Jackson’s “Caveman” proves nothing new under the sun

For me, Samuel L. Jackson joined the roster of film immortals with his role in “Pulp Fiction.” The fact that the mechanical John Travolta got an award nomination over Jackson for the same film exhibited a flagrant display of Hollywood racism.

Since then, Jackson has become one of the busiest actors in moviedom. However, his newest, a murder mystery titled “The Caveman’s Valentine,” is not likely to see him ascending the stage at the next Academy Awards. Not that it’s a bad movie, it has many good points, but it’s a “little” film, neither a blockbuster nor a smallish groundbreaking effort.

If you like Jackson, you get a full measure of him here. He’s in every shot where there’s a human actor, except when it’s a phone conversation with his voice at the other end. For an hour and a half Jackson chews the scenery ferociously, charging through a variety of moods, personas and contrasting changes of wardrobe.

Jackson plays The Caveman, Romulus Ledbetter, a street person with dreadlocks to the ground, afflicted with shattering paranoia. He believes “the Stuyvesants,” representatives of the power structure, are out to get him. He’s not exactly homeless. He has claimed for himself a cave of rocks in New York’s Inwood Hill park. This is a wooded section and it is winter.

Despite his paranoia, his screaming at these Stuyvesants who are invisibly spying on him and plotting against him, Caveman is able to navigate the streets, even facing down a menacing drug dealer. We learn through some vivid imagery that Romulus was once a promising concert pianist until paranoia destroyed his career.His cave appears equipped with some amenities, including a TV set. The television may be a closed-circuit job, since The Caveman sees on the screen what could be a body bag being hoisted into a tree in his very park. Romulus heads out to inspect his snowy woodland and discovers the body of a young man in a tree, frozen stiff.The police arrive, including a lieutenant who is his estranged daughter. The cops conclude this must be an accident or suicide despite the bellowed disagreements of Romulus, who insists it’s murder, probably engineered by the Stuyvesants.Romulus decides if the cops won’t do the job of detecting the murderer, he will. His search for clues puts him in contact with a likely suspect, a Robert Mapplethorpe-type photographer, David Leppenraub (Colm Feore). Leppenraub is a slimy man who claims to photograph his models as they experience real physical fear, although this may be fakery. The murdered man supposedly was a drifter discarded by Leppenraub as a hopeless junkie.

Along the way, a mysterious woman named Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), probably the ex-wife of The Caveman, appears at highly unlikely moments to make disparaging comments designed to spur Romulus to greater efforts. Gradually, Romulus gets closer to the truth, thanks to his discovery of a secret videotape showing a male model under torture.

Finally, in a creaky scene reminiscent of a Charley Chan movie, Romulus gathers the cast together in one location. With a single dramatic outburst he unleashes a series of accusations that uncover the identity of the real miscreant. Along the way, there are the conventional red herrings, one of them the drug dealer who made a brief earlier appearance.

Despite this banal denouement, there are some creative moments supplied by the director, Kasi Lemmons. Caveman’s paranoia finds him periodically afflicted by great surges of disturbing sound and light to the point we can almost experience his psychological miseries. During the obligatory sex scene there are some strangely affecting shots of The Caveman’s long dreadlocks trailing snakelike over the white body of his bedmate. Many of the camera shots come off creatively surrealistic, one of the most effective being the sudden collapse into shards of a wall of photographs. I didn’t understand the motivation for a weird and persisting intercut of writhing naked male bodies which suggest homoeroticism but otherwise add little, if anything, to the dramatic effect. Also, I became annoyed at the frequent interposition of black and white with color shots in the outworn style of the cheesiest music videos.

There is a moment of welcome reverse racist humor. After Romulus relaxes in bed with his sexual playmate, Lulu appears from nowhere and comments that some white women will sleep with any black man.

As a character study, Jackson provides some stirring moments. You probably never heard of the other cast members. As a plot, the movie suffers arthritis. The crucial clue becomes artificially delayed until near the ultimate unveiling of the true culprit. The initial alibi of the actual murderer smells immediately suspect to the audience, if not to Romulus. The very title of the film carries a double meaning which relates to the murder’s solution, a hammy artifice for my money.Jackson serves as one of the executive producers and Danny DeVito is listed as a producer. Jackson previously associated with Lemmons in “Eve’s Bayou,” a widely admired film also with mystery elements. This film may not ascend to comparable heights. The story is from a novel by George Dawes Green, who also wrote the screenplay.

“The Caveman’s Valentine” was scheduled to open in L.A. and New York March 2, gradually leaking to other locations and finally reaching Portland March 30. If you’re a Jackson devotee, the film may provide a stimulating 90 minutes. Otherwise, a double thumbs down by Ebert and Roeper wouldn’t surprise me.