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by Jim Wunderle

"Out of Sight"

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney, Dennis Farina, Ving Rhames

Rated: R

Long before Jersey Films released the Elmore Leonard-inspired "Pulp Fiction" and followed that with an adaptation of one of Leonard's coolest novels, "Get Shorty" Hollywood was hip to this writer.

One of this country's most successful mystery writers, Leonard actually started out writing western novels and short stories. "Hombre," the 1967 Paul Newman film, was based on one of Leonard's earliest books, as was 1971's "Valdez is Coming."

After exploring the western, Leonard found his niche as a mystery writer and has sold a sizable number of copies in his career. Along the way, he's had a number of films based upon his work.

It wasn't until Quentin Tarantino had a smash with the Leonard-inspired "Pulp Fiction" that the writer became a really "hot" property, though. Barry Sonnenfeld directed "Get Shorty," and Tarantino himself optioned four of Leonard's novels. One of those, "Rum Punch," has already shown up on the big screen, as "Jackie Brown."

"Out of Sight" is the latest film based on an Elmore Leonard novel, a relatively new work from the author, being published in 1996. All of the patented Leonard touches are here, and this time around his main character is a female, Federal Marshall Karen Sisco.

The character is vivaciously brought to life on-screen by Jennifer Lopez, a woman who manages to be extremely sexy when need be, but who also doesn't look out of place squeezing off a couple of rounds from a shotgun.

As directed by Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies and videotape," "King of the Hill"), "Out of Sight" keeps Leonard's back-and-forth, flip-flopping narrative style intact and will remind viewers a lot of "Get Shorty" and even more so of "Pulp Fiction." Personally, I didn't find it to be as engaging as either of those movies, but it's a good film nonetheless.

As the story opens we see a frustrated Jack Foley played by George Clooney in the best movie role of his career pull off a slick little bank robbery and then be unable to start his beat-up getaway car. This leads to (as we soon learn) yet another stint in prison. It seems Jack is a habitual bank robber and has spent nearly half his life in jail.

Jack sort of weasels his way in on some other prisoners' great escape, and when his buddy, Buddy (played by Ving Rhames), picks him up outside the prison fence, the pair get something more than they bargained for. Federal Marshall Karen Sisco happens on the scene and throws a monkey wrench into Jack's well-laid plans.

Jack and Buddy have no choice but to take Karen hostage, and Leonard has concocted a hilarious scene where Jack and Karen, locked in the trunk of a car together, discussing movie plots, feel the first sparks of the strange romance that becomes the heart of the film.

Karen gets away by outwitting one of Jack and Buddy's perpetually stoned acquaintances, Glenn, and the body of "Out of Sight" revolves around her attempts to track down Jack while dealing with her own mixed-up emotions.

Jack, Buddy, Glenn and a couple of other ex-cons, meanwhile, are planning to steal some uncut diamonds from a rich guy they met in the pen.

Richard Ripley is just one of many side characters that drift in and out of the storyline, and it's a testimony to the respect Leonard commands when one considers the actors taking on these small roles. Ripley is played by Albert Brooks; his mistress by Nancy Allen; Michael Keaton turns up in a role that's a crossover character from "Jackie Brown"; and Samuel L. Jackson shows up for a brief scene.

Soderbergh uses some tricks freeze frames at the end of scenes, changing film stock, letting the characters drift off into their own daydreams that add nicely to the overall mood. He's a good director who's not afraid to pull in the reins a bit and let a story unfold at its own pace.

While not overall as good a film as "Get Shorty," fans of Elmore Leonard and smart, mature comedy/action pictures will find "Out of Sight" to be one of the most satisfying films of the summer.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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