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"Playing God"

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Sometimes I hate to spoil a movie by recommending it. By raving about a film, I run the risk of building a film up too high, causing people to respond, "Well, it was OK, but it just didn't live up to all the hype." Despite the risks, I'd like to tell you why I was so impressed with the new crime thriller Playing God.

Playing God is one of those films that could have gone either way. Although he's established himself as a major force in prime time, star David Duchovny has virtually no track record on the big screen. His last
outing was 1993's Kalifornia, an irritating "thriller" in which the stiff, monotone Duchovny might as well have been em-balmed. Although his acting talents have improved considerably during his run on TV's "X-Files," his ability to light up the big screen has yet to be proven. The behind-the-scenes talent on Playing God offers little reassurances either. Director Andy Wilson has directed several award-winning episodes of the acclaimed British series "Cracker." His feature film resume, however, remains blank. Mark Haskell Smith, who penned the script for Playing God, certainly has a lot of irons in the fire--at least seven of his scripts are in production right now--but, again, his previous record is a clean slate. In order to find out if Playing God is any good, we're just going to have to look at the final product.

The script for Playing God starts with a juicy premise. Dr. Eugene Sands (Duchovny) has lost his medical license after performing an operation while high on amphetamines. Cast out of the profession he was born and bred for, Sands drifts into the empty life of a downtown junkie, haunting the sleazy nightclubs of Los Angeles in search of his nightly fix. While ghosting one particular dive, Sands witnesses a shooting. Instinct kicks in and Sands saves the shooting victim's life. Witnessing Sands' handiwork is Claire (Angelina Jolie), the collagen-lipped girlfriend of local mobster-type, Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton). Blossom is a low-rent con pirating CDs and software for the Asian market, but he still has enough pull in the criminal world to rate a swanky Malibu pad and a bunch of dangerous Bulgarian enemies. Blossom's war with the Bulgarians has racked up quite a body count of late, and the one thing he could use is a patch-and-sew doctor. But what kind of medico would mend gunshots for a bunch of dangerous criminal low-lifes? How about a drug-addicted doctor with no career possibilities? With the promise of big money and easy drugs (and maybe the vague promise of something more from Claire), Dr. Sands agrees to work for Blossom. The situation is just ripe for moral soul-searching, and Mark Haskell Smith's script milks it for all it's worth.

"It's a choice that's been offered to many men--to serve in Heaven or be a star in Hell. ... But on a good day, Hell can look a lot like Los Angeles," observes Dr. Sands in one of his many voice-overs. Duchovny does an excellent job as our conflicted hero, spitting out sarcasm as easily as those around him spit out bullets. Smith's script, loaded with snarky wit and snappy dialogue, is one of the tightest I've seen all year. Duchovny may occasionally seem too glib, but the dark storyline and heavy moral weight continually ground it in reality. You never really lose sight of the idea that Sands' flip one-offs are merely a cover-up of his own broken soul. Dr. Sands takes his new assignment for a variety of reasons--not just because he needs the money, but because he misses being a doctor. Saving people's lives--or "Playing God," as this film equates it to--is a rush greater than any drug on Earth. By entering Raymond Blossom's criminal world, though, Sands has stepped through the looking glass. He has seen the consequences of violence (the punctured organs, the shattered bones) all his life. What he has never seen before is the source of violence. Seeing someone who has been shot is far, far different than seeing someone who is being shot. Dr. Sands is clearly not cut out for this kind of work, and you just know, sooner or later, something's got to give.

The supporting cast is all top-notch. Hutton has a ball playing the slightly mad Blossom but is careful, even during his climactic wig-out, never to steal the show from Duchovny. Angelina Jolie (daughter of Jon Voight, but clearly stealing her DNA from some other source) is a smoldering presence and does an impressive job portraying a role much more mature than her 21 years. Add to the clever script and sharp perfs Wilson's well-controlled directing and timetable-perfect pacing, and you've got one must-not-miss crime flick that has less in common with the razzle-dazzle crime flicks of today and more in common with the gritty moral actioners of the 1970s.

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