WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS.
The Stick Up is a confusing whodunnit set in fictional Vedalia, a tiny resort town. There has been a bank robbery, and the alleged perp has already been identified, pursued and shot by the Deputy Sheriff, although they've since lost him again, because they rolled their car losing at playing chicken.
James Spader is John Parker, who has just arrived in town. On his very first night, Parker leaps headlong into a spurious romance with no less than the same Deputy Sheriff's ex-wife, Natalie (Leslie Stefanson), struck up at the proverbial jukebox (!). Somebody really should have rented out Mr Wrong (1996) for her. Leslie Stefanson's Natalie is a coy loser. Her ongoing flaky ambivalence for Parker is frustrating to have to sit through. Since they quickly admit that both of them are damaged goods, you get the feeling that these two are really just going through the motions. Any chemistry is dead by the end of the candles and bathtub scene, which is at the beginning - look, the scene might have worked had we liked the characters, and if we lost the candles - but just keep watching them to find out the plot.
The other intensely frustrating element is Parker's refusal to correct everyone's perceptions of him for so long. It is just not credible that anyone would walk through their own life with so much pointless subterfuge. It's just too much bull, and it undermines Parker's character almost beyond redemption. Parker's humanity only becomes believable when the FBI catch up with him at dawn, and he uses his exhausted, soft voice to acquaint himself with Agent Kendall.
John Livingston (from The Sterling Chase (1999), and the especially relevant Dogtown (1997)) impresses with his innocent young man courteously indulging his mother's apron strings, and he just happens to be FBI Agent Rick Kendall, a Fed on his first "actual" bank robbery case, an automatic Federal offence.
Being first on the scene, Kendall could have become pushy about being the Agent in Charge. Instead, he is cooled out at being given control by local yokels, and gets excited at handling die-packs from wads of cash ("Wicked! Aw, these are neat"). Kendall's capacity to make people smile in spite of themselves reminds me of Terry Pratchett's Captain Carrot, the shy cop from the Discworld novels, who knows, and takes a kind but * pointed * interest in absolutely everyone in town, so that even career criminals don't want to disappoint him. Nobody wants to disappoint Kendall either, and you love every minute John Livingston is on screen. Even Mrs VanBeek (highly respected Canadian voiceover actress Elan Ross Gibson), the FBI's seasoned forensics chief who is surprised to see the rookie in charge, nevertheless encourages him with affection ("The Bureau likes that. If you keep that up you'll get an Attaboy. Three Attaboys, and you get a raise").
This is an honest young Fed who openly admits that he's the blind leading the blind (ie the Deputy Sheriff, because the Sheriff proper is holidaying in Hawaii), and he gets the best lines ("Don't worry, we spent weeks on these things at the academy"). Needless to say, this is Livingston's star-making role - or at least it will be, if the film ever sees the light of day in Region 1. So far it's basically only had video release overseas.
The story is told in versions according to various witnesses, jumping backwards and forwards in time; a technique which some people have thought is the movie's major asset. I have to confess I don't. I especially got irritated by the interjected LAPD drug bust scene, which is shown twice, when even once was too much. This confusing structure is stitched together for us by the meticulous and intensely patient rookie.
For the first time that I can remember in a feature film, we see some new indigenous financial realities. There is obviously an unofficial hierarchy which watches the watchers, run by Chief Samson Ochoyo (Leonard George) and his son Clifford (Curtis Ahenakew). Vigilantism has never looked so innocent or cute on film.
David Keith, the third lead actor after Spader and Stefanson, is suitably menacing as the possessive and bigoted Deputy Sheriff, Ray DeCarlo. His BGA level is so high and tiresome that you feel not just relieved but actually happy when he is shot through the foot.
Since we have such a complete lack of interest in the three reputed leads, I am forced to wonder might the movie have not done better had it been conceived as a buddy movie (Spader and Livingston) instead of a ridiculous romance thriller that doesn't thrill. But I strongly suspect the fault is in the editing, because too much logic was also thrown out with the bathwater - how on earth did Kendall twig about the autoteller? Some crucial piece of logical continuity must have been cut. Either the editor pared back too far, or there never was enough actual story. Instead of some real background information about Parker's past, we got drug bust scenes that were doubled up and used as padding for the sake of "more excitement". In this case it's definitely a bad sign when the moviemaker feels the need to append "The End" to his film. Given that this movie is so very reminiscent of Fargo (1996), with similar production values and a similarly quirky but never to be underestimated cop, it's disappointing that The Stick Up only had a cinema release in London. Frances McDormand won an Oscar for essentially the same role as Kendall's here.
Rowdy Herrington gave us just too much disbelief to suspend, but Rick Kendall he can bring back anytime.