Published July 26, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

Kathleen Turner likes to tell the story about the time she was a nervous guest on the Today morning show and discovered many of the stage crew were old friends from her soap opera days. "If things aren't working," she told the supportive cameramen, "just pan the legs, guys."

There are plenty of admiring shots of Turner's legs on display in V.I. Warshawski but not enough to save this movie-of-the-weak melodrama about a tough-talking Chicago private investigator. The routine was done earlier and better on a fair episode of Police Woman.

But that doesn't stop director Jeff Kanew from imitating the typical television cop show _ from aerial views of the teeming city and a pseudo-jazz score in the credits to the final voice-over wisecrack by Warshawski. Kanew, who injected some imagination into the campus comedy routine with Revenge of the Nerds, can't manage the same with the gumshoe genre. His lackadaisical approach and an inadequate script result in a numbing 92 minutes of movie-watching.

Turner appears uncomfortable in the title role as a down-on-her-luck private eye who stumbles into a pool of corruption after she flirts with hunk hockey player Bernard "Boom Boom" Grafalk (Stephen Meadows). Bernard excuses himself from her advances long enough to argue with his two brothers across the bar. A few hours and moonlit kisses later, Bernard asks Warshawski to babysit his teen-age daughter Kat (Angela Goethals) while he straightens out the family problems. Before long, Bernard is dead under mysterious circumstances, and Warshawski is saddled with Kat.

This creates the expected friction between an independent cop and a girl fluent in gutterspeak learned from hanging around the locker room with her father. It seems Kat is the key to a multimillion-dollar Lake Michigan marina development project that its backers would kill for. First, the bad guys want to keep Kat alive because of her connection, then they want to murder her.

Figuring out who is behind these acts should be simple _ there are only two suspects with the same motive _ but Warshawski trudges along, oblivious to the obvious and not about to call the police. When the cops do catch on, Warshawski simply asks a police lieutenant for the requisite 24 hours to clear up the whole mess. Of course, he agrees and the bullets start to fly.

As Warshawski, Turner has no chance to show the subtle humor or pulsating sexuality that made her a star in Body Heat or the Romancing the Stone films. This role offers one weak wisecrack after another, and the only admirable feature Warshawski possesses is her walk-up apartment overlooking Wrigley Field. It hurts to see Warshawski get smashed in the face or playing out a group conversation during a bubble bath _ not because of empathy for the character, but because a star like Kathleen Turner is stuck playing it.

Turner isn't the only actor whose talents are wasted in this disaster. Charles Durning walks through his role as the sexist police lieutenant Mallory. Goethals' obnoxious, over-acted Kat ranks among the worst child performances in recent memory, and Jay O. Sanders is irritating as Murray, Warshawski's occasional romance and ace newspaper reporter.

It took three authors to churn out this hack script, where characters blurt the same words simultaneously to show their bonding, and bullets find their fatal entry points only on the bad guys. Characters make endless, unfunny references to Warshawski's name, and Turner's responses to the mispronunciations are equally lame. When one character calls her a "wisenheimer," we expect Turner to correct him with "Warshawski." It's the only poor joke on the subject the script avoids.

Solid action might coax viewers into overlooking such missteps, but this sluggish film can't even muster a good fist fight. A yawn-inspiring speedboat chase and a concluding set piece on the Chicago docks fail to punch up the proceedings.

Ultimately the onus falls upon Turner, who retains her star quality even though she hasn't made a good movie without Michael Douglas in years. V.I. Warshawski is a wheezing vehicle for such a formidable actress, whether Turner is playing coy for a clue or being tossed out of a car by thugs.

"Door-to-door service," Warshawski wisecracks, sprawled in the street. "How convenient."

Pan the legs, guys.


V.I. Warshawski


Director: Jeff Kanew

Cast: Kathleen Turner, Jay O. Sanders, Charles Durning, Angela Goethals, Nancy Paul, Frederick Coffin

Screenplay: Edward Taylor and David Aaron Cohen and Nick Thiel; screen story, Edward Taylor; based on the V.

I. Warshawski novels by Sara Paretsky

Rating: R; profanity, violence

Running time: 92 minutes