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Victorian Vixen 

Original Sin (R)
MGM

Wow, I've always wanted to use the term "bodice ripper," and here's my chance. In Original Sin, in which Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie grapple, entwine, thrust and salivate their way across Cuba, circa 1880, no bodices are actually ripped, but there's plenty of unrestrained passion guiding the plot toward its devilish conclusion. And in a few scenes where Jolie wears a tantalizing black-and-white striped number with a plunging dcolletage, she practically rips her own bodice with the thundering rise and fall of her breasts.

Based on the 1947 novel Waltz Into Darkness by noir crime fiction master Cornell Woolrich, Original Sin tells the story of Louis Durand, a rich Cuban coffee merchant who sends off to America for a mail-order bride. Seeking a good and obedient wife of child-bearing age, Durand is surprised when he is met at the dock by femme fatale Julia Russell, played in feral attack mode by Angelina Jolie.

Both Durand and Ms. Russell have practiced deception, it seems. She has sent a photograph of her thin-lipped, prim sister, hoping he will not choose her just for her physical beauty. He has claimed in his letters to be merely a clerk, so that she will not choose him just for his money. "We have something in common," Ms. Russell purrs when each of them has confessed. "We are both not to be trusted."

It's a match made in hell.

No sooner than you can say "vixen," the two are married and established behind the blue-painted doors of his massive boudoir, ambulating in the sheets in a manner not usually associated with Victorian melodrama -- full-on nekkid with lots of tongue and contortionist poses.

But married bliss is not in the cards for either. Turns out Ms. Russell is an imposter, a golddigger under the domineering influence of Billie, aka Detective Downs, a moustache-twirling villain garishly overacted by Thomas Jane. Julia disappears one day with Louis' bankroll in hand, he sets out in search of her, torn between his desire to kill her and his obsessive lust/love, and Detective Downs is their perpetual foil.

What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase to Havana, to the provinces and back. The film is framed as Julia's confession to a Catholic priest, just prior to her execution for murder, and we are never quite sure whether she's telling it straight or merely trying to engender sympathy before dying. It doesn't matter; we know she's bad to the core and that the lovesick Banderas with his sad, dark eyes will follow her anywhere.

Audience members should approach Original Sin with no expectation except to be salaciously entertained. There's no great moral awakening in store, nor should there be. The story, as adapted by screenwriter Michael Cristofer, who also directed, is about obsession, pure and simple.

Turn-of-the-century Cuba is gorgeously rendered and chock full of innocuous stereotypes. Banderas is superb as the love-ruined Durand, especially during those moments when he's been hoodwinked and is seething inside while dying on the outside. We've come to know what to expect from Jolie -- she enjoys playing with her bee-stung lips as much as we enjoy looking at them -- and here, she cuts loose with ease. Vamping seems as natural to her as tap dancing did to the young Judy Garland.

Original Sin has been shelved since last November, its release delayed repeatedly, and given the genre that's no surprise. The previews suggested more bloodletting and kinky sexual intrigue than the film actually provides, and that's a pleasant surprise. The director gets carried away with some distracting strobe effects and a few splashes of misplaced slow-motion photography, and the story meanders in the middle. Still, it's better than you might expect, especially if bodice ripping is what you have in mind.

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