Judging from the one-two punch of “The Winner” and this wretched, shot-in-Mexico venture, it looks like the “Repo Man” has come to claim Alex Cox’s moviemaking career. A bleary-eyed fever dream lumbered with impenetrable literary references, “Death and the Compass” quickly loses its way and expires long before its 90 minutes are up. Vancouver fest preem, in fact, saw walkouts almost as soon as the opening credits were over, and the exodus never stopped.
Cox, so economical and edgy in “Sid and Nancy” (as well as in 1992’s Spanish-lingo “Highway Patrolman”), here commits a cardinal narrative sin by both showing and his detective-story spoof. Feebly insistent framing device has Mex star Miguel Sandoval, decked out as an aging bureaucrat, recalling the flashback adventures unfolding onscreen.
Actually, he’s reading almost verbatim the words of the Jorge-Luis Borges story pic is based on, and this narration is deadening when coupled with the elaborate, out-of-control set-pieces it’s meant to explain.
The helmer favors blue light, dry ice, writhing extras and many other annoying distractions which serve to obliterate what meager content is offered. Most curiously, voices are run through echo chambers, multiplying filters, and other irrelevant effects. When these tricks are not employed, it becomes obvious that the soundtrack suffers from fluctuating levels, muffled dialogue and unacceptable distortions.
Well-buried plot involves an allegedly charismatic police chief, oddly named Lonnrot (Peter Boyle), who’s intent on solving three seemingly unrelated murders in an unnamed English-speaking city somewhere in Latin America. It’s hard to figure why anyone even notices the crimes, as the grungy (if under-populated) metropolis is presented as an utterly corrupt “Blade Runner”-style place, replete with police atrocities and daylight robberies.
In any case, because one of the victims was a Talmudic scholar, Lonnrot fixes on the idea that the murders may have had some Cabalistic origins. Helping him in his quest is a young Jewish reporter, played enthusiastically by “Jude” star Christopher Eccleston. Boyle’s part — sort of a Bogart-does-Borges impression — consists of stoical cop-talk laced with occasional left-field witticisms, so it’s left to Sandoval to provide the dynamism. This he does to the point of wretched excess, somehow combining his gay-butler routine from “Mrs. Winterbourne” with his steely cartel lawyer in “Clear and Present Danger.”
The pic isn’t so much directed as put on spin-cycle and left to its own fate. Its only possible attraction comes from lavish production design, which offers darkly colored rock-video surfaces, “Dick Tracy”-style costumes, and a few scantily clad women (there isn’t a single female of any significance in the story). And it makes occasionally interesting use of unfamiliar Mexico City locations. Incidentally, the tale’s one ostensible “mystery” — regarding the identity of Lonnrot’s criminal nemesis — is blown halfway in, due to clumsy camera work.
All in all, “Death” will prove just that as a commercial proposition, and Cox certainly can’t expect this screwy “Compass” to point the way back to Hollywood.