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Cinema Signal:

Controlling Corruption
by Robert Klitgaard

. "The Ice Harvest"

In a dark and twisting tale of theft, greed and one-upmanship, this noirish drama is a case of a big swindle not being the happy conclusion but the beginning of problems that grow more increasingly threatening for the guys who pull it off.

On Christmas Eve in icebound Wichita, Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), a corruptible attorney for sleazy businesses, and his associate Vic Cavenaugh (Billy Bob Thornton), successfully embezzle $2,147,000 from mobbed up Kansas City boss Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid).

As the two conmen wrangle over securing the money long enough to make tracks to safer climes (separately), Charlie makes a play for the girl of his dreams. It would take a satchel of dough to attract stunning Renata (Connie Nielsen), who runs the Sweet Cage strip club, and now he's got it. Over a million worth as his share.

Renata's a very clever lady who's business acumen is well indicated in the way she considers her options. A babe who could have just about any man, the quotient of one with money is a decided plus factor. She's a femme fatale with a mental calculus that could challenge the pit bosses of Vegas. It's apparent that she hasn't been running her business on her looks, though, which are quite stunning enough. This gal's sweet affability is edged with tough, so the problem for Charlie is seeing if he's really got the litigation skills that it takes to convince this little jury of one, and she's not rushing her deliberations.

It being Christmas Eve, Charlie hooks up with drinking buddy Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt) who happens also to be the current husband of Charlie's ex-wife, a cold silver plate of a lady given to all the comforts of higher birth. Even so, Charlie visits his happy ex-family, ex-mother-in-law and all, just to be with his kids, a nasty little brat of a boy who totally rejects him and younger sister who sweetly loves her daddy and forgives his many failings.

When Guerrard finally catches wind of his attorney's deception, he comes calling, visiting all the known haunts of his quarry. Arglist spends a lot of time dodging, hiding in shadows and mens' rooms, only to find that Vic has fearlessly remained home and gets him secured inside a foot locker. But the lethally armed political boss is alive and the finish to the drama isn't determined, at all. The ice is thinner than it looks.

Comedy director Harold Ramis of "Ghostbuster" and "Analyze This and That" franchises, achieves a shadowy gang-who-couldn't-shoot-straight satire in a "The Grifters" cross with "The Perfect Plan." How things go awry when a large sum of cash arouses agendas and criminal instincts is a fruitful framework in screenwriters Richard Russo's and Robert Benton's hands. If it doesn't capture a minute by minute burlesque of human motivation it may have been diluted by the subplots, where the weakness lies. But the good casting of major players and essential concepts is enough to payback the cost of the ticket.

Of that casting, it's nice to see Cusack again in a tight tongue-in-cheek context after runaway disappointments as a weakly justified romantic lead ("Must Love Dogs") and the suffocating films of "importance" he's wont to do ("Max"). Thornton shows his inherent dependability in whatever you throw at him. At least, here, his serio-comic style goes without the prurience and filthy tongue of "Bad Santa" and "Bad News Bears," a proven gold mine for his casting possibilities.

Most of all, Connie Nielsen has a chance to show the exquisiteness of her acting potentials. They haven't been this well exploited since "Gladiator" and "One Hour Photo" and a fan might expect this show-stealing turn to juice up the career of a more than deserving presence in the film firmament.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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