Los Angeles Times

Playing God

Friday October 17, 1997

     Normally, when the star of a hit TV series is tested with the lead role in a major studio movie, film critics raise their noses and wonder, "Can he make the leap?" In the case of "X-Files" double-Emmy nominee David Duchovny, tapped for the Disney/Touchstone star vehicle "Playing God," it's more a question of whether he can survive the crash.
     It's not his fault, necessarily. "Playing God," a self-conscious neo-noir thriller, was destined for no better than mediocrity by Mark Haskell Smith's lamely derivative script. It was also saddled with weak casting in supporting roles, and it was finished off by the clumsy direction of British feature film rookie Andy Wilson. Neither the studio nor Duchovny's agent did the actor any favors.
     "Playing God" stars Duchovny as a defrocked surgeon who, in order to pay for the drug habit that cost him his license, becomes the house doctor for a Los Angeles mob that's at war with the local branch of the Russian syndicate. Bullet wounds are his specialty. The pay is good--$10,000 per patch-up--but the boss (a blond Timothy Hutton) is bug nuts, and his girlfriend (Angelina Jolie) is a quietly cool siren who will soon get him into a lot of trouble.
     Stirring things up on the sidelines are brooding Russians with names like Vladimir and Dimitri, a pair of white-trash lackeys who seem to be doing scenes from "Dumb & Dumber" and an overzealous--and overacted--FBI field agent (Michael Massee) trying to link Hutton to a Chinese smuggling operation. Guns are blazing from all directions, blood is spilling like oil from the Exxon Valdez and Duchovny's Dr. Sands is busier than a White House apologist on the Sunday morning news circuit.
     The major failing is that all of these characters, from the inept FBI man to the mob boss to the most psychopathic thugs, are meant to be quasi-lovable and darkly amusing, like the John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson hit men in "Pulp Fiction." But the roles are not well defined, and the actors--aimlessly directed as they are--can't pull that off on their own.
     To be fair to Wilson, his background in theater and television drama leaves him ill-prepared for a routine Hollywood genre film that is about equal parts posturing, precious dialogue and overblown action. In other words, "Playing God" needed an experienced hack, someone who could at least make a cross-town car chase in L.A. look as if it was hard to do.
     Mainly, what's missing in "Playing God" is any sense of urgency or passion. Duchovny, who is from the Jason Patric school of low-key action hero, seems bewildered by his surroundings and unconvinced--as he should be--of the notion that his character is a self-destructive overachiever seeking redemption. Nothing about the doctor's drug addiction rings true.
     Duchovny does deliver a few good deadpan lines, and Hutton brings occasional humor to his standard psycho-mobster. Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight's stunning 22-year-old daughter, gives her femme fatale Claire a world-weariness beyond her years, plus a hint of intelligence that contradicts her circumstances.
     But "Playing God" is Duchovny's film to rise or fall on, and the elevator is definitely not going up.


Playing God, 1997. R, for strong graphic violence, gore, pervasive language and some drug use. Touchstone Pictures presentation in association with Beacon Pictures. Director Andy Wilson. Producer Marc Abraham, Laura Bickford. Executive producers Armyan Bernstein, Thomas A. Bliss. Co-producers Melanie Greene, Nancy Rae Stone. Photography Anthony B. Richmond. Production design Naomi Shohan. Music Richard Hartley. Costumes Mary Zophres. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. David Duchovny as Eugene. Timothy Hutton as Raymond. Angelica Jolie as Claire. Michael Massee as Gage.

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