When a foreign-born director starts making films in the United States, he or she often gets high on the physical landscape. Energized, they show us things that American filmmakers--often obsessed instead with turning landscape into metaphor-- take for granted.
In "Father Hood" (citywide), Darrell James Roodt, the fine young South African director of "A Place for Weeping" and "Sarafina!" slips into that tradition--although his material is slim. It's another chase movie, a family fugitives tale about a lovable crook of a dad (Patrick Swayze) springing his kids from an abusive child care institution and vamoosing on a cross-country chase with hordes of cops in hot pursuit--and the social messages about systemic flaws rattling along behind like a trail of tin cans tied to the bumper.
Novelist Scott Spencer, the author of "Endless Love," wrote the script from an idea by producer Nicholas ("GoodFellas") Pileggi. And neither of them are pushing hard. It's as if they've deliberately scaled themselves down: trying to cover the formulas, think and write cute, press all the right buttons. The script shows only a dim sense of how newspapers are written, how ordinary people talk. The only dialogue that rings true is the public-speak drone of the judges and the bureaucrat bad guys.
But Roodt plainly relishes the chance to get out on the road, to show us the high hot sky over Nevada highways and Hoover Dam; skitter through L.A.'s alleys and the Glenrose limestone tunnels of Texas' Cascade Caverns; blaze through Mojave and--like Hong Kong's John Woo in "Hard Target"--nose around New Orleans.
"Father Hood" works on a pure travelogue level. As shot by Roodt's South African cameraman, Mark Vicente, it's wonderful to watch. Most of the characters may be trapped in programmed spontaneity, but you can get a real lift out of the landscapes, the crisp sunlight splayed over gas stations and billboards, and the cannonade of '50s and '60s rock oldies that keeps surging out of outlaw dad Jack Charles' car radios. Critics often use a lazy cliche for action movies: They call them "rides." But that's what "Father Hood" is: a fast ride in congenial company.
Like the ex-Iron Curtain directors who get smashed on American pop culture, Roodt comes from repressive environs; you can tell he's firmly on the side of crazy, reckless Jack in his war with the law. But Spencer doesn't really make these characters tick. What accounts for Jack's odd notion that kidnaping his kids at gunpoint won't affect his upcoming court date? The dialogue is slick and unsurprising; when people get into arguments, it's like a screaming game show.
Even so, there's a smartness to the writing that the actors catch. Swayze the dancer does Jack, small-time crook who tries to think positive, as if the role was a dance: an exuberant swagger-strut full of mean chuckles, yells and flamboyant hair-combs. It's a shame there aren't better jokes in this script, because Swayze gives the part a sunny, slap-happy bounce that makes some of his fellow cast members look a little sleepy.
The two children--Sabrina Lloyd and Brian Bonsall--are fun but unremarkable. Halle Berry is stunningly pretty in the slight part of "Los Angeles Post" reporter Kathleen Mercer. Diane Ladd isn't given much either--just a grotesque gambling grandma turn in the Las Vegas scenes.
Not until we get to Orleans and Michael Ironside's part as Jerry, Jack's gun-happy partner, do we find an actor who's figured out how to live the part. With his leather, wild eyes and matted mane, Ironside's Jerry looks scary-volatile, strung out on paranoia and weaponry. He practically reeks of doom.
When a movie shows you the sights as nicely as "Father Hood" (MPAA rated PG-13), it may seem petty to ask for better talk. But, to a degree, "Hood" points up its own flaws: planting the child care theme, then blasting off into the Wild Hot Yonder with Jack. That's not a bad place to be--with Swayze behind the wheel, Marvin Gaye on the radio and Roodt calling the shots--but, like far too many movie rides, this one doesn't carry any aftershocks or reminiscent shine. When it's over, it's over.
Patrick Swayze: Jack Charles
Halle Berry: Kathleen Mercer
Sabrina Lloyd: Kelly Charles
Brian Bonsall: Eddie Charles
A Hollywood Pictures presentation, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution Inc. Director Darrell James Roodt. Producers Nicholas Pileggi, Anant Singh, Gillian Gorfil. Executive producers Jeffrey Chernov. Screenplay by Scott Spencer. Cinematographer Mark Vicente. Editor David Heitner. Costumes Donfeld. Music Patrick O'Hearn. Production design David Markham. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG-13 (for thematic material concerning children endangered by adults).