Times Staff Writer

“No Man’s Land” (opening Friday at selected theaters) is such a modest, low-key thriller that you’re caught up in it long before you realize it. A contemporary Faustian tale, it’s one of those nifty little movies that arrive without much notice but prove to be far more enjoyable than many more highly publicized pictures.

D. B. Sweeney (the eager young recruit in Francis Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone”) plays rookie cop Benjy Taylor, whose tinkering with high-performance cars lands him a demanding and dangerous assignment with the LAPD’s auto theft detail. He is to get a job as a mechanic at a well-equipped San Fernando Valley garage believed to be a “chop shop"--where stolen cars are stripped of their parts, which are then divided between as many as half a dozen other reassembled cars, making detection nearly impossible. (The film is virtually a primer on the operation of an auto theft ring, but it reveals nothing that is not already fairly common knowledge to both car thieves and victims, especially in this hot car capital.)

Veteran police lieutenant Vincent Bracey (Randy Quaid), however, has more in mind than shutting down this particular garage: He wants Benjy to get close to a prime suspect in a cop killing, a young man named Ted Varrick (Charlie Sheen), who is believed to be behind the entire chop shop operation.


Charlie Sheen’s Ted couldn’t be more different from Benjy, apart from their ages and passion for Porsches. Benjy is a nice, ordinary guy in his early 20s from a working-class background. Ted brings to mind Robert Walker’s Bruno in Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” He has a seductive easy charm but leaves you feeling that something crucial is missing in him, a quality Benjy is too unsophisticated and too captivated to notice.

Ted and his elegant sister Ann (Lara Harris) have grown up neglected by their rich, mainly absent parents. It’s made Ann lonely and vulnerable but has left Ted caring nothing whatsoever about the distinctions between right and wrong. He lives totally on the fast track: terrific clothes, chic nightclubs, the works. But his biggest thrill is stealing Porsches.

What makes “No Man’s Land” so valid is that writer Dick Wolf, a veteran of “Hill Street Blues” and “Miami Vice,” has created in Benjy a fresh-faced kid who at once so easily ingratiates himself into Ted’s world and is also potentially vulnerable to its temptations. What, for example, if he finds himself getting turned on to stealing cars?

From this sturdy starting point, Wolf and director Peter Werner, a TV veteran in his theatrical feature debut, keep building and building the suspense.

“No Man’s Land” hasn’t got the bravura style and sexiness of the somewhat similar “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which also deals with the impact of the world of the rich and privileged upon a cop. But it has what the Ridley Scott film so badly lacks: the sense of plot developing steadily out of character. As played with such skillful ease by Sweeney and Sheen (in a complete about-face from his idealistic young soldier in “Platoon”), Benjy and Ted are both fully credible, but the film does leave you wondering about Ted’s sexuality. Is his devotion to his sister anything more than that? Does the charm he turns so full force upon Benjy contain an element of attraction to the young policeman? At any rate, the film makers and Sheen have chosen to leave Ted a tantalizing enigma.