'Hollywood Homicide'

As a sexy archeologist, a sexier CIA spook and the only monogamous U.S. president who deserves to be called hot, Harrison Ford has been keeping the free world free for well over two decades. In between rescue missions, he has bedded an Amish widow, made mincemeat out of prize hams like Tommy Lee Jones and even survived stepping into Humphrey Bogart's shoes in the woebegone "Sabrina." But although he routinely saves the planet, the man who would be Indiana Jones a fourth time can't save "Hollywood Homicide."

Graced with an easy grin and a body so sculpted that director Andrew Davis could get away with a Rodin allusion amid the pulp thrills of "The Fugitive," Ford was born to play the hero. Still, even male stars, especially when the grin comes less readily than it once did and the body softens, if only a little, need to push themselves now and again. Perhaps because he turns 61 next month and has grown weary of doing the right thing, Ford has recently put his affability on hold to play a murderous adulterer in "What Lies Beneath" and a Russian submarine officer in "K-19: The Widowmaker." And now, once again, he's trying his hand at comedy in Ron Shelton's "Hollywood Homicide" and, once again, navigating treacherous waters.

Shelton and former LAPD Det. Robert Souza began writing "Hollywood Homicide" while the two were working on the director's last feature, "Dark Blue," which speaks to the wisdom of finishing one chapter before starting another.

"Dark Blue" received respectful notices but came and went in a Hollywood second; for Shelton's sake and that of his star, would that the same fate awaits this nominally comic drama. There's no joy in watching sturdy entertainers like Ford and Shelton stumble; it's particularly painful since directors tend to suffer for their mistakes more than stars. That's too bad because even minor Shelton, like the breezily inconsequential "Play It to the Bone," generally plays better, shrewder and more thoughtful than the average two-hander.

Given that track record, it's hard to know what to make of "Hollywood Homicide." Set in Los Angeles, the story involves the club-land murder of three hip-hop artists under contract to a shady record producer (Isaiah Washington). Ford plays Joe Gavilan, an LAPD detective who's trying to make ends meet selling real estate and dating a radio psychic (Lena Olin), and reluctantly partnered with a much-younger K.C. Calden (Josh Hartnett). Calden entertains hopes of becoming the next Marlon Brando but holds the stage with the calculated humility of Josh Hartnett. Unsteady with a gun but firmly in control of his feathery lashes and sensitive mouth, the character also teaches yoga to flocks of women, a sideline that provokes some geezer-like drooling from a director who usually knows better.

One of Shelton's gifts, beyond a talent for banter that sounds like foreplay, is an ability to show men simultaneously at their best and worst. He can peel away a man's macho as fiercely as any radical feminist, the difference being that he wields the scalpel with equal parts affection and humor, two qualities notably absent from the new film. That's especially unfortunate here since Shelton isn't a born filmmaker; his movies only look as good as the cinematographer he's using, as puny or posh as his budget. Yet even at their most slapdash and hurried, his movies have the pulse of shaggily human life. The characters and the stories may cut every which way, including south, but an underlying sense of decency and intelligence guides the way.

Given Shelton's MO as a good movie guy, it's the sour, churlish vibe that makes "Hollywood Homicide" a disappointment. The parade of lazy Los Angeles jokes about yoga babes, hip-hop, cops and doughnuts might be tolerable if the actors didn't seem so uneasy, almost reluctant delivering them. Hartnett hovers around Ford deferentially but never makes a connection, maybe because the older man isn't ready to step into the mentor position that is the provenance of mellowing icons like Morgan Freeman. Ford, a rugged, solid presence even in lightweight fare, doesn't have the physical buoyancy for broad comedy, and he doesn't come across as an actor inclined toward the sort of character self-parody that's a Shelton specialty. Ford looks so aggrieved that even his face looks like a bunched-up fist.

No one comes out of "Hollywood Homicide" looking good, but the film fades fast. Still, watching Ford trying to slip back into a friendlier, more ingratiating persona in a movie pounding with hip-hop beats and co-staring a teenage poster boy like Hartnett, you realize that even Indiana Jones isn't immune to the industry's endless slurping at the fountain of youth. Ford's recent attempts to push the limits of his screen persona may have been a function of boredom with the parts he ordinarily gets offered. Maybe after building a career on action rather than introspection he's tired of cracking the whip and saving the girl. Part of Ford's appeal is that he never comes off as interested in being a star, caught up in any of its attendant glamorous hooey. The problem is he doesn't seem deeply interested in being an actor either.

'Hollywood Homicide'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence, sexual situations, language.

Times guidelines: Think of it as PG-16.

Harrison Ford ... Joe Gavilan
Josh Hartnett ... K.C. Calden
Lena Olin ... Ruby
Bruce Greenwood ... Bennie Macko
Isaiah Washington ... Sartain

Revolution Studios presents a Pitt/Shelton production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Ron Shelton. Writers Robert Souza, Ron Shelton. Producers Lou Pitt, Ron Shelton. Director of photography Barry Peterson. Production designer Jim Bissell. Editor Paul Seydor. Music Alex Wurman. Music supervision Dawn Solér, Kathy Nelson. Costume designer Bernie Pollack. Casting Ed Johnston. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

In general release.

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