Some deeply serious issues are treated with often discordant frivolity in "Love and Action in Chicago," a spirited but unlikely romantic romp about a devout Catholic hit man who's shown the light by a good woman. Feature bow by writer-director Dwayne Johnson-Cochran imaginatively toys with genre conventions and features some sprightly writing and performances, but freights its story with moral issues that simply can't be waved off as blithely as they are. Pic's virtues aren't arresting enough to indicate more than minor theatrical playoff, but cable and video loom as promising berths for this offbeat black-oriented item.

Some deeply serious issues are treated with often discordant frivolity in “Love and Action in Chicago,” a spirited but unlikely romantic romp about a devout Catholic hit man who’s shown the light by a good woman. Feature bow by writer-director Dwayne Johnson-Cochran imaginatively toys with genre conventions and features some sprightly writing and performances, but freights its story with moral issues that simply can’t be waved off as blithely as they are. Pic’s virtues aren’t arresting enough to indicate more than minor theatrical playoff, but cable and video loom as promising berths for this offbeat black-oriented item.

It’s not often that you encounter a contempo screen Catholic devoted to celibacy, and even less often that such a character is a killer by trade. But that’s the story with Eddie Jones (Courtney B. Vance), a fastidious Chicagoan and elite member of the Eliminator corps, a covert government org dedicated to preserving “internal national security” by rubbing out undesirables. Eddie rationalizes his work with the belief that he is somehow divinely ordained to improve his country, and the world, by ridding it of trash and sinners, and his rigid, solitary lifestyle reflects his credo.

Feeling that Eddie could use a little fun in his life, however, his boss, known only as Middleman (Kathleen Turner), sets him up with the vivacious Lois Newton (Regina King), whose lively sense of humor prompts her to appear for their blind date looking eight months pregnant. The incensed Eddie cools off once she removes the pillow from under her outfit, but the highly available Lois still has a long road to travel to make Eddie into anything resembling a prospective mate.

These are unusually serious underpinnings for material that’s treated in comic and even farcical fashion, and Johnson-Cochran only intermittently overcomes the disjunction between content and style. Occasionally, the film gets on an amusing roll, as when a case of mistaken professional identity between Eddie’s former superior (Jason Alexander in very funny overdrive) and Lois results in Lois, an accountant by trade, being sent on an “audit” of a man meant for elimination. Thanks to King’s spunky performance and the tenaciousness she invests in her character, Lois’ efforts to loosen Eddie up are also good for some perfectly enjoyable sitcommy laughs.

By contrast, pic is scarcely equipped to cope with the issues surrounding Eddie’s religious and moral strictures and Lois’ fury when she discovers that he’s a “legal murderer.” Breezy approach aims to extract as much humor as possible from Eddie’s resistance to normal human interactions, particularly in the sexual department, but writer-director is trying to have it both ways when the tone turns darker in the violent final act, when the leading couple’s lives are seriously threatened; the comedy and the drama never mesh properly, although each strand is promising.

Vance fashions a man of strong, if perplexing, character traits, although the fact that Eddie seems as uptight as he is morally principled is never explored psychologically or emotionally. Eminent supporting players have a larky time in authority roles that are played for laughs, and Johnson-Cochran has found plenty of unfamiliar Chitown locations to keep things interesting. Tech quality is solid.

Love and Action in Chicago

(ROMANTIC COMEDY-DRAMA)

Production

A Flashpoint presentation with Gold/Basulto Entertainment in association with Prosperity Pictures. (International sales: Artist View Entertainment, North Hollywood.) Produced by Richard Mann, Danny Gold, Dave Basulto, Leszek Burzynski , B.J. Rack. Executive producers, David Forrest, Beau Rogers. Co-producers, Courtney B. Vance, Greg Bernstein, Betsy Chasse. Directed, written by Dwayne Johnson-Cochran.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Phil Parmet; editors, J. Kathleen Gibson, Carol Oblath; music, Russ Landau; music supervisor, Shopan Entesari; production designer, Cydney M. Harris; set decorator, Angela Howard; costume designer, Germaine Hill; sound (Dolby Digital) , Jacob D. Collins; line producer, Kim Bastyr; associate producer, Andre Robinson Jr.; assistant director, Elizabeth Holder; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Barbara Cohen. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Planet Africa), Sept. 15, 1999 . Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Eddie Jones ..... Courtney B. Vance Lois Newton ..... Regina King Frank Bonner ..... Jason Alexander Middleman ..... Kathleen Turner Taylor ..... Edward Asner Oli ..... Robert Breuler Martin ..... Michael Gilio
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