End-of-summer clearance sale continues apace with a blunt-force revenge melodrama that's notable primarily for its intriguing undercurrents of score-settling fantasy fulfillment. Co-produced by Mel Gibson and directed by the superstar's former hairstylist. Word of mouth could generate interest among vid renters and cable viewers.

The end-of-summer clearance sale continues apace at megaplexes with the arrival of “Paparazzi,” a blunt-force revenge melodrama that’s notable primarily for its intriguing undercurrents of score-settling fantasy fulfillment. Co-produced by Mel Gibson, who hasn’t been shy about expressing displeasure at being the subject of constant media scrutiny, and directed by the superstar’s former hairstylist, pic percolates with bilious rage while depicting amorally relentless celebrity photogs as degenerate monsters to be killed with impunity. It’s no surprise ticketbuyers ignored tawdry product, which Fox dumped into Labor Day weekend release without press previews. Down the road, however, word of mouth could generate interest among vid renters and cable viewers.

Visually uninspired and dramatically overheated, “Paparazzi” has overall look and feel of generic direct-to-video production, an impression reinforced by casting of Cole Hauser — who greatly resembles his dad, Wings Hauser, mainstay of ’80s action-adventure vidpix — in lead role.

Hauser is blandly efficient but charisma-challenged as Bo Laramie, a rising action-movie hero who achieves overnight superstardom as the lead in something called “Adrenaline Rush.” (Pic appears to be first chapter in franchise not unlike Gibson’s “Lethal Weapon” actioners.)

Despite his burgeoning celebrity, Bo tries to remain a down-to-earth regular guy, treasuring offscreen downtime with his loving wife (Robin Tunney, largely wasted) and grade-schooler son (Blake Bryan).

But despicably sleazy paparazzi insist on photographing Bo and his family, to illustrate sensationalistic (and usually fictionalized, if not downright libelous) tabloid stories.

The most despicably sleazy of the lot, Rex Harper (Tom Sizemore, in ranting slimeball mode), continues to snap pix of Bo’s son at a soccer game even after Bo politely but firmly asks the paparazzo to stop. So the actor punches out the photog, leading to Bo’s forced enrollment in anger-management therapy. (Latter cues funny, fleeting cameo by Gibson as another therapy patient.) Worse, an unmanageably angry Rex promises even more despicable sleaziness. Gazing at Bo’s digital image, he growls: “I’m going to destroy your life and eat your soul.”

Things take a predictably nasty turn when Rex and three equally loathsome colleagues (Daniel Baldwin, Tom Hollander, Kevin Gage) inadvertently cause a tragic auto mishap while hotly pursuing Bo and his family. (Any resemblance to events surrounding death of Princess Diana presumably isn’t coincidental.) In aftermath of the smashup, Bo’s wife is in intensive care and their son is comatose.

Not surprisingly, Bo stops managing his anger and starts serving just desserts.

Working from formulaic script by Forrest Smith, tyro feature helmer Paul Abascal pushes all the right buttons while slowly but surely stoking aud’s bloodlust. Even so, filmmakers take considerable pains to sustain sympathy for Bo after he begins the process of elimination. The first paparazzo’s death is kinda-sorta accidental — that is, Bo doesn’t set out to kill the creep, but impulsively takes advantage of a convenient situation. Later, when our hero attacks an unarmed paparazzo and beats the bad guy to death with a baseball bat, Abascal wisely cuts away before the brutality begins in earnest.

“Paparazzi” abounds in celebrity cameos and in-jokey allusions (a character pointedly refers to “one of those Baldwin brothers”) that suggest a rather too conspicuous eagerness to appear ironically self-aware. Tech values are unexceptional.

Critics and commentators doubtless will debate whether pic is a hateful and irresponsible vanity production by an aggrieved superstar, or simply a shamelessly pandering blood-and-thunder popcorn flick. Ironically, tawdry package may play best with the very folks most likely to consume tabloid magazines and TV shows of the sort skewered by filmmakers.

Almost by default, vet actor (and former real-life cop) Dennis Farina claims acting honors with sly and subdued portrayal of a police detective with a Columbo-like attentiveness to incriminating details. It’s tempting to view Farina’s fine perf here as possible warmup for his upcoming replacement of Jerry Orbach in long-running “Law & Order” TV series.

Paparazzi

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of an Icon Prods. presentation of an Icon production. Produced by Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety. Executive producer, Louise Rosner. Directed by Paul Abascal. Screenplay, Forrest Smith.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Daryn Okada; editor, Robin Russell; music, Brian Tyler; production designer, Robb Wilson King; set decorator, Lance Lombardo; costume designer, Denise Wingate; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Tim Cooney; assistant director, John M. Nelson; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, Wendy Weidman. Reviewed at AMC Studio 30, Houston, Sept. 3, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Bo Laramie - Cole Hauser Abby Laramie - Robin Tunney Detective Burton - Dennis Farina Wendell Stokes - Daniel Baldwin Leonard Clark - Tom Hollander Kevin Rosner - Kevin Gage Zach Laramie - Blake Bryan Rex Harper - Tom Sizemore Emily - Andrea Baker Dr. Kelley - Jordan Baker Reggie - Duane Davis Pizza Delivery Guy - Chris Rock
With: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Matthew McConaughey.

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