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The Hot Spot (May 28/03)

In The Hot Spot, Don Johnson stars as Harry Madox, a drifter that finds himself in a small Southern town. Wandering through the city, he notices that a local car dealership is looking for a new salesman. He quickly sells a car without even notifying the manager, and winds up with a commission-only gig. Also working at the dealership is a young woman named Gloria Harper (Jennifer Connelly), who immediately sparks Harry's interest. But Harry's distracted by the boss' wife, a sultry vixen named Dolly Harshaw (Virginia Madsen), and the two are soon embroiled in a steamy affair. Meanwhile, Harry's got his eye on the local bank and for good reason; the security system doesn't work and the only person manning the joint seems to be the owner (who is easily distracted).

The Hot Spot is an incredibly hit-and-miss affair, with the various positive elements in the film hurt by a seriously overlong running time. The most effective aspect of the film is Johnson's performance. By shedding his usual cocky grin and confident swagger, he manages to turn Harry into a character that's so sleazy and self-serving he can't help but be fascinating. As he ambles into this small town, we get the sense that he believes it's the sort of place he could own - with the help of some conning and stealing. It's certainly an eye-opening performance, and it's a little surprising it didn't turn him into a bigger star (it probably doesn't help that he followed The Hot Spot with Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man).

But as good as he is (not to mention fine supporting turns from Connelly and character actor/director Charles Martin Smith as a cohort at the dealership), the film suffers from an incredibly uneven pace. Though the majority of Harry's escapades within the town are interesting, anything involving his affair with Dolly sends the film into dullsville. Madsen is clearly trying to channel Barbara Stanwyck here, playing the evil temptress whose motivations aren't made clear until the very end, but somehow it just doesn't work. This sort of character is probably one of the most familiar in the history of film, but director Dennis Hopper doesn't use her in a terribly unique manner. Madsen's scenes have an air of familiarity about them, as though we've seen her story arc thousands of times before - in far better movies.

Having said that, the movie is mostly entertaining - if a little on the long side. But Johnson's performance and Hopper's keen eye for small town life makes The Hot Spot worth a look.

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