Bad Company
directed by Damian Harris
(Buena Vista, 1995)

One of the few rules I have about films is never watching one that features as its main character a former CIA agent. This week I made an exception, for two reasons: 1) Laurence Fishburne, and 2) Ellen Barkin.

Fishburne is the kind of actor who can light up just about any screen, even in a seemingly unsympathetic role, and he's been on my must-see list ever since Looking for Bobby Fisher. Barkin, on the other hand, is the kind of actress who can light up just about any actor, Fishburne included.

Sadly, Bad Company offers neither the performers nor the audience much to get fired up about.

It opens promisingly enough, with the camera moving at water-level across a harbor towards the city, then dissolving to a gray stone building, where recently downsized CIA agent Nelson Crowe (Fishburne) is taking an aptitude test under the watchful eyes of Margaret "The Snow Queen" Wells (Barkin).

While his score is nothing to Crowe about, it's sufficient to get him a job offer from Wells' boss, Vic Grimes (Frank Langella), who's setting up his own personal CIA, designed to serve private industry much in the same way the agency serves the government: a little kidnapping, a little blackmail, some bribery and, occasionally, something a bit more serious.

Crowe starts small, setting up and sandbagging a CEO someone wants out of the way. But he's soon ready for bigger things: like bribing a state supreme court judge (David Ogden Stiers) so he'll help overturn a $25 million damage claim against a major polluter.

Then cut to the chaise -- lounge, that is -- where the double-jointed Wells is simultaneously getting off on Crowe and the idea of taking out Grimes so she can take over the company.

All this would seem to provide plenty of viewer interest. After all, Fishburne carries about a built-in intensity that never quits, and when it comes to being steamy, Barkin is a one-woman sauna.

But in his haste to provide more plots than a cemetery, screenwriter Ross Thomas forgot one little thing: that if the characters don't care, neither do the viewers.

Not one character in Bad Company cares about anything besides money or power, making it hard to care about what happens to any of them. Moral ambiguity quickly gives way to moral apathy, then viewer apathy. By the final three-way shootout, it's difficult to decide who, if anyone, to root for.

Bad Company is a slick film, well photographed in ominous grays and deep blues. It has an interesting score, it's well framed, and it's mercifully free of car chases and explosions. But without characters to latch onto, both Barkin and Fishburne seem at a loss for what to do. The sparks that should fly rarely do, and when they do, they can't be sustained.

Somewhere out there, I'm sure, there's a wonderful film about the exploits of a former CIA agent. But Bad Company isn't it.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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