Picks and Pans Review: Bad Company

updated 02/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

Laurence Fishburne, Ellen Barkin, Frank Langella, David Ogden Stiers, Michael Murphy, Michael Beach, Gia Carides

The CIA may not be totally out of business, but in the gratuitous-activity standings, bashing it still ranks up there with kicking dead horses. And this brutal, cynical, often repulsive but ultimately watchable thriller is nothing if not an exercise in maligning the intelligence agency.

Fishburne plays a CIA operative fired for embezzling money meant to bribe an Iraqi. Job hunting, he joins a Seattle industrial-espionage operation run by Langella and Barkin.

Thirty-five or 40 double crosses later, State Judge Stiers has taken a million-dollar bribe from Fishburne and his gay partner, Beach, to fix an appeal. Fishburne's ex-CIA boss Murphy has shown up, Fishburne has punched Barkin around a little, and Stiers's girlfriend, Carides, has gotten embroiled in all the counterplotting.

The screenplay, by mystery writer Ross Thomas, doesn't always make things clear, and director Damian Harris, a journeyman, seems to enjoy keeping the situation muddled, as if confusion were synonymous with entertainment. Barkin, who hasn't stopped vamping since 1987, breathes heavily, throws her body around and grins her lopsided grin, yet never appears to be the femme fatale she is supposed to be.

The movie's strongest elements are Fishburne, convincingly cold-blooded and resourceful, and the young Australian Carides, who slathers on a Southern accent but effectively projects a growing awareness of her dangerous, albeit unwitting, involvement in a perilous situation.

Veterans Langella, in unctuous villain mode, and Murphy, a master at playing quietly ruthless bureaucrats (though he isn't listed in the credits), provide at least a plausible framework for the often-implausible plot. That can't be said for the painfully fey monologist Spalding Gray, as a greedy client of Langella's. (R)

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