By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The second feature from director Larry Clark is a crisper, sprightlier, more engaging entertainment than his self-styled scandal of a debut, ”Kids.” In this blatant attempt to out-grunge ”Drugstore Cowboy,” Clark still works in a semi-improvisatory handheld style, with raw images of beautiful young actors shooting up and having sex, but he also scrambles squalor, comedy, mayhem, and pathos, so that we’re coasting on the characters’ underworld freedom and experiencing their degradation at the same time. (The fantastic soul soundtrack seems to express the feelings they’re missing.) James Woods has his best role since ”Salvador” as Mel, a drug dealer, thief, and casual killer who is struggling, in middle age, to hang on to his cock-of-the-walk ways. Woods sports a bit of a gut here (he uses it knowingly), but his acting is as lean and magnetically hostile as ever, poised between a smile and a snarl. Melanie Griffith, as his paramour, gets a chance to break out of her retro-Monroe winsomeness and show a tough-chick spark. These two pick up a couple of kids (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner) who are like junior versions of themselves, and the makeshift family goes on a rambling, stoned odyssey of low crimes and misdemeanors. Lou Diamond Phillips has a riveting cameo as a bejeweled Latino nightclub vulture who looks at Kartheiser and snaps, “Let me tell you something, chicken — I can kick your ass as good as I can f— it!” That might be the Clark manifesto: hedonism recast as wild, rabid threat.