What stops this being On Golden Pond for good ol' boys is a plot that keeps turning up dead bodies and a mystery that has the structure of a Forties detective story.

Paul Newman plays Harry Ross, ex-cop, ex-private eye, ex-drunk. It's perfect for him. He can look sad and wrecked and stay in character. Ross is off the juice, but not going anywhere, running errands for a one-time big shot Hollywood actor, called Jack (Gene Hackman), and staying rent free in a room over the garage, "as the hired hand."

Newman emphasises the humiliation of Harry's predicament. He has no regular income and no desire to return to surveillance work. Two years earlier he was shot in the groin by Jack's teenage daughter when sent to Mexico to bring her back after she ran off with a sleaze rat from the wrong side of Sunset. Now he has been asked to deliver a package to a woman in a flop house.

She has disappeared. Instead, a fat man with a gun, mortally wounded from a bullet in the belly, tries to kill him. To confuse matters, Jack has the big C and his wife, Catherine (Susan Sarandon), is lying to him. What does she have to hide? Perhaps, a clue lies amongst the debris of the ex-fat man's grotty apartment.

This is a story of corruption, blackmail, murder and missing persons in LA. It is also Harry's story, how his instinct for detection keeps getting him into trouble. Most of the jokes are ageist ("Prostrate acting up?" "Not yet." "Something to look forward to"), although there aren't many of these.

James Garner appears out of the grey, as a retired cop with an unhealthy appetite for the liquid things in life. The years haven't done him any favours, but the charm's still there.

Hackman, ironically, looks fitter than any of them, which is a problem, as Jack is supposed to be dying. Sarandon's role is somehow beneath her. Her character, Catherine, has to be manipulative, enigmatic and desirable. She's an actress, who performs even at home. She has Harry in her palm and Jack dependent, but doesn't come accross as a real person. Sarandon likes to be stretched. Catherine is a shadow, a pretty shadow, possibly dangerous, probably pretending.

The film suffers from oldness. Newman gives a negative performance, which, in the circumstances, feels right. Harry is a loser. Newman's talent for the positive has to be suppressed. All that remains is the whodunnit. Surprisingly, you care.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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A washed-up private eye gets dragged into a murder mystery by an old friend.
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Amber Wilkinson **1/2

Director: Robert Benton

Writer: Matthew Warchus, based on the play by Sam Shepard

Starring: Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Reese Witherspoon

Year: 1998

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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