Times Staff Writer

There's a pleasurable knowing quality to "Malone" (citywide) that comes from its makers treating genre material with respect and care. "Malone" may have heroics that verge on the incredible and a plot that has launched a thousand TV movies and B pictures, yet it's surprising how much feeling Burt Reynolds and his colleagues elicit while going through all the familiar motions. They realize they're dealing with myth, and they do so with wit and style.

Reynolds' Malone is the Mysterious Stranger, strong and silent, who happens upon some decent, ordinary folk in need of a larger-than-life Good Guy to defend them from a big-deal Bad Guy. Reynolds is in fact a veteran CIA agent who's renounced his profession and is driving through Oregon when the transmission of his beloved '69 Mustang breaks down near a mountain service station run by a lame, widowed Vietnam vet (Scott Wilson) and his pretty teen-aged daughter (Cynthia Gibb).

It takes much longer to fix that transmission than for Malone to discover that his new friend is trying to hold out against a crazed, super-rich right-winger (Cliff Robertson) determined to buy up the entire mountain community by extreme intimidation from members of his far-flung paramilitary organization. (Robertson's patriotic political goals are as clear as the reason why he must own the entire town outright is hazy; perhaps some key exposition ended up on the cutting room floor.)

Like John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Kirk Douglas and Clint Eastwood in various vintage westerns, Reynolds' Malone is a gunfighter, contemporary-style, who cannot escape his past. When his innate decency demands that he come to the aid of Wilson and Gibb, Robertson inevitably realizes that he's no ordinary do-gooder.

Reynolds humanizes this Superman by bringing to Malone an understated gentleness and world-weary loneliness. Of course, Gibb falls for him; of course, he does not take advantage of her. Robertson, in turn, seems all the more dangerous for his smiling self-control. As a CIA agent just as seasoned as Malone, Lauren Hutton is a perfect match for Reynolds, emotionally as well as professionally. Wilson and Kenneth McMillan, as the local sheriff, are fine as ordinary mortals.

Based on William Wingate's novel "Shotgun," "Malone" (rated R for typical action movie violence) is saved from triteness because director Harley Cokliss and writer Christopher Frank (a noted French film maker) emphasize its essentially fatalistic film noir quality, which is heightened by David Newman's romantic score. It's not for nothing that "Malone" was originally intended to be a French film shot in the Pyrenees.

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