A sultry sex-suspenser about some gringos on the run south of the border, "The Wrong Man" teeters back and forth over the line between good dirty genre fun and outright silliness. Although there is too much of the latter, enough remains in the way of offbeat scenes, potent atmosphere and overt sexuality to keep red-blooded viewers interested.

A sultry sex-suspenser about some gringos on the run south of the border, “The Wrong Man” teeters back and forth over the line between good dirty genre fun and outright silliness. Although there is too much of the latter, enough remains in the way of offbeat scenes, potent atmosphere and overt sexuality to keep red-blooded viewers interested. Hotsy Viacom entry will be premiered domestically on Showtime in the fall, and should be a decent bet for theatrical sales offshore.

Story is as familiar as any in the film noir genre, with elements of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Big Steal,” among many others.

A blue-eyed Yank in a white suit, Kevin Anderson, is in the wrong place at the wrong time, standing in a grubby room with a gun in his hand over a dead man who had recently robbed him of his wallet, which gives the pursuing police positive I.D. of their suspect.

Innocent of any crime but looking guilty as hell, Anderson dives into an old American convertible belonging to Rosanna Arquette and older hubby John Lithgow.

The couple agree to let the stranger hitch a ride, and at their first rest stop, Arquette immediately gets their guest heated up by frolicking topless in the surf and caressing her splendid torso.

With the youngsters mooning and drooling over each other from the outset, it’s only a matter of time until they ignite, but the way they combust — publicly and almost oblivious to the presence of Lithgow — reps one of the pic’s interesting wrinkles.

In a Veracruz public square during a concert, on the road and, finally, in a rather amazing triangular scene in a motel room, Arquette and Anderson heat each other up to near-boiling, but always stop short of consummation.

Through all this, Lithgow displays a curious variety of reactions, ranging from jealous rage to aged resignation and manly camaraderie with his youthful rival. And it is one of the film’s jokes that, after working each other up countless times, when the passionate duo finally get it on, coupling happens off camera.

Michael Thoma’s script, from a story by Roy Carlson, is low on believability and high on goofy contrivance, and there’s so little realistically at stake that no tension is generated in a narrative sense. The Mexican cops, while not derided in an old-fashioned way, are destined not to catch up with their prey until the end, and overlong pic often is lax when it should have more snap.

These deficiencies make it incumbent upon director Jim McBride to goose up matters however he can, which he does through a heavy dose of colorfully seedy atmosphere.

Much like his “The Big Easy,” which was also shot by Affonso Beato, “The Wrong Man” seethes with languid humidity, sexy sweat, the grime of crime and the moral dubiousness of its characters and settings. The Mexican gulf locations and the creative costumes combine for a vividly colorful background palette.

Even more notably, however, McBride has made Rosanna Arquette the inarguable centerpiece of the picture. Watching her gallivant around as a voluptuous bimbo who is continually stirring up the testosterone of Anderson and Lithgow, it is impossible not to regard the film, as much as anything else, as a documentary tribute to the actress’ breasts.

Her very entrance is framed in such a way as to emphasize Arquette’s resplendent physical attributes, and there is not a single scene in which her superstructure is not spotlighted, either bursting to get out of whatever she’s wearing or, having escaped, being admiringly displayed in all its glory.

Lithgow gives a memorable reading of a volatile man with a seismically shifting sense of self, while Anderson could perhaps have brought more energy to his romantically burned expatriate who almost passively sets off the sexual sturm und drang.

In the end, pic stands as a modest exercise in style and a riff on familiar themes that will find favor among some aficionados of the form.

The Wrong Man

Production

A Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation of a Viacom Pictures presentation of a Beattie/Chesser production. (Intl. sales, Manifesto.) Produced by Alan Beattie, Chris Chesser. Executive producer, Frederick Schneier. Co-producer, Roy Carlson. Line producer, Ted Swanson. Directed by Jim McBride. Screenplay, Michael Thoma, story by Carlson.

Crew

Camera (CFI color), Affonso Beato; editor, Lisa Churgin; music, Los Lobos; production design, Jeannine Oppewall; art direction, Hector Romero; costume design, Tracy Tynan, Rudy Dillon; associate producer, Anna Roth; assistant directors, Jack Baran, Miguel Lima. Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), Ma 16, 1993. Running time: 110 min.

With

Missy Mills - Rosanna Arquette Alex Walker - Kevin Anderson Phillip Mills - John Lithgow Captain Diaz - Jorge Cervera Jr. Detective Ortega - Ernesto Laguardia Felix Crawley - Robert Harper

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