Ahigh-concept plot, a hot-button social issue and a hard-charging ad campaign may be enough to generate good opening-weekend numbers for “Eye for an Eye.” After that, however, expect a sharp drop for this muddled revenge melodrama, a B movie that somehow won the lottery and got an A-movie cast and director. Vid rentals and other ancillary biz should be OK, but not eye-popping.
Sally Field toplines to good effect as Karen McCann, the mother of a lovely teenage girl who is viciously raped and murdered in her own living room by a grinning psychopath named Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland). Unfortunately, the psycho has a great lawyer. Even more unfortunately, the evidence against him is improperly handled by the police. One thing leads to another, the case against the psycho is dismissed — and the dead girl’s grieving parents are told there’s nothing more the legal system can do.
Mack McCann (Ed Harris), the victim’s stepfather, is understandably furious. As time goes by, however, Mack manages to sublimate his rage and frustration, if only so he can preserve his sanity and go on with his life.
But Karen is neither willing nor able to follow her husband’s example. At first, she follows Doob, maintaining a surveillance like some TV detective. In time, she actually sees him checking out the home of a potential victim. But the cops can’t do anything to stop him, even after he does indeed kill again. That’s when Karen begins to notice that, in her support group for parents of murdered children, a couple of the members (Philip Baker Hall, Keith David) may be channeling their rage into retribution, prompting her to think that vigilantism may not be such a bad idea.
Vet director John Schlesinger gives “Eye for an Eye” enough tension and immediacy — most of the time, at least — to make this worth a viewer’s time. The actual murder of Karen’s daughter is presented with a restraint that does little to diminish its power to make the flesh crawl.
Elsewhere, Schlesinger dares to include a few touches of dark humor. As Karen empowers herself with karate lessons and target practice, she grows more aggressive, both on the street and — much to her husband’s discomfort — in bed. Deep inside this manipulative melodrama, there lurks the germ of an idea for a wickedly funny social satire.
In most other respects, however, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa’s screenplay, taken from a novel by Erika Holzer, is as simplistic as the worst kind of talk-radio diatribe. Doob isn’t merely a career criminal or a maladjusted sex offender — he is the Antichrist. He menaces little girls,murders innocent women and sneers at grieving parents. And just so we don’t underestimate the true depths of his maliciousness, Schlesinger even includes a scene where Doob pours hot coffee on a stray dog. No kidding.
Joe Denillo, the tough but honorable cop played by Joe Mantegna, is no match for such a vile creature. Why? Because, the movie implies, Denillo is hampered by all those namby-pamby Supreme Court decisions about the rights of suspects, and bound by the very laws he has sworn to uphold. When Karen angrily upbraids him for what she sees as his impotence, even bleeding-heart liberals in the audience may be screaming, “Right on!”
To partially appease those liberals, and to keep from unduly ruffling anyone else’s feathers, the filmmakers work overtime to cover all their bases. If a white parent in Karen’s support group reveals that a black man killed his child, you can rest assured that we get an equal sampling of black parents with their own tales of woe. In fact, one of those black parents (Charlayne Woodard) turns out to be a lesbian single mother. In all ways, the movie is intended to appeal to the broadest constituency possible.
Except for Field’s persuasively anguished performance as a woman who evolves from victim to avenger, the best thing about”Eye for an Eye” is its ending. There are at least three different points in the pic’s second half when the filmmakers appear ready to take the easy way out, but they fortunately reject these detours and proceed to the only honest conclusion for this kind of revenge fantasy.
After the fact, however, Schlesinger and company return to their fence-straddling, and try to suggest that maybe revenge isn’t really all that sweet. But this back-pedaling comes off as just so much waffling, another sign that the filmmakers want to be all things to all people of all sociopolitical attitudes.
Harris plays Mack with just the right measures of virility, sensitivity and sensibility, while Mantegna injects a welcome touch of ambiguity into a stock character. Sutherland gives a one-note performance in a one-dimensional role, but that note is sustained with impressive efficiency. Among the other supporting players, Woodard is a standout, thanks to her subtle underplaying and her strong camera presence.
On a tech level, “Eye for an Eye” is everything it has to be, and nothing more. James Newton Howard’s score is notable only for the way it sporadically recalls his music for “Grand Canyon.”