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Flunking 'History'

[whitespace] American History X
Peter Sore

Adoring Brother: Edward Furlong plays a young skinhead-in-the-making in Tony Kaye's overwrought and overrated 'American History X.'

'American History X' pulls punches in fight against fascism

By Richard von Busack

THIS HUGELY overrated melodrama about the conversion of a L.A. Nazi skinhead has picked up a reputation for being hard-hitting. Actually, American History X is a veritable windmill of pulled punches. Except for about five minutes of extreme violence, there's nothing to offend anyone. You've heard the slurs on talk radio already. Renounced by its director, first-timer Tony Kaye, American History X could possibly be a butchered film, since it was recut by New Line Cinema. But David McKenna's script contains more straw men than a scarecrow factory: Raging but Sensitive Skinhead Derek (Edward Norton), Adoring Brother Danny (Edward Furlong), Impotent Liberal Murray (Elliott Gould), Overwhelmed Mom Doris (Beverly D'Angelo, squandered), Self-Sacrificing School Principal Sweeney (Avery "Captain Sisko" Brooks, earnest as William Shatner), and Fat Evil Slob Seth (Ethan Suplee).

If you're going to wrestle with the devil, you'd better have some muscle, but McKenna's approach to the problem of racism shows the same manipulativeness and self-righteousness that he uses to condemn the racist gang leader, Cameron (Stacy Keach). Not since High School Confidential's Mr. A (Jackie Coogan) has there been such an unbelievable ringleader as Keach, peeking from behind his thick glasses. The victims of white savagery here all pretty much asked for it, to soothe the nerves of any skins in the audience; and the gripes about "affirmative blackshun" and poor old Hillary Clinton drew shouts of pleasure from one bonehead with whom I had to share the theater. The onus is on black people, such as Sweeney, to heal the skinheads' wounds. In the end, the system works.

Kaye's not having any feel for an individual's efforts to shake off his mind-forged manacles is bad enough. What's worse is that Kaye doesn't have any feel for the ugly but fascinating qualities of fascism--despite his lucrative career in TV commercials. Kaye brings the same salient quality to the film that marks his TV work: glossy but threatening imagery. A key basketball game is shot exactly like a Nike commercial, with swastikas instead of swooshes. A shootout features slo-mo highlights lifted from John Woo. When Derek apologizes to his brother for killing his two victims, you expect Danny to say, "But it was such a balletic act of violence!"

American History X (R; 118 min.), directed and photographed by Tony Kaye, written by David McKenna and starring Edward Furlong and Edward Norton, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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