- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

Josh Hartnett is becoming the go-to actor for neo-noir films, what with “Lucky Number Slevin” and now “The Black Dahlia.”

It’s tough to imagine an actor less suited for a genre.

Then again, “Dahlia” director Brian De Palma could have had Humphrey Bogart as the lead, and his saga still would have collapsed in the final reel.

Poor Mr. Hartnett isn’t the only casting snafu. Hilary Swank is a terrific actress and has two Oscars to prove it, but she’s hardly the woman to play the luscious femme fatale she’s asked to inhabit.

Based on James Ellroy’s novel, “The Black Dahlia” places all the key noir elements in position but doesn’t know quite how to weave them into an alluring tale.

We’re introduced to a pair of boxing detectives from Los Angeles who square off in a bout staged to raise money for the force. Bucky Bleichert (Mr. Hartnett) is a soft-spoken slugger who needs money to care for his elderly father. Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) is the bigger man with a beautiful gal named Kay (Scarlett Johansson) and … not much else. We never get close enough to Lee to figure him out.

“Dahlia” patiently shows how the different men slide into their friendship, including a ripping boxing sequence in which Bucky leaves a few teeth on the canvas.

A classic De Palma set piece, a bird’s-eye view sequence tracking two events at once, sets the real story in motion.

A young and not so talented actress (Mia Kirshner) has been gruesomely murdered, and both Bucky and Lee begin pursuing the case. Dubbed the Black Dahlia, the actress is seen only through unflattering screen tests and soft core snippets, her jet black hair and tragic beauty bewitching the detectives.

Lee pursues the case with a vigor that shocks Kay and threatens his career on the force. Meanwhile, Bucky has to fend off romantic advances from Kay while starting a dalliance with a socialite (Miss Swank) with ties to the case.

“The Black Dahlia” spins the murder mystery round and round until every new revelation leaves us too dizzy to care.

Mark Isham’s score sounds like a greatest hits collection gleaned from TCM’s daily schedule, only reminding us of the film’s inferiority to previous noir models.

“The Black Dahlia’s” best scene features Bucky and his socialite date having dinner at her home. Between the woman’s creepy sister and besotted mother, the meal becomes a riotously unhinged affair.

It’s also a precursor to the unintentional giggles to come.

“The Black Dahlia” draws inspiration from Mr. Ellroy’s book of the same name as well as the still-unsolved murder on which the book was partially based.

It’s a tragic tale that deserves a deeper, darker movie than this.

**

TITLE: “The Black Dahlia”

RATING: R (Nudity, gore, violence and adult language)

CREDITS: Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by Josh Friedman based on a novel by James Ellroy. Music by Mark Isham.

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

WEB SITE: www.theblackdahliamovie.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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