Mulholland Falls
directed by Lee Tamahori
(MGM, 1996)

Max Hoover is a big man from a big town with a big job. But he's just come up against something bigger than all three: America's nuclear nightmare.

Hoover (Nick Nolte) is an L.A. cop, circa 1950, in charge of a special squad. They have a special mission, to keep the mob out of L.A.; a special m.o., summary execution; even a special place they take people they never want to see again, a cliff they jokingly refer to as Mulholland Falls.

All goes reasonably well for Hoover and his boys, until they cross swords with a group with a much bigger, and more mobile, Mulholland Falls: the U.S. government. Just how that happens is hard to explain, but director Lee Tamahori lays it all out logically enough for his viewers.

It begins with a grainy black & white film, gains momentum with the mysterious death of the attractive young woman featured in the film and is thrust full speed towards its inescapable conclusion with the appearance of a surprise witness: the man who sent Hoover's squad the film.

Now all this would be enough to keep most detective films spinning their wheels for hours. But Mulholland Falls isn't just any detective film. Instead, it strives to be one of those detective films that's actually about something -- something, that is, beyond how smart, tough, sexy or streetwise its hero is.

There was Chinatown, of course, with its frightening look into the moral vacuum of L.A.'s too-rich-for-their-own-good; The Third Man, with its indictment of the post-war black market; even The Maltese Falcon, with its ironic look at self-defeating greed.

Mulholland Falls has its "something" as well. It's hard to put into words, but Tamahori effectively translates it into images: most notably when Hoover and his squad stand on the edge of a nuclear bomb crater at a test site in the desert, and again when Hoover slinks through an off-limits cancer ward for nuclear test survivors.

Both are eerie, disturbing moments, and both help elevate Mulholland Falls.

Sadly, neither can raise it as far as it needs to go. For under its polished surface and behind its succinct sermon on moral relativity, Mulholland Falls has as many problems as its less-than-perfect protagonist:

• The labyrinthian plot, which has drawn comparisons with Chinatown. Unfortunately, few films compare favorably with Chinatown, and Mulholland Falls is not one of them.

• The clumsy flashbacks used to establish Hoover's earlier dalliances with the deceased. Not only do they slow down an already deliberately paced film, but they inject a maudlin tone that waters down Mulholland's hard-boiled flavor.

• Squeaky clean sets that lack the lived-in look necessary to make audiences suspend their disbelief.

• And the same saxophones that sighed so soulfully through Chinatown and a couple of hundred other hard-boiled detective films. They're back, but the sigh has become a moan. Their music no longer moves us.

Mulholland Falls has a lot going for it, not the least of which is John Malkovich's performance as a nuclear scientist who's grown too close to his work. But does it have enough? Unlike the death of the attractive young woman, that remains a mystery.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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