astonishing amount of ground. Racial tension and the gulf between rural and urban America have rarely been handled this well in recent American movies. The powerful, weighted story is crisply told, and has more twists and turns in its take on black-white relations than Spike Lee ever dreamed of.

Fantasia (Cynda Williams) is a small-town girl who has made the mistake of hooking up with big-city drug thugs: her white boyfriend Ray (Billy Bob Thornton) and Pluto (Michael Beach), an ex-con with a genius IQ who bears a passing resemblance to Malcolm X. After they murderously interrupt the party (they're after the partiers' cash and cocaine stash), the trio heads for Houston, where they plan to unload their goods.

On their tail are LAPD officers Dud Cole (Jim Metzler) and John McFeely (Earl Billings), whose only clue as to the trio's next move comes from the party videotape. A mention of Star City jibes with Ray's Arkansas felony record, and immediate contact is made with Star City sheriff Dale "Hurricane" Dixon (Bill Paxton).

Hurricane is a big fish swaggering in a very small pond. His secret ambition is to strut his stuff in a showdown with the bad guys - a laughable idea - and initially he seems to be the movie's light relief. He may be irritatingly foolish, but he appears not to mean any harm, even if he is absent-mindedly racist and casually abusive of his power (he's in the habit of not paying for his fast-food meals).

His wife (Natalie Canerday) sums it up best when she dryly warns the men from L.A., "Dale doesn't know any better - he watches TV. I read nonfiction."

But Hurricane isn't as simple as he seems. The first indication of this comes when he is able to identify a photograph of Fantasia and assure his colleagues that that's not her real name.

Although Paxton plays Hurricane a little too broadly to be credible at first, he soon provides him with subtler and more disturbing shadings. The rest of the cast are equally fine - especially Williams as an ambiguously passive agent of drug mayhem, and Beach and Thornton as the two volatile killers.

Thornton, with Tom Epperson, also provided the script, and the writing, like the plotting, is taut. The film is admirably crafted in its pacing, musical score (Peter Haycock, Derek Holt) and camerawork (James L. Carter).

Franklin's special gift is in illuminating the contact point between ordinary human folly and heinous crime. Even when he seems to be preaching - "Looking guilty is being guilty for black people" - he slyly slips the speech into the wrong mouth: Fantasia's, after she has fully joined Ray and Pluto in their crimes.

Franklin's convincing portrait of life on both sides of the color line isn't quite like anything I've come across before, making "One False Move" one very assured directorial move. We need more filmmakers like him.