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MOVIE REVIEW : A COP ON THE SKIDS IN ‘MURPHY”

In the new Charles Bronson cop thriller, “Murphy’s Law” (citywide), there’s a double edge to the title. On one level, it recalls the old axiom, “Anything that can go wrong, will.” On the other, as Bronson’s Jack Murphy informs us, it designates his own personal code: Don’t mess with Jack Murphy.

You wish the film makers had stuck to the first axiom. The movie is better when it shows the mortality and fallibility of its hero than when it presents Murphy as an ultra-Dirty Harry, dispensing snarling .44 Magnum superjustice to supervillains.

“Murphy’s Law” (MPAA-rated: R) slides around between being a cynically amusing comedy about a tough persecuted cop fouling up; a bizarrely sleazy love-on-the-run farce with a foul-mouthed heroine and one more ludicrously pumped-up cop melodrama--with a villain who has the humanity of Hitler, the ubiquity of rainfall and the strength and stamina of Godzilla.

Its premise is a half-playful lift from “The 39 Steps” (or possibly “The Defiant Ones”): Murphy, framed for the murder of his stripper-wife, escapes from the lockup manacled to a punk teen-age thief--a scatology-spitting motormouth named Arabella McGee (Kathleen Wilhoite) who belches invective, and whose mildest epithet is “slimeball.”

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Desperately, with both the cops and the Mafia on his trail--and this female Don Rickles handcuffed to him, screaming in his ear--Murphy tries to unravel the riddle of his framing. Meanwhile, the real killer--a vengeful, psychotic ex-con named Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress)--keeps dogging his tracks: killing everyone who helps him, killing everyone involved in her trial, killing her probation officer, killing anyone who irritates or annoys her and finally plotting to kill Murphy in the most spectacular and humiliating way possible.

Why doesn’t she shoot him straight up? Why aren’t any of her other targets tormented in similar long, wildly intricate, wheels-within-wheels plots? Who knows?

The villains in recent movies have begun to seem like whirlwinds or hurricanes: insentient masses of malignance that just move toward the horizon, destroying. (Here, there’s even some John Carpenter-style subjective camera work that recalls the indestructible bogyman of “Halloween.”) The killer in “Murphy” is absurd--though it’s no reflection on Snodgress, who probably puts more convincingly eerie blank-eyed sadism into this part than the script supplied.

The most attractive thing about the movie--which mostly spins along with a grimy “what-the-heck” efficiency--is Alex Phillips’ camera work and Bronson himself. He plays Murphy as engagingly rumpled, drunken, slovenly and seedy: a cop on the skids after his wife ditched him. His Murphy is a pro, who’s had the heart kicked out of him and is sliding along on memory, instinct and swigs of whiskey. Occasionally here, Bronson shows what an excellent actor he can be--when he’s not swiping helicopters, or chasing around the Bradbury Building, dodging Carrie Snodgress’ metal arrows.

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Bronson uses all of his 64 years to good advantage. In a way, it’s an old man’s movie--director J. Lee Thompson is 71--and it’s best when you feel the years; feel a little palpable weariness, weathered toughness. Conversely, Thompson and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman don’t understand kids like Arabella: and Kathleen Wilhoite plays her at too sustained and strident a pitch.

But then, how much can you do when your most printable line is unprintable?

‘MURPHY’S LAW’ A Cannon Group presentation of a Golan-Globus production. Producer Pancho Kohner. Director J. Lee Thompson. Script Gail Morgan Hickman. Executive producers Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus. Camera Alex Phillips. Music Marc Donahue, Valentine McCallum. With Charles Bronson, Kathleen Wilhoite, Carrie Snodgress, Robert F. Lyons, Richard Romanus, Angel Tompkins.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).


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