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Bulletproof Heart

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Anthony LaPaglia was born with a woeful countenance, but his face looks even more sad near the beginning of "Bulletproof Heart," as he sits on the bed of a man he has just killed. He watches TV - the same program his victim was watching when LaPaglia murdered him. The program does not amuse him. After a while, he reaches over and tests the man's pulse, to be sure he is dead. The mark of a professional.

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LaPaglia plays Mick, a hired killer. He has theories about his job, which he sometimes shares with Archie (Matt Craven), who admires him and wants to be just like him. "A man should not confide," he says. And, "When a man has the gun in his hand, he does not hesitate." LaPaglia is ready for a rest after his latest hit. Then his friend George (Peter Boyle) walks in, with a job that has to be done tonight.

It's a woman who stiffed him for $650,000. The strange thing is, the woman wants to be killed. Mick can't understand this: "Then why hasn't she already been killed?" he asks. "I was gonna whack her myself," George says. "I couldn't do it. I'm crazy about the broad." Mick protests. He is tired. He is busy. George persists: "She wants it tonight, or she told me she's going to the D.A. in the morning." Mick reluctantly agrees. He takes Archie along. They go to the woman's apartment.

Archie waits outside. She is throwing a party for herself, to celebrate her impending death. She sends the guests away. She is fascinated by Mick. They start to talk. "Do you shoot them? Where?" she asks. He says, "In Jersey, mostly." She seduces him, ties him to the bed, ravishes him, then pours champagne on his scratches. We are beginning to understand why George found it hard to kill her.

"Bulletproof Heart," written by Gordon Melbourne and directed by Mark Malone, explores the same dilemma as "Guests of the Nation," that Irish short story by Frank O'Connor about the guards who became friendly with their prisoner and found it hard to kill him. (The same idea is employed at the start of "The Crying Game.") The difference here is that the woman wants to die, for deep reasons that we eventually realize are sincere. If Mick really cares about her, her reasoning goes, he will kill her: "You be brave for me, OK?" The woman's name is Fiona, and she is played by Mimi Rogers, who in "The Rapture" (1991) and again here shows a woman in the grip of an obsession. This time, there is no ambivalence: She has not theslightest doubt, apparently, that she wants to die. That puts everything in the hands of Mick, who prides himself on his workmanlike approach to his job. "When you kill someone . . . ," he tells her, "the flow of life, the hum of voices in a restaurant, isn't any less." Sometimes he talks about "the meaning of meaning." The long night moves on, with Archie providing the comic counterpoint. At one point, they end up in a cemetery, eating Chinese takeout food. They talk in that way two strangers can, when they know they will never see each other again. What is strange is why they will never see each other again.

At the end, when they come to the moment of truth, we think we know what the alternatives are. But we are surprised by the form the truth takes - how, and why. The movie is thoughtful, surprising and haunting.

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