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'American History X:' exploitation movie or melodramatic tabloid sleaze?

By Joe Leydon

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  A cautionary drama about the inner workings of our country's neo-Nazi subculture, American History X belabors the obvious even as it jolts the senses. First-time feature filmmaker Tony Kaye, who served his apprenticeship in music videos and tv commercials, relies heavily on visual hyperbole to infuse his shallow story with a sense of feverish urgency. The movie - which Kaye claims was taken from his hands and substantially re-edited by New Line Cinema - comes across as a graceless but engrossing mix of lurid melodrama, tabloid journalism and MTV-style flashiness. Edward Norton (Primal Fear) stars as Derek Vinyard, a racist skinhead who re-nounces his hateful ways after serving three years in prison for killing two young black car thieves. American History is structured so that we don't fully appreciate the viciousness of his bloody deeds until long after Derek begins to warn Danny (Ed-ward Furlong), his impressionable younger brother, against following in his footsteps. This may be shameless manipulation, but it's also a smart move: If we knew from the start exactly what Derek did, we'd likely never believe his miraculous change of heart. As it stands, Derek's metamorphosis is given scant motivation, but Norton's powerful performance is just persuasive enough.

Much to his dismay, Derek discovers Danny has fallen under the spell of a charismatic mentor: Cameron Alexander (Stacey Keach), a fatherly hate-monger who recruits young disciples throughout Venice, Calif. Years earlier, Cameron had recruited Derek to his ranks. Now the neo-Nazi ringleader brags about the next phase of his political movement, one that involves cross-country communicating via the Internet.

It's tempting to dismiss American History X as a high-toned exploitation mo-vie, but it's slightly more substantial, and surprisingly more restrained, than you are led to expect in its opening scenes. There is a genuinely shocking twist in the final reel. But while much of the dialogue and some of the action is punishingly brutal, graphic mayhem is shown fleetingly and infrequently. Which, of course, only serves to make the violence - physical and verbal - all the more horrifying.

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