Despite serious structural and story problems, "Traveller," a comedy-adventure about the shenanigans of a clan of con artists, is both engaging and entertaining from first frame almost to the last. Jack Green, Clint Eastwood's longtime cinematographer, makes an impressive directorial debut that features Bill Paxton (who also produced) in his richest role since "One False Move." Receiving its world premiere in the SXSW film festival, and opening on platform in Texas next month, this October release will probably get mixed critical reaction, but with the right handling pic can go beyond the indie milieu to score modest returns with young, adventurous viewers. Evoking in its good moments such quality pics as "The Sting" and "The Grifters," Jim McGlynn's script suffers from an incoherent approach and an unsatisfying ending. Pic wavers between comedy-adventure, dark irony and the crime-thriller genre, unevenly mixing these elements and changing tone from one sequence to the next.

Loosely based on the true story of Irish-American grifters, tale concerns a tight-knit clan of con men with a strict subculture and truly bizarre mores. Outwardly, the members of this group seem “normal,” but they consider their criminal lifestyle less a matter of choice than a birthright.

In the first scene, youngster Pat (Mark Wahlberg) returns home for the funeral of his father, a Traveller who betrayed the code when he married an outsider. Pat’s main motivation is to join the group and make up for his father’s “sin.” The clique’s leaders stubbornly reject him until Bokky (Paxton), the main operator and “star artist,” interferes and takes Pat under his wing.

The next section pretty much follows a Hollywood buddy movie format, centering on the evolving camaraderie between the two men as Bokky teaches Pat the tricks of the trade. Anxious to prove that he’s a worthy Traveller, Pat is an eager, if sometimes slow, student. Highlight is a wonderful sequence in which the two men scam an attractive bartender, Jean (Julianna Margulies), a hardworking single mom.

“Traveller” touches all too briefly on the scary aspects of the clan, particularly its stricture that members marry within the group. Tensions arise when Pat shows romantic interest in the appealing daughter of Boss Jack (Luke Askew), but the movie drops this angle in the interest of the more crowd-pleasing aspects of the story. In the manner of familiar Hollywood yarns about con artists, the film shrewdly humanizes its protagonists to the point where the audience forgets their identity and roots for them to succeed — and survive.

Well-executed climax involves a scheme in which Pat hooks up with veteran Double D (James Gammon), trying to outsmart a wealthy mobster and his dangerously vicious men. Bokky, who at this point has left the group (in a rather unconvincing subplot), decides to rejoin them. Guilt-ridden over deceiving Jean, he risks his life for one last score that will pay for her daughter’s costly operation.

Predictably, the scam goes awry, and ultra-violent confrontation between the two groups, with mother and daughter taken hostage, recalls the torture scenes in “One False Move” and “Reservoir Dogs.” But just as the movie starts to drift, helmer Green smartly goes back to the main line, the intricate web of relationships among his chief characters. Green also knows the value of a romantic interlude, orchestrating a marvelously erotic date between Bokky and Jean in which she seductively dances and strips for him.

Paxton, who recently appeared in such blockbusters as “Apollo 13″ and “Twister,” is back on indie terra firma in a rich character role that’s not only charismatic but holds the picture together. The older members of the cast, particularly Askew and Gammon, shine throughout. The only weak performance comes from Wahlberg, whose stiff acting and monotonous delivery undercut the complexity of his central role. The film’s real discovery is the beautiful Margulies (from TV’s “ER”), who displays the looks and stature of a future bigscreen leading lady.

Green brings his lensing expertise to his direction, which is loose enough to allow his performers to maneuver freely. Helmer pays tribute to Eastwood, planting a scene from “Every Which Way But Loose” on a TV screen. Tech credits are serviceable. The terrific, song-laden score often sustains pic’s momentum when the narrative threatens to stall.

Traveller

Production

An October Films release. Produced by Bill Paxton, Brian Swardstrom, Mickey Liddell, David Blocker. Executive producers, Robert Mickelson, Rick King. Directed by Jack Green. Screenplay, Jim McGlynn.

Crew

Camera (color), Green; editor, Michael Ruscio; music, Andy Paley; production design, Michael Helmy; set decoration, Steve Davis; costume design, Douglas Hall; sound (Dolby), Carl Rudisill; assistant director, Jim Hensz; casting, Joseph Middleton. Reviewed at South by Southwest Film Festival, Austin, Texas, March 8, 1996. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Bokky ..... Bill Paxton Pat ..... Mark Wahlberg Jean ..... Julianna Margulies Double D ..... James Gammon Boss Jack ..... Luke Askew Kate ..... Nikki Deloach Shane ..... Danielle Wiener Lip ..... Michael Shaner
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