Times Staff Writer

“Touch and Go” (citywide) is an instance of lightning striking twice. First, “About Last Night” and now another nifty contemporary love story set in Chicago and dealing with the challenge of commitment. Although “Touch and Go” has been inexplicably sitting on the shelf for more than a year, it represents a real advance for all concerned, especially its star Michael Keaton, who is terrific in his first major dramatic role. (Never fear, he gets in some very funny moments.)

“Bobby, don’t do it.” That’s what Keaton, as hockey star Bobby Barbato, tells himself as he leans against his Jaguar, parked late at night in front of a picturesque Victorian block in a bad neighborhood. He’s just finished a game, fought off a pack of armed teen-agers intent on stealing his Jaguar, grabbed the little kid acting as the gang’s front man and taken him home. Barbato has tried to ignore the kid, Luis (Ajay Naidu), when he insists he’s hungry, but now he finds himself taking Luis for a hamburger and a shake.

Bobby, once a street kid himself, is hooked, but he doesn’t know it. Here’s Luis, a bright boy full of bravado and headed for big trouble for the lack of a father and a poor environment. And here’s his mother Denise (Maria Conchita Alonso), beautiful, proud, struggling hard to make ends meet but in real need of help--and of being loved by someone worthy of her. And here’s Bobby, as aware that he can’t go on playing hockey forever as he is evasive about the truth: He gets pretty lonely in his sleek high-tech, high-rise apartment. But what the heck, why should he get involved with anybody when a steady parade of women are still throwing themselves at him?

We know very well that Bobby and Denise, both so attractive and attracted to each other, both so fast on the uptake, are headed for some kind of reckoning. Director Robert Mandel, whose last was the splashy “F/X,” takes an amused pleasure in revealing how circumstances, abetted by Bobby and Denise’s own half-acknowledged, half-denied desires, keep them entangled in each other’s lives. And writers Alan Ormsby, Bob Sand and Harry Colomby keep stringing them--and us--along with considerable wit, humor and ingenuity. We’re just as surprised to discover how much we’ve come to care for Bobby and Denise as they have for each other.

The film makers know what they’re doing, setting off the serious stuff with some inspired comic sequences. There’s a truly hilarious foray into suburbia, involving Denise’s cousin (Maria Tucci) who’s married well but tediously, to a pompous fool (Richard Venture). However, having established Denise’s fierce independence, the writers load the dice to wind up their story, undercutting that sense of freedom of choice vital to both Bobby and Denise.

All that expressiveness, all that precise timing, that Keaton, in rugged shape for the convincing hockey sequences, has displayed ever since his scene-stealing debut in “Night Shift” serve him beautifully in bringing alive the essentially serious Bobby, a man as swift in his thinking as he is on the ice, but a man who’s learned to use his head at the expense of his heart. The gorgeous Maria Conchita Alonso, so winning as Robin Williams’ love in “Moscow on the Hudson,” makes Denise just the opposite of Bobby: a woman guided more by emotion than thought, albeit a resilient woman determined to beat the odds. What’s best about both Bobby and Denise is that they’ve retained their capacity to laugh at themselves. Ajay Naidu is in the old movie tradition of the precocious, wise-cracking kid, but he is able to bring to Luis some of that appealing grit of Robert Duvall’s real-life “Angelo.”

Maybe it’s because the Windy City has more of an atmosphere of normalcy than exotic Los Angeles or hard-driving New York, but “Touch and Go” (rated a rather severe R, mainly for language), so apt a title for so skittish a romance, is but another of the various good recent films, starting with “Risky Business,” that has found Chicago such a congenial setting.

‘TOUCH AND GO’ A Tri-Star Pictures presentation. Exec. producer Harry Colomby. Producer Stephen Friedman. Director Robert Mandel. Screenplay Alan Ormsby, Bob Sand, Harry Colomby, Camera Richard H. Kline. Production designer Charles Rosen. Music Sylvester Levay. Costumes Bernie Pollack. 2nd unit director Jack Grossberg. 2nd unit camera Gregory Lundsgaard. Stunt coordinator Bill Couch. Hockey coordinator Michael F. Kelly. Film editor Walt Mulconery. With Michael Keaton, Maria Conchita Alonso, Ajay Naidu, John Reilly, Maria Tucci, Richard Venture, Max Wright, Michael Zelniker, Jere Burns, D.V. DeVincentis.

Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.

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