How many ways can a movie go wrong? You will never really know until you see "Blue City" (Mann's Chinese and National).

The packaging fools you. How could you guess that a Ross MacDonald novel, scripted by action pros Walter Hill and Lukas Heller, would come out sounding addle-brained? Or that Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy--of "The Breakfast Club"--could exhibit subzero chemistry? Or that sun-drenched Florida (re-created in San Pedro) could be so flat and homely? The action so preposterous? The sex so dull? The wisecracks so witless? If this movie were a vaudeville act, you'd be yelling "Give 'em the hook!" after 15 minutes.

Maybe that's "Blue City's" problem: too many hooks. It's a high-concept "Young '80s" reworking of MacDonald's 1947 Hammett-style thriller--with no Lew Archer, no metaphor and no edge. In it, Nelson plays Billy Turner--ex-basketball star and son of Blue City's mayor--who returns after five years of Kerouacesque wanderings to discover that his father was killed nine months before and that his "voluptuous stepmother" (Anita Morris) has remarried the area's new vice czar, Perry Kerch (Scott Wilson). Brooding, seething Billy--who's developed filial passion after never calling home--embarks on a mind-boggling campaign of detection and revenge.

What does he do? Exactly what you'd do if you were a 20-year-old in a corrupt city, going up against gamblers, mobsters and on-the-take cops. He insults the police chief. He follows his stepmother around the supermarket, throwing Charmin and frozen turkeys into her cart and threatening to blow up her lover. He drops a Molotov cocktail into Kerch's car, marches into his gambling joint and swears at everybody. (Later he takes an ax to it.)

He and his high school buddy hold up the local dog track at gunpoint and throw beefsteaks at the greyhounds, plunging a race into chaos. He shoots a clutch of thugs. Finally, after being thrown out of town, he comes roaring back on his cycle to lay one-man siege to the heavily guarded Kerch mansion.

It's bad enough when Sly Stallone or Chuck Norris wage these ludicrous one-against-a-bunch vendettas, sneeringly wiping out whole battalions. But Judd Nelson? He was perfectly cast in "Fandango" and "St. Elmo's Fire" (his two best performances) but, despite his popularity, he wasn't believable as the hood Bender in "The Breakfast Club"--he seemed less a lower-class tough than a preppy rebel, camping it up. Here, you can't take him seriously for a minute. You wonder how a guy like Billy Turner could possibly have such chutzpah--unless he'd read the script and knew he'd survive.

The other actors are often equally embarrassing--except for Paul Winfield as the beefily cynical police chief, the only man in town with a slight Southern accent. Putting the coup de grace on the whole botch is first-timer Michelle Manning's vacuous direction (you'd like to be kinder here, but you can't). It lacks pace, style, rhythm, energy, coherence, humor, even an embryonic visual flair. Next to "Blue City," an uneven teen action movie like "Band of the Hand" looks like a cinematic masterpiece.

"Blue City" has exactly one thing to recommend it: Ry Cooder's typically funky, steely, hard-edged score. Overall, it's such a flabbergasting turkey--misfiring in every conceivable direction--that it may actually improve if you watch it with your eyes shut. 'BLUE CITY'

A Paramount presentation of a Hayward/Hill production. Producers William Hayward, Walter Hill. Director Michelle Manning. Script Lukas Heller, Hill. Camera Steven Poster. Art director William Lawrence. Editor Ross Albert. Music Ry Cooder. With Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, David Caruso, Paul Winfield, Scott Wilson, Anita Morris, Julie Carmen.

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

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

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