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Johnny Skidmarks

There's a decent idea for a thriller rattling around inside "Johnny Skidmarks," a classic noir wannabe starring Peter Gallagher as a freelance crime scene photog and Frances McDormand as a recovering alcoholic with friends in high places. Unfortunately, dumb plot twists, ricocheting tones and fatally miscast leads combine to put the skids on pic's future. McDormand's recent Oscar win will draw curious fans, but look for returns to be as gloomy as pic itself. Cable and vid shelf await.

With:
Johnny Scardino - Peter Gallagher Alice - Frances McDormand Sgt. Larry Skovik - John Lithgow Woody Washawski - Geoffrey Lower Jerry - Jack Black Lorraine - Charlie Spradling

There’s a decent idea for a thriller rattling around inside “Johnny Skidmarks,” a classic noir wannabe starring Peter Gallagher as a freelance crime scene photog and Frances McDormand as a recovering alcoholic with friends in high places. Unfortunately, dumb plot twists, ricocheting tones and fatally miscast leads combine to put the skids on pic’s future. McDormand’s recent Oscar win will draw curious fans, but look for returns to be as gloomy as pic itself. Cable and vid shelf await.

John Raffo, scripter on “Relic” and “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” makes his directorial debut on this sub par entry. He co wrote with longtime Coen brothers’ cohort William Preston Robinson, which explains the many “Blood Simple” and “Fargo” references here. Half the time team seems bent on a genre lampoon; the other half, they’re after something straight-faced and horrific. Sudden shtick, elaborate makeup effects (for mutilated bodies) and other disparate elements add to the schizoid feel.

Titular “hired lens,” played by Gallagher with bags under his eyes, has “seen it all.” Which is why he can’t react to mayhem at crash and murder sites, and shuffles through the day like one of the living dead. Veteran cop John Lithgow repeatedly underscores the obvious by telling Johnny he’s dead inside.

Curbside analysis could just as easily apply to the narrative, which has Johnny moonlighting for blackmail-ers by snapping prominent types in seedy motels. One such assignment ruffles the wrong feathers, and suddenly, one by one, the blackmailers meet with grisly fates. Johnny retires to the darkroom to piece together puzzle a la David Hemmings in “Blowup.” Could he be next on the hit list?

It’s impossible to care because Gallagher’s character is such a schlub and a crybaby; all he needs to complete the picture is a “Kick me!” sign pinned to his rear. Gallagher should definitely stay away from retro mellers: Current assignment and his unmemorable turn in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Underneath” remind us he has nothing in common with noir icons Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, who were as dangerous as they were self deceiving.

Obligatory subplot has needy, laconic Gallagher shacking up with needy, sarcastic McDormand; their star chemistry should be bottled as sure fire insomnia cure. McDormand, attempting image makeover, is all wrong for mystery vamp, earthy and disapproving when she should be vulnerable and appealing. Birds of a feather tend to flock together, but pairing dour hero with dour femme is, in this case, box office suicide.

Casting of Lithgow as oddly moralistic cop was an even bigger mistake. Actor’s previous turns as schizoid personalities in “Raising Cain” and other De Palma thrillers lead us to question his motives and paternalistic demeanor from the get go, and this robs story of its already tenuous suspense.

Cable cut up Jack Black continues his crossover to thesping in what is essentially a standup gig as Gallagher’s former brother in law, a “Seinfeld” inspired motormouth who runs a low rent Jack in the Box. Geoffrey Lower has nowhere to go with his mean spirited cop, always ragging on downcast Johnny.

Tech credits are passable, though cinematography, even for a noir, is dark. Todd Masters’ grisly makeup ef-fects, including decapitated noggin, are ambitious and, like much else here, not very convincing.

Johnny Skidmarks

Production: A Cinepix Film Properties production. Produced by Karen Severin, Karen Weaver, Michael Paseornek. Executive producers, John Dunning, Andre Link, Jeff Sackman. Co producer, Frank Hildebrand. Directed by John Raffo. Screenplay, Raffo, William Preston Robinson.

With: Johnny Scardino - Peter Gallagher Alice - Frances McDormand Sgt. Larry Skovik - John Lithgow Woody Washawski - Geoffrey Lower Jerry - Jack Black Lorraine - Charlie SpradlingCamera (Foto-Kem color), Bernd Heindl; editor, Sean Albertson; music, Brian Langsbard; production design, Jerry Fleming; sound (Dolby SR), Steve Brimmer; special makeup effects, Todd Masters; associate producer, Robinson. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Special Screening), Jan. 18, 1998. Running time: 96 min.

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