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"Playing God" digs up the typical retro-noir cliches, but doesn't bring them to life.

By Coury Turczyn

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  It's getting almost as hard to write about hip, post-modern, neo-noir gangster dramas as it is to watch them. Can there possibly be any thrills left in movies about greasy-looking guys in sharkskin suits who shoot their guns sideways? How many times can we get a charge out of watching underworld hipsters in cool sunglasses plot their next big scores? Message to Hollywood: This horse is beyond dead—it's petrified into solid rock; must you keep dragging it along?

You would think the genre would have retired to cable TV moviedom by now where such tired cheese truly belongs, but we still keep getting our movie screens cluttered with ironic dialogue and retro soundtracks. The newest addition is Touchstone's Playing God, which would've been a great Showtime production with a small straight-to-video release. Sadly, we must bear its presence in local theaters for a limited time.

Playing God's one big draw—at least for the first ten minutes, anyway—is that it's David Duchovny's first big leading man role since his X-Files ascension. Obsessed fans and Cosmo readers want to know: Can the low-key hunk carry a movie? Maybe so, but not this one. Even though Playing God has the benefit of an interesting premise, it still can't evade the curse of its genre: it's just plain dull.

Duchovny plays Dr. Eugene Sands, a former L.A. surgeon stripped of his medical license after performing an operation while under the influence of amphetamines. Months later, he's at rock bottom, addicted to artificial heroin, living in a crappy apartment in a bad neighborhood, and not doing much with himself. While buying some drugs one night at a nightclub, he manages to save the life of someone who's been shot by gangsters. This person happens to be in the employ of another gangster—black marketer Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton). Blossom is so impressed by Eugene's abilities, he offers him a job as his personal surgeon. Which means fixing lots of gunshot wounds.

The idea is fairly promising: A former doctor sworn to protect life is in bed with criminals just so he can practice his profession. All sorts of ethical dilemmas pile up as the bullets fly. By aiding a crime lord, isn't he perpetuating the violence? Or is he helping people survive who would otherwise die? Eventually, of course, the FBI puts the squeeze on Eugene, forcing him to try and get evidence on Raymond and his Chinese connections. And wouldn't you know it—Raymond has a gorgeous girlfriend (Angelina Jolie) whom Eugene falls for. Oh, those unexpected complications.

All of this might have worked (on paper, anyhow) with the right casting; the script often has some good, punchy lines, and the characterizations are fairly colorful. But—even though the producers gave it a good shot with Duchovny, Hutton, and Jolie—none of these personalities meld into any sort of percolating chemistry. And if a gangster drama needs anything, it's magnetic personas.

Duchovny is very good at the wry deadpan, that one he does with the small twinkle in his eye denoting his vast intellect. This kind of delivery works well on The X-Files as he faces off against fantastic outer space visitors; it doesn't work so well when he's supposedly fearful for his life right here in grim reality. At first, his laconic demeanor fits in with the whole retro-noir mood—his fatalistic quips in the movie's voice-over narration are fully in the world-weary tough guy tradition. But he never changes. That's all he can offer: straight-faced, smarty-pants one-liners. Even when his character is supposedly wracked by withdrawal pains when he goes cold turkey, he just seems a little more sweaty. Or when Eugene grabs a shotgun and starts threatening to shoot people, Duchovny is about as emotional as if he were playing a video game. Where's the rage, fear, lust, hope?

Likewise, Hutton is at first quite arresting as crime lord Raymond, and there are gleanings that this reverse-casting might work. He looks kind of like an aging Starbucks employee from Miami—all peroxide hair, designery sunglasses, and velvety shirts. This is the psychotic, murderous, criminal genius? you ask yourself, looking forward to seeing Hutton turn the corner and become a deranged psychopath. But he never quite does. In fact, for the most part, he seems rather likable and benign—much too cute to be frightening. And Raymond's criminal empire is based on selling bootleg Michael Jackson albums to Russia? Oooh, scary.

Without much of a dangerous villain—and with Duchovny not appearing very frightened by any of the danger his character does encounter—Playing God becomes mostly an exercise in genre regurgitation. We've got the federal agent willing to sacrifice anyone to get his man, the femme fatale who plays both sides of the field, the various thugs with quirky traits, and lots of people getting blown away... and in the end, it doesn't amount to much, not to the characters and certainly not to the audience. It's the kind of film that premium movie channels replay endlessly in the hopes that people will have forgotten that they already saw it.

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