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High-Grade Pulp

Rough Magic
Abigayle Tarsches

Pistol Player: D.W. Moffett checks his chambers in 'Rough Magic.'

'Rough Magic' revives a tired genre

By Zack Stentz

THE WORD "pulp" has again fallen into disrepute since Quentin Tarantino and his acolytes started strip-mining the conventions of the genre, leaving behind a cinematic scar bigger than an Arizona copper pit. But by investing Rough Magic with some with the lesser-known aspects of pulp writing--exotic locations, dime-store supernaturalism and a healthy respect for feminine power--co-writer/director Clare Peploe finds a way to make the genre fresh and appealing--a genuine home-grown brand of magic realism.

Peploe and her collaborators adapted Rough Magic from the largely forgotten James Hadley Chase novel Miss Shumway Waves a Wand. The story, such as it is, concerns a 1950s L.A. magician's assistant, Myra (Bridget Fonda), and her flight into Mexico with a murderous fiancé, Cliff (D.W. Moffett), in hot pursuit. So far, pretty standard adventure-story material. It's when Myra hooks up with a British snake-oil salesman (Jim Broadbent) and heads into the Mayan highlands in search of a magic potion that things get really interesting. Myra quaffs the elixir and unleashes supernatural powers that wreak havoc upon the lives of the heroes and villains alike.

The theme of the fake magician learning to tap genuine magic isn't a new one, of course. Steve Martin recently trotted out that particular chestnut in the forgettable Leap of Faith, and Peter S. Beagle used it to great effect in The Last Unicorn. What makes it work here is the willingness of the director and her cast to take the potentially silly material seriously, rather than turning the proceedings into yet another ironic hoot-fest.

Fonda, who usually comes across as rather wan on the screen, here seems to be channeling the spirit (and wardrobe) of Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Co-star Russell Crowe picks up Fonda's vibe and accordingly invests his own journalist character with a welcome bit of Humphrey Bogart's world weariness--though the sight of Bogie's cynicism on Crowe's boyishly handsome face makes for some cognitive dissonance. They deliver their stylized, neo-'50s lines with verve and sincerity. Rough Magic is a concoction that's pulpy like a fresh grapefruit, not like a sheaf of yellowing papers flaking to bits in your hands.

Rough Magic (PG-13; 104 min.), directed by Clare Peploe, written by Robert Mundy, William Brookfield and Peploe, based on the novel by James Hadley Chase, photographed by John J. Campbell, and starring Bridget Fonda and Russell Crowe.

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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