We gave it an A-
One False Move, a sardonic and explosive crooks-on-the-lam saga in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, has the meat-and-potatoes virtues — wit, atmosphere, and suspense; violence that shocks as well as thrills; a narrative that glides along the knife edge of its characters’ passions — that have just about disappeared from our movie screens during this summer of skittery, brightly packaged blockbusters. The irony is that One False Move wasn’t made within the commercial film industry. Directed by Carl Franklin, a former actor who was a semiregular on The A-Team, this shrewdly entertaining genre picture was financed independently and is now enjoying a city-by-city release — thanks, in large part, to critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, whose early support helped rescue it from the jaws of video oblivion. It says much about the current state of American cinema that a movie as good as One False Move almost didn’t get released. For this is exactly the sort of picture Hollywood should be — and, increasingly, isn’t — making.
It’s really two films in one. In Los Angeles, a trio of cocaine-dealing partners massacre a family and commence a feverish cross- country odyssey along the sunbelt highways. These three — Ray (brilliantly played by Billy Bob Thornton, who cowrote the script), a sweaty, long-haired Southern biker type with a gaze of pure hatred; Fantasia (Cynda Williams), his beautiful and deceptively tranquil black girlfriend; and Pluto (Michael Beach), a Zen-like buppie psychopath who’s the most pragmatic of the bunch — are, from the outset, at each other’s throats. That’s part of what makes their scenes scary and funny at the same time. Franklin captures the volatile craziness of low-life criminality, the way every new ”plan” sets off a dozen unforeseen consequences. At the same time, he cuts back and forth between these ticklishly desperate, squabbling fugitives and the three cops awaiting their arrival in the pastoral backwater of Star City, Ark., where Fantasia is headed to see her family.
The Star City sheriff, an eager young hayseed known as Hurricane (Bill Paxton), is anxious to impress the two tight-lipped super cops from Los Angeles (Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) who’ve requested his cooperation. For a while, Hurricane is treated as a joke — by the L.A. big shots, and by the movie itself. He may be sheriff, but he still seems like a kid who wants to grow up and be a policeman. Yet part of what makes One False Move so engrossing is the way the characters keep revealing new, darker sides. The movie is about hidden American links — between city and country, cop and criminal, and the black and white subcultures of the rural South.
Franklin has the most important gift a director can possess: Even within a thriller framework, he sees the humanity of everyone on screen, from a sadistic scuzzball like Ray to the square-jawed patrolman who, in the film’s most powerful white-knuckle moment, stops the crooks on the highway. One False Move isn’t perfect. It could have used more of the spring-loaded pacing that marked Bonnie and Clyde. And the racial revelation that is introduced late in the story feels somewhat tacked on — for a few moments, we’re too aware the film is making a Statement. But that’s the only false move in this suavely accomplished thriller.