Acreditable mix of character study and thriller elements, Tim Hunter's "The Maker" skirts but manages to elude several current genre traps --- particularly those cliches surrounding both angstful-teen dramas and hip neo-noirs.

Acreditable mix of character study and thriller elements, Tim Hunter’s “The Maker” skirts but manages to elude several current genre traps — particularly those cliches surrounding both angstful-teen dramas and hip neo-noirs. By the same token, lack of obvious exploitable hooks mean pic will need good reviews and word of mouth to make a substantial B.O. dent. Over the longer haul it should win some fans via cable (it debuts Saturday on HBO) and vid exposure.

Jonathan Rhys-Myers plays Southern California high-schooler Josh, a bright and essentially good kid — though one restless enough to indulge in drug use and petty crimes with his friends, notably wisecracking young lesbian Bella (Fairuza Balk). It’s typical that when this group steals a bag of U.S. mail, they smirkingly go through various strangers’ letters — then stick ‘em all back in a mailbox. On the occasion of his 18th birthday, Josh’s squarer-than-square adoptive parents (his birth parents supposedly died in a car accident when he was 2) seem concerned that he might be heading down the “wrong” path. But a college acceptance assuages those fears.

At this precise moment, Walter (Matthew Modine) appears out of the blue — 10 years after he’d turned 18 himself and walked out of this home, unheard from until now. Understandably, Josh is distressed by his elder brother’s sudden return; he’s still furious at being abandoned for so long. But he’s also intrigued, not least because Walter wastes little time pulling the little bro into his shady “transfer and storage” business, which basically pulls heists of all types.

Joined by martial-arts toughguy Felice (Jesse Borrego), the sibs pose as moving men to rob a mansion. When their truck breaks down and serious trouble looms, Josh surprises everyone by finessing them out of a tense situation.

Of course, a dark side must soon emerge from all this (so far) semi-harmless excitement. First, Walter reveals the meaning of dreams that have long haunted Josh, and the truth about their parents’ deaths. In the wake of that very unpleasant news, Josh confusedly agrees to participate in one more criminal “game.” This time, however, the intended theft object shocks him out of his amoral stupor. Meanwhile, some rival thugs escalate the stakes to loser-must-die.

While in outline this may seem like pretty familiar fraternal black-sheep/white-sheep stuff, scenarist Rand Ravich manages to keep viewers from ever being quite certain where the story will go next. Hunter (“Tex,” “River’s Edge,” “The Saint of Fort Washington”) scores in sticking close to his usual character-drama orientation; lack of melodramatic inflation helps pic avoid potential ludicrousness when the climaxes arrive.

Josh’s bored-suburban-teen milieu and Walter’s murky criminal underworld are effectively contrasted, sans heavy-handedness. There’s also a welcome wit to some dialogue, particularly where Balk and Mary-Louise Parker (playing a local cop Josh is smitten with) are concerned — even though their sharply played roles prove marginal in the end.

If “The Maker” doesn’t ultimately pack a major-league punch, it nonetheless satisfies as both clever suspenser and fairly believable drama. Modine and Rhys-Myers match up well as sibs; latter anchors pic with his appealing, credibly conflicted protagonist.

Tech package is pro, with a clean, unfussy look to Hubert Taczanowski’s Panavision lensing (some tacky slo-mo shots aside). Alt-rock tunes soundtracked are more evocative than Paul Buckmaster’s rather conventional original score.

The Maker

(Drama-thriller --- Color)

Production

A Millennium Films Inc. presentation in association with Nu Image of a Demitri Samaha Prods./Mad Chance production. Produced by Andrew Lazar, Demitri Samaha. Executive producers, Elie Samaha, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short. Co-producers, Rand Ravich, Jody Hediem, Boaz Davidson. Directed by Tim Hunter. Screenplay, Rand Ravich.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Hubert Taczanowski; editor, Scott Chestnut; music, Paul Buckmaster; production design, Jane Ann Stewart; costumes, Rosanna Norton. Reviewed at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco, April 28, 1997. (Reviewed at S.F. Film Festival, also in Seattle, Toronto festivals.) Running time: 98 MIN.

Cast

Walter Schmeiss ..... Matthew Modine Josh Minell ..... Jonathan Rhys-Myers Officer Emily Peck ..... Mary-Louise Parker Skarney ..... Michael Madsen Bella Sotto ..... Fairuza Balk Felice A. Beato ..... Jesse Borrego
With: Matthew David James, Marc Worden, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Lawrence Pressman.
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