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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 10:04 pm

Political thrillers

In Hollywood, it’s all about scandal, assassination, and spying

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The SentinelRunning Time 1:52Rated PG-13

In Hollywood, the struggle for political power seldom has to do with electoral contests; instead, politics frequently revolve around scandal, assassination, and spying. The Sentinel (2006) begins with great promise as it closely examines the inner workings of the Secret Service and its rigorous methods of protecting the president. Then it goes off track with a preposterous plot involving a traitor within the agency who is involved in a plot to assassinate the president. A seasoned veteran (Michael Douglas) becomes the prime suspect when his attempts to hide his affair with the First Lady (Kim Basinger) make him appear suspicious. The manhunt that ensues is as old and tired as Douglas is, and it fails to cover the creaky soap-opera plot. The time spent searching for the mole would have been more wisely spent searching for a better script.

Throw North by Northwest and The Conversation into a blender, and the result would be something like Enemy of the State (1998), a far superior manhunt movie. Will Smith is a labor lawyer who unknowingly possesses a videotape of the murder of a powerful congressman. Escaping from the shadow government killers becomes an impossible task because they are able to track every move he makes. The playfulness of the surveillance team is both riveting and hilarious. The recent NSA spying scandal makes this one far more relevant today. Scandals and conspiracies abound in the oddball thriller Conspiracy Theory (1997). Mel Gibson is a nutcase who looks for and finds conspiracies at every turn, and he becomes the target of a mysterious group of conspirators led by the ominous Patrick Stewart. Gibson is properly loopy as the justifiably psychotic misfit, and Julia Roberts adds adequate support as a Justice Department investigator who comes to his aid.

American Dreamz (2006) is more of a lighthearted satire, but it does contain some thriller elements. Dennis Quaid is the hapless president whose poll numbers are as low as his IQ, and the target should be obvious. To bolster his sagging image, he agrees to be a guest judge on American Dreamz, a TV talent show loosely based on American Idol. Hugh Grant is the narcissistic host of the show, and that target should also be obvious. The thriller element stems from a likable Arab terrorist who becomes a finalist on the show and is ordered to blow up the president. Dreamz is a dynamite idea, but it lacks the acerbic treatment needed to put it over the top. As it stands, it is a mildly entertaining diversion.

New on DVD on Tuesday (Nov. 14): The Da Vinci Code, Accepted, John Tucker Must Die, and Sophie Scholl.

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