By Owen Gleiberman
Updated June 18, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

I used to love watching Don Johnson on ”Miami Vice” — the preppie-beach-bum duds, the tan and stubbled dimples, the way he bit down on the word ”Pal!” as if it were a four-letter insult — so it has been disheartening to see him fizzle on the big screen. In turkeys like ”Paradise” and ”Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” he has been gawky and lame, as if he were working so hard to ”act” he’d forgotten simply how to be.

Now, though, Johnson seems to have found his way. In Guilty as Sin, a ludicrous, zestfully trashy courtroom thriller directed by Sidney Lumet, he plays a grinning gigolo hustler, David Greenhill, who revels in his power over women; clearly, it’s the perfect role for him. David lives off a series of rich, jaded socialites who give him everything he wants. He doesn’t have a job, and that suits him fine. He’s proud of the fact that women treat him like an expensive whore. Johnson’s bronze skin is set off by greased-back dark-blond hair and a series of beautiful brown suits: He’s Mr. Coppertone Sleazebag. As David, this actor is full of seductive tricks — smiles, compliments, oily come-ons — and he’s just subtle enough to let us see that he knows they’re tricks. In a sense, Johnson’s performance is the apotheosis of soap-opera acting: He’s playing a heavy-breathing smoothy who gets off on the manipulativeness of his own hustle.

David has been charged with killing his wife, who fell to her death from their apartment window and left a note accusing him of plotting the deed. Slithering into the office of Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay), an attractive criminal attorney he is eager to have represent him, he reacts to the accusation as blithely as Claus von Bulow. The very idea that he might be guilty, that there’s something about his behavior toward women that he couldn’t get away with, strikes him as a bad joke. Jennifer is put off by David’s suave Nietzschean arrogance (even as she’s attracted by it), but she believes that he’s innocent and agrees to defend him. Then he starts behaving like the Client From Hell.

To enjoy ”Guilty as Sin,” you have to overlook a jerry-built contrivance: Even after Jennifer begs off the case, the judge orders her to remain David’s defender. (Why won’t anyone in her law firm volunteer to take over?) And there’s a moment early on that seems crucially out of whack: Johnson, yelling at De Mornay as he slathers mayonnaise onto a sandwich with a large kitchen knife, is allowed to act like such a desperate psycho that, for one brief scene, we seem to have stepped into a different movie. If you can spin past these missteps, ”Guilty as Sin” is carried along by the hostile erotic charge that passes between Johnson and De Mornay. For once, here’s a ”hot” thriller relationship that refuses to explode into actual sex; instead, it remains tense and alive. De Mornay’s smart, edgy performance helps anchor Johnson’s flamboyant one. David is despicable yet ruthlessly clever. He keeps teasing Jennifer in his sarcastic singsong way, and she loathes him (but gets hot under the collar anyway). The trial, which features the usual array of red herrings, plays like a debased mating dance between lawyer and client. Is David guilty? We’re tipped off early on, but in a sense it hardly matters. The guy is guilty, all right — of treating the world as his brothel. In ”Guilty as Sin,” Johnson puts the sting back into sleaze.