"Palmetto" is like a Raymond Chandler story directed by Zalman King (the voyeuristic eye behind "Wild Orchid" and "Delta of Venus"), but with all the sex scenes cut out.
A classically film noir effort, with a gritty voice-over, steamy dialogue, fedora hats and wonderful use of light and shadows, the tale this movie spins is about a parolee trying to make a quick buck in a skid row Florida town of smoky bars and dangerous women.
The parolee, Harry Barber, is played by Woody Harrelson, who looks surprisingly natural in suspenders and a brimmed hat. He's an ex-newspaperman who spent two years in the can after being framed for an unspecified crime by corrupt city politicians he had been investigating.
He's hardly finished his first cigarette as a free man when the sexpot wife of a local millionaire offers him an "easy" $50,000 if he will help stage a fake kidnapping.
Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue) is a Grade A femme fatale. A lusty enigma in a push-up bra, she explains the job involves some obvious risks, then glances, heavy-lidded, through her blond curls and breathes "You do take risks, don't you Mr. Barber?"
Her plan, which is naturally destined to go wrong at Harry's expense, is to stage an abduction of the millionaire's 17-year-old daughter (Chloe Sevigny, "Kids") and demand $500,000. Harry's cut is ten percent and all he has to do is be the threatening voice on the telephone, or so he's told. (Why she needs a stranger to fill this role is not immediately clear.)
"Palmetto" is quite a departure for director Volker Schlondorff, who is known for surreal art house fare like "The Tin Drum" and "A Handmaid's Tale." A very Hollywood product with a slightly nagging pre-fabricated feel, this film lacks the uneasy edge a good noir story requires, even though it is devoted to traditional noir and is moved effectively to modern day without much alteration.
Although the era is not a problem, the setting is. Modern day Palmetto is allegedly a "bad town" -- like Tombstone or something -- but that flavor never comes across. The burg has no personality.
Another problem is Harry. Aside from his wardrobe, Harrelson doesn't show us anything new here, and he's no Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. He's billed as a nice guy who gets in over his head, but he's not a nice guy. Harry is your work-a-day Woody Harrelson toughie, chewing on cigarettes and fighting to stay on the wagon.
He's none too bright, either. Noir heroes are supposed to be victims of circumstance -- they get in trouble whether they want to or not. But although he trusts no one (he tapes conversations with Mrs. Malroux and with the daughter), Harry still doesn't see red flags, even when they're planted on his forehead.
Both the temptress wife and the teasing teenage daughter (who is in on the ransom plan) flop on their backs for him. Warning!
While getting ready to take the daughter into hiding, she picks a fight with a potential witness. But does Harry abort? Of course not.
Pretty soon the daughter turns up dead and it's clear that Mrs. Malroux has set Harry up as patsy.
Shue, while a little transparent in her feminine wiles, goes out of her way to make Rhea Malroux the movie's most memorable character, and severely upstages a rather dreary Harrelson.
Early on she turns an unfriendly frisking into a steamy seduction, and helps create a stormy atmosphere that buoys "Palmetto" in despite a lack of urgency regarding Harry's perilous situation.
Nicely photographed and peppered with flashes of clever storytelling, the film is almost redeemed by some wild identity twists in the last reel.
But unless you have something really fresh to do in this genre (like 1996's "Bound," a story of mafia betrayal involving a mobster moll and her lesbian lover) a noir movie with a modern setting is ultimately banal.
Even with its tough guys, slinky broads, shadowy images and ironic twists of fate, and even though it's based on a real pulp crime novel (James Hadley Chase's "Just Another Sucker"), "Palmetto" is merely a chalk outline of what it could have been.