“Last Dance” is “Dead Woman Walking, Lite.” Respectably crafted on most levels, and with a central perf by Sharon Stone that will cause her no embarrassment, this pic about an unrepentant death row femme whose case is taken up by a clemency board rookie never resonates at any deep emotional level and completely blows what kudos it’s acquired in the final reel. A rapid trot, rather than a slow walk, to homevideo looks like this dance’s destiny, where Stonesters will be able to appreciate her solid work.
Pic’s center of conscience is young Rick Hayes (Rob Morrow), whose high-flying yuppie brother, John (Peter Gallagher), gets him a job at the Clemency Board in a Southern state where 76% of the voters favor the death penalty. Rick works under the wing of Sam (Randy Quaid), an easygoing type who doesn’t rock the boat.
Rick is assigned the case of Cindy Liggett (Stone), who’s been on death row for the past 12 years for the murder of a teenage schoolmate and her boyfriend when she was only 19. At their first meeting, Cindy tells Rick that the whole clemency routine is purely for show, as the state’s present governor (Jack Thompson) doesn’t give pardons. When she’s finally served a death warrant, she tells Rick, to his horror, that she simply wants “to die on my terms. It’s all I got.”
Warned off by John from trying to get Cindy’s case retried at the 11th hour, Rick still presses ahead, despite lack of cooperation from Cindy’s aunt and the determination of the original trial judge, father of the male victim, to see her die. The female victim’s mom doesn’t want Cindy to die but refuses to sign any protest. Rick also discovers that Cindy’s co-murderer copped a plea and lied about her under the d.a.’s instruction.
When the governor, as a vote-winning stunt, pardons a black killer-turned-bestselling-author but not Cindy, it starts to look like she’ll be the first woman to be executed in the state in 11 years. Then, with a week to go before the syringes are lowered, Rick spots a flaw in the original defense and shoots for a stay of execution and a review of the case.
One of the film’s nicest touches — though it was preempted by Tim Robbins’ much-honored pic — is that the audience only learns the full details of Cindy’s crime piece by piece in b&w flashbacks as the movie progresses. By the time the full background and horror of the deed are laid bare, the
viewer has come to know the protagonists pretty well and can empathize with all parties.
So much for theory. Largely thanks to Ron Koslow’s workaday script and Bruce Beresford’s by-the-numbers direction, by the final reels one is in full possession of the facts but still curiously distanced by Cindy’s fate and Rick’s good intentions. Though some frissons are engendered by the growing attraction between the pair (nicely sketched by Stone in the latter stages), the emotional tumblers simply don’t fall into place as the filmmakers no doubt intended.
Toward the end, pic starts to seriously jump the rails. While little real suspense is generated by the nailbiter-style engineering of the climax, the final twist is more likely to cause giggles than gurgles, and the pic’s last shot is both fiscally and dramatically meretricious. Buffs will have a field day with parallels with the film-within-a-film in “The Player.”
With shortish red hair, a tattoo on the back of her hand, a passable Southern accent and blue prison duds, Stone gives her part a decent shot, with no obvious Oscar grandstanding. But with only so-so dialogue and helming, there is not much more anyone could have done with this part.
As Rick, Morrow is bland, and an underdeveloped subplot of his affair with a local woman (Jayne Brook) would have been better left on the cutting-room floor. Quaid is flavorful as always, while Aussie thesp Thompson etches a suitably sleazy, if unoriginal, Southern governor. Brightest turn comes from Diane Sellers as Stone’s straight-talking, blackly humorous cell neighbor, who is unapologetic about having killed her two husbands.
With location shooting in various sites in Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina, pic has an authentic feel but no special atmosphere in Peter James’ clean, unvarnished lensing. Other tech credits are fine.