[Screen It]

(2002) (Eric Schweig, Graham Greene) (R)

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Drama: A vigilante cop takes matters into his own hands regarding the problems facing him and the other inhabitants of an American Indian reservation.
Rudy (ERIC SCHWEIG) is a cop whose beat covers the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the poorest places to live in the country. Although liquor isn't sold on the reservation, its various residents, such as Rudy's alcoholic brother Mogie (GRAHAM GREENE), can simply travel to a border town and get as much as they want. Accordingly, Rudy must not only deal with Mogie usually showing up drunk, but also with other alcohol related incidents, and even a recent murder.

Not happy with how life has treated the American Indians or how they're handling it, Rudy decides to perform some vigilantism to right things. Accordingly, he anonymously beats the murder suspects so that they'll later confess and then sets fire to the liquor store that his brother usually frequents. The latter has unforeseen results, however, causing Rudy to see a shaman, Mr. Green Laces (MICHAEL SPEARS), in hopes of clearing his spiritual mess.

It also causes him to try to get closer to Mogie and his 18-year-old son Herbie (NOAH WATTS), especially since Rudy's unable to stay mad at his older brother for long, even when he knows his lifestyle is slowly killing him. From that point on, Rudy tries to deal with that as well as his internal guilt regarding his various actions.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
"Dances With Wolves" aside, the stereotypical thoughts that come to some Americans' minds when the subject of Native Americans is brought up are the bad guys in old Westerns, gambling casinos and drunken reservation lowlifes.

It's the latter that director Chris Eyre tackles in his sophomore effort, "Skins." A well-intentioned but rather flawed drama, the film continues with the director's examination of the current status of American Indians in contemporary America. While his 1998 debut, "Smoke Signals" pretty much avoided haranguing the viewer or touching on the rampant alcoholism that's present on many reservations, this film delves headfirst into both.

At first, however, it seems that the film is going to be completely different sort of effort, possibly along the lines of an insider version of the 1992 Val Kilmer flick, "Thunderheart." After a montage-based opening depicting how bad life is on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the film's protagonist - played by Eric Schweig ("Tom and Huck," "Squanto: A Warrior's Tale") - discovers a murder victim.

What seems like it might be a murder mystery then turns more into a disease of the week TV movie as combined with a Dirty Harry type story as a vigilante cop must deal with his sick, alcoholic brother while handing out his own form of justice.

That's obviously rife with dramatic potential and possibilities, but Eyre - who displayed such promise with his freshman effort - delivers more of an amateurish and preachy production here. Working from newcomer Jennifer Lyne's adaptation of Adrian C. Louis' novel of the same name, Eyre's storytelling isn't as tight or cohesive as his earlier film and things unfortunately turn too episodic and melodramatic as the plot wears on.

The often stiff to downright bad acting on the part of various performers embodying supporting roles doesn't help matters. Nor does the performance by Schweig as the main character that's not written or played well enough to engage the viewer like it should. Something of the standard walking contradiction - a cop who's supposed to be upholding the law but is actually breaking it - the character is neither as scary as Denzel Washington's in "Training Day" or as much vicarious fun to behold as Eastwood's legendary vigilante cop.

While one understands his inner turmoil and rage, as well as what the filmmakers and performers are trying to do with the character, we don't feel what he does. As a result, he elicits little empathy or sympathy from the viewer, even when one of his actions has an unexpected boomerang effect on him.

Somewhat more successful but still not fully explored is the alcoholic older brother character embodied by Graham Greene ("Snow Dogs," "The Green Mile"). Playing drunks is relatively easy to do and Green has no problem being convincing in the part. He also brings some necessary but rather sparse comic relief to the film.

Yet, one wishes we knew more about his character. Beyond a few flashbacks to the brothers' teen years and their abusive stepfather, as well as one comment about Mogie's Vietnam experience, there's little explanation of what's troubling the man to drive him to drink.

Thus, it almost seems as if the filmmakers are pointing their collective fingers at the establishment as the culprit and cause of all evils. Although that's understandable and at least partially true, it somewhat seems like an easy and/or lazy way out of really exploring these characters and the issues at hand.

Supporting performances of any note are few and far between. Noah Watts (making his debut) shows up as the protagonist's 18-year-old nephew, but beyond some melodramatic familial moments, he and his character do little for the film. The same holds true, although to a greater degree, for Lois Red Elk ("Christmas in the Clouds," "Outside Ozona") playing an aunt, Michael Spears ("Dances With Wolves") doing the shaman bit and Michelle Thrush ("Dead Man," "The Dark Wind") as Rudy's love interest whose lone scene somehow managed to survive the cutting room floor where the rest of her footage presumably lies.

Less than engaging and certainly choppy, increasingly melodramatic and, I hate to say it, but often amateurish, the film squanders its potential and makes one hope that Eyre isn't regressing in his filmmaking abilities and efforts. "Skins" rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed September 25, 2002 / Posted September 27, 2002

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