And now, the plot thickens

Times Staff Writer

THIS is Southern California, where everybody has a screenplay, so why should a U.S. congressman be any different?

However, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's nearly 30-year-old script for a buddy action-adventure flick called "Baja" might have languished obscurely in its own special development hell if not for a sudden burst of unwelcome attention to the alleged con man who optioned the film -- little-known producer Joseph Medawar.

After striking a deal with Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) in late 2003, Medawar found himself with the kind of access that would help him pitch another Hollywood project -- a TV series about the Department of Homeland Security. The congressman helped introduce Medawar in 2004 to at least five Republican congressmen and staff members at the House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee, as well as officials in federal law enforcement agencies who briefed Medawar and his crew on the inner workings of the federal government.

Medawar was arrested in September and has pleaded not guilty to a 23-count indictment accusing him of defrauding dozens of people -- many of them Orange County and South Los Angeles churchgoers -- by selling $5.5 million of stock in his production company, Steeple Enterprises, and spending most of the investors' money on a lavish lifestyle. Rohrabacher, for his part, has said he did nothing improper by introducing Medawar to folks in Washington.

But enough about the federal charges. What did Medawar get for the $23,000 he sunk into Rohrabacher's script? The congressman let The Times take a look.

For starters, don't expect any mold-breaking. "Baja" is framed like a buddy movie set against the desert backdrop of Baja California. The two heroes come from different worlds: Bernie Shulman, who calls himself "Paz," is a bearded grad student in his mid-20s, a liberal who opposes war, questions the existence of God and isn't above having a good time getting drunk on tequila and chasing women. Roger Wallace is a twentysomething Marine Corps veteran and staunch conservative who believes the U.S. war in Iraq is a just war, but is haunted by frequent flashbacks about his time in combat there. (The original screenplay portrayed Roger as a Vietnam War vet, but had since been updated to be an Iraq veteran.)

The polar opposites first meet up in Ensenada after Paz is followed into an alley by knife-wielding bandits who catch a glimpse of the wad of cash in his pocket. After Roger comes to his aid, Paz proposes that his rescuer accompany him on an unusual archeological quest -- and offers the Marine vet $5,000 to make it worth his while.

And get this: They fight off street thugs, motorcycle gangs and even a rattlesnake as they go in quest of a priceless treasure -- a 3-foot-high cross that is made of gold and rumored to be hidden in a cave somewhere in Baja.

Plenty more high-octane action follows as the pair get involved in car chases across desert sand dunes, meet up with Colombian drug traffickers at a remote airfield and encounter a tough band of bikers swinging chains.

There is some dialogue that Steven Seagal would appreciate:

Biker to Roger: "One smash with this chain, and your brains are gonna be all over the ground."

Paz to Roger: "Roger, there are four of them!"

Roger to Paz: "Listen, kid, you just take care of one of 'em. If you can just grab hold of one, I can take care of the rest."

Rohrabacher also sprinkles in his own brand of humor, as in this early exchange between Roger and Paz:

"Paz, what kind of name is that?"

"It means something. It means 'peace' in Spanish. What's your name?"

"Roger. Roger Wallace. It means, 'I am Roger Wallace.' "

And what would an action movie be without a little romance? It won't rival Rick and Ilsa in "Casablanca," but one knows sparks are going to fly eventually between Roger and Rosa, the daughter of a Mexican rancher the buddies meet along the way.

"You are a bit more distant than your amigo," she tells him.

"He's looking for something," he replies.

"What about you? What are you looking for? Or are you just trying to get away?" she asks.

"You get up-close personal real quick don't you?"

"Do you have a sweetheart?" she continues.

"I have no one. That's the way I want it."

Marking a first effort

THE "Baja" script was Rohrabacher's first attempt at screenwriting. He took the plunge while taking a break from working on Ronald Reagan's first run for the White House in 1976.

Rohrabacher said he was encouraged to write a script by a screenwriter friend while waiting to see if he could land a job at an L.A. TV station.

"I said [to my friend], 'What do I write about?' " Rohrabacher recalled. "He said, 'Dana, write about what you like to do. What do you like to do?' I said, 'Well, I like to go down to Mexico, drink tequila and chase women.' So he goes, 'Well, write a story that includes going down to Mexico, drinking tequila and chasing women.' And I said, 'Why don't we make it a treasure story?' "

The TV job never materialized for the onetime Los Angeles journalist who would go on to write speeches for President Reagan before running for Congress and taking office in 1989.

In 1978, Rohrabacher happened to run into Reagan at a party. The former actor and future president asked him what he had been doing, and Rohrabacher mentioned the screenplay. Reagan asked to see it and about a week after Rohrabacher dropped a copy off, he received a handwritten critique from Reagan, which the congressman has held onto over the years as a keepsake.

It reads, in part:

"Dear Dana, I've read your treatment & found myself interested in the two men & wanting to learn the outcome. You've got an excellent locale for filming purposes plus action & suspense.

"You asked for my comments so I'll be presumptive and make some suggestions. Since today's mkt is mainly TV I'd clean up the language -- a few h--l's & d--n's yet but I'd drop all the words ending in '-itch, -it or -uck.' "

"Baja" is not the only script Rohrabacher has completed. Another one, titled "The French Doctoresse," is based on the true story of a French woman who was a spy during World War II. It has been optioned twice but never developed. He penned several shorter treatments, including "Tranquilidad," about a mercenary hired by an oil company to go to a South Pacific island that, unbeknownst to its native inhabitants, is sitting on one of the world's largest oil reserves. His job: to make sure the island stays safely in pro-American hands.

"I actually was down in the South Pacific [after Reagan lost the 1976 race for the Republican presidential nomination] and was hired to do a job down there," Rohrabacher said. "I was involved in helping a native insurrection movement down there to prevent some leftist group from winning.... I was riding a motorcycle around the jungle and living in a jungle village. I felt like I was Steve McQueen." He declined to give further details, except to say he wasn't sent there by the CIA and he wasn't working for an oil company.

Another treatment was called "The Killing Zone" -- a love story set in Cold War Czechoslovakia. Rohrabacher said he went to the capital, Prague, around the time of the 1968 Soviet invasion and "smuggled out a whole bunch of pictures" and other things.

The fate of "Baja" remains unclear: The option expires Dec. 23, but the congressman says other producers also have expressed interest. Now 58, married and the father of triplets, Rohrabacher, a lifelong surfer, said he is writing a memoir he hopes will be published after he leaves office. The working title: "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Surfing." He said it will include many true-life adventures, such as his brief stint in 1988 accompanying the mujahedin who battled the Soviet army in Afghanistan.

After leaving Congress at some future date, he hopes to spend his days riding the waves and writing screenplays.

"That's what I'd like to do, but I'm not so presumptuous to think I can be able to break in [to Hollywood]," he said. "There are a lot of people more talented than myself who haven't been able to break in. It's very difficult. It's easier to break into politics than Hollywood."

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