Actor Lou Diamond Phillips inauspiciously expands his job description to both star and screenwriter of AMBITION, a lurid, plodding thriller, leaving costar Clancy Brown no choice but to steal the movie.
Mitchell (Phillips), an aspiring L.A. novelist, would kill to make the bestseller list. He's already written one sensitive book about his long-suffering father, Tatay (Haing S. Ngor), but all it's gotten him so far is a wall papered with rejection letters. Meanwhile he stews at his job as a
bookstore manager, watching Stephen King and his disciples dish up the gore to top the bestseller list. Hoping to slice off his own piece of the profitable grand guignol pie, Mitchell decides to write about soon-to-be-released serial killer Albert Merrick (Clancy Brown), but his idea fizzles when
the media exhausts the story. Driven by blinding--you guessed it--ambition, Mitchell decides to proceed with his plan to write about Merrick, but only after driving the rehabilitated murderer to a new killing spree.
He starts by befriending Merrick after his release and hiring him to work at his store, raising the suspicious hackles of Merrick's gruff parole officer, Jordan (Richard Bradford). Keeping Merrick gainfully occupied for eight hours a day leaves Mitchell plenty of free time to climb into the
ex-con's head by pouring over voluminous diaries Merrick keeps stashed in his apartment. It also allows Mitchell ample time to replace the medicine in Merrick's prescription tranquilizer capsules with powdered sugar. As Merrick gets edgier and uglier, Mitchell begins pushing him towards murder by
placing him into tense situations with Julie (Cecilia Peck), Mitchell's girlfriend, and especially his terminally ill father. Meanwhile Jordan, increasingly suspicious, follows them both.
Phillips's basic idea of a novelist meddling in real life with tragic results isn't a bad one. (It was good enough for novelist Martin Amis's own bestseller, London Fields.) His problem lies in execution. Primarily, he would have done better to follow Amis's lead by pushing for the outer fringes
of dark satire rather than wallowing in windy melodrama. Many thrillers can be accused of gratuitous violence. AMBITION, on the other hand, is done in by gratuitous exposition. It meanders most of the time through endless scenes of characters explaining themselves to no useful purpose, delaying,
rather than building towards, the climax, which is never really in doubt for anyone picking up on the fact that Brown's psycho killer shares the same last name as the Elephant Man himself, David Merrick.
Proving his workmanlike mediocrity as a writer, Phillips is, if anything, even less convincing as an actor. Badly miscast, he's much too lightweight a screen presence to register convincingly as a diabolical villain. As a performer, he never really loses himself in his character's tortured
psyche, which includes a bucketload of guilt towards his long-suffering father, a failed restaurant owner who burned down his business, and hatred of his mother, who he thinks abandoned him as a child (but who really perished in the fire; see what we mean about gratuitous exposition?). Instead,
we're kept much too aware of Phillips the star daring to play a thoroughly loathsome character rather than his actual performance.
Credit Phillips, or perhaps director Scott D. Goldstein, for generosity, at least. Merrick is the plum role here, and Clancy Brown (THE BRIDE, HIGHLANDER, BLUE STEEL) runs with it, building on a growing reputation as one of the sharpest character actors around. Here he brings unexpected reserves
of feeling and intelligence to what is, at its core, a standard-issue oedipal maniac murderer. Also worth noting is Bradford's raspy parole officer and Peck, who proves herself a strong and appealing heroine despite a role consisting mainly of reading an endless computer printout of Mitchell's
scribblings. Willard Pugh and J.D. Cullum lend solid comic support as Mitchell's employees. Add the right star and a polished script, and you'd probably have a pretty good little movie here. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations, nudity.)
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