By Owen Gleiberman
March 02, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
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There are any number of pop songs that should probably be retired for all time from the movies (have you ever seen a period piece set in the swing-mad ’40s that didn’t feature ”In the Mood”?), yet if I were forced to pick one song above all others that I would hope never, ever to encounter in a motion picture again, I think it would have to be that obnoxious, faux-rebel white-boy-blues anthem ”Bad to the Bone.” 3000 Miles to Graceland does at least spare us the prefab grit of the George Thorogood version (he must live high off the royalties), but halfway through the movie, the damn song makes its stutteringly monotonous and all too inevitable appearance, for what feels like the nine thousandth time in 20 years, all as a way of underlining the bad-hearted, badass badness of a motorcycle gang. We get it: These guys are bad. To the bone. Bad like Marlon Brando in The Wild One? Actually, more like Patrick Swayze in Road House.

This is not, incidentally, the only done-unto-death cliche that dots 3000 Miles to Graceland. Some of the others include: shots of skittery fast-moving clouds; a gas station that explodes, via dropped cigarette, into a fireball; anything and everything to do with Las Vegas; machine-gun-toting robbers who employ a campy pop disguise (in this case, they’re Elvis impersonators); a 1959 fire engine-red Cadillac; a black bag crammed with wads of cash; soaring crane shots that fetishize the desolate Americana of a roadside pit-stop motel; the doom-chic name of that same motel (it’s called the Last Chance); a tough-loner hero (Kurt Russell) with a soft spot for kids; a sociopathic antihero (Kevin Costner) who would blow away his own mother to protect the loot; endless blood ballets of pow-zap editing, smashed glass, and slow-mo carnage; the very fact that we’re watching — yes — another road movie.

I could go on, but the truth is that virtually nothing in 3000 Miles to Graceland isn’t a cliche. Shot for shot, line for line, the movie, directed by music-video and commercial veteran Demian Lichtenstein from a script he cowrote with Richard Recco, is almost scary in the blithe rhythmic zoom of its confidence, yet there’s an eerie vacuum at its core. What’s novel, or at least distinctive, is the Trojan horse finesse with which it has all been packaged. Thanks to the title and the trailer, we go in thinking that we’re going to see a canny B-movie throwaway steeped in the funky peacockery of Elvis worship, and what we get instead, from the moment that the robbers ditch their wigs and their glitter-king robes (roughly half an hour in), is the sort of mayhem-driven, inspired-by-a-script-from-Quentin’s-bottom-drawer potboiler in which it’s hard to know whether to consider the ”snazzy” gunplay a respite from the ”cool” quips or vice versa.

Costner, wearing wraparound shades and sideburns that slither down his face like manta rays, showed a good instinct in wanting to play Murphy, a stone-cold killer who dispatches innocent bystanders without a blink. But the role, as conceived, is too limited to let the actor tap any inner craziness. Costner’s mellow narcissism shines right through the character’s psycho edge. Russell, as the honorable loner Michael, who ends up facing off against Murphy, his former partner and prison cellmate, is at his most genial and lightweight, but Courteney Cox, as the lusty single mom who badgers him into letting her and her kid join him on the road, drops her urban-neurotic armor and gives her scenes a charge. For the first time, she seems a true movie star.

3000 Miles to Graceland tries to look at its performers with the antic affection that Jonathan Demme mustered in Something Wild, but nothing in the movie is sharp enough — not the dialogue, not the double crosses. More scenes than not end up doused in an Armageddon of splattery gunfire. If I invoke Tarantino, it’s not just because of the cheeky-violence factor but because we’re watching a new breed of paradox: the studio version of an indie variation on kinetic studio trash. Essentially, 3000 Miles to Graceland is the Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic merged with the sun-spangled kitsch-in-the-desert cachet of movies like El Mariachi and True Romance, yet nothing in the film can match the crash-and-burn zigzag bravura of the car chase that climaxed Bruckheimer’s otherwise preposterous Gone in 60 Seconds. This is a high-octane ride that starts to leak gas before it even gets going.

[BOX]

3000 Miles to Graceland

STARRING Kurt Russell Kevin Costner WARNER BROS. RATED R 121 MINUTES

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