Harry Mitchell’s life is running so smoothly--just like his retooled Jaguar XKE--that you just know something’s bound to go haywire. Mitchell (Roy Scheider) has a high-powered firm with a NASA contract, a career-oriented wife (Ann-Margret); even a lovely young mistress, Cini(Kelly Preston), on the side. It’s this mid-life fling that sets the stage for “52 Pick-Up” (citywide), a dull, plodding thriller that finds Mitchell in a deadly war with a trio of crazed blackmailers.

Blinded by his career obsessions, Mitchell never seems to notice how distant he’s grown from his wife, nor how his trysts with Cini have been secretly filmed by the sleazy trio of porno-extortionists. But when Mitchell visits Cini’s hideaway and finds the blackmailers there instead--armed with a video of his extramarital exploits--he realizes he’s been cleverly set up. His wife is planning to run for a city council post, so Mitchell can’t go to the police. Instead, he takes aim on the blackmailers himself, relying on his rugged background and cunning boardroom tactics to foil their plans.

It’s not a bad premise for a seamy film noir, but the results are a major disappointment, especially considering that the script was written by tough-guy novelist Elmore Leonard (who authored the original best-seller) and talented young playwright John Steppling. Not only is the dialogue stilted and showy, but neither writer manages to make much sense out of the novel’s complicated proceedings. Worse still, the scenarists have fallen in love with their villains, making them far more intriguing (and colorfully psychotic) than Mitchell, who’s such a cipher that we never develop any rooting interest in his plight. It’s also hard to work up much sympathy for a husband who, after his house has been broken into--not once, but twice--leaves his wife home alone without any security arrangements.

Veteran director John Frankenheimer also commits the unpardonable sin of dragging out virtually every scene, draining the film of any jagged edges it might have originally had. At nearly two hours, the movie is a bloated mess, giving us plenty of time to pick apart the story’s nagging implausibilities. One of the clumsiest plot devices finds Mitchell huddling with the extortionists at every turn--they get so chummy that you half-expect them to settle their differences over a few beers at the neighborhood bowling alley.

“52 Pick-Up” (MPAA-rated R for nudity and extreme violence) features a couple of stylish performances, especially by John Glover, who brings a flaky intensity to his role as extortionist leader. But Scheider is a flop as the embattled hero. Assuming a blank, Charles Bronson-style avenger pose, he ends up being such a stiff, humorless hunk that you wonder why the film makers didn’t just hire Bronson. While Bronson may be a predictable grim reaper, at least when he’s stalking a bunch of psycho-killers, you know it won’t take him 114 minutes to clean up the mess.


‘52 PICK-UP’ A Cannon Group Inc. presentation. Producers Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus. Director John Frankenheimer. Writers Elmore Leonard & John Steppling. Camera Jost Vacano. Music Gary Chang. Editor Robert F. Shugrue. Production Design Philip Harrison. With Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, John Glover, Robert Trebor, Lonny Chapman, Vanity, Clarence Williams III, Kelly Preston and Doug McClure.

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

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