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Clutch of Evil

Recalling Orson Welles in more ways than one, Marlon Brando plays a vile prison warden in "Free Money."


From Stella! to Starz! -- Brando as prison warden Swede, the face of evil in Free Money.  

How big is Marlon Brando? Not since Rhodes has there been such a colossus: vast, exorbitant, infamous -- "too huge for mortal tongue, or pen of scribe," said Keats -- as if, for breakfast, he'd consumed Orson Welles, Burl Ives, Fats Domino, and Sidney Greenstreet like so much porky sausage. And Free Money (Friday, March 12; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Starz!) is such a little movie, however affable and eccentric, that the immensity of Marlon might have swamped it. So what the producers have done is link its other elements loosely, in a webwork full of gaping holes, and they net him. He will topple, with a quake. Yet even this snare he wears like a mantilla or the zodiac.

Brando, with a red mustache and a bald pate, is Swede, the sadistic warden of a state prison, the autocratic ruler of a small town, and the indulgent father of twin vixens (Holly and Christin Watson) cut from the same heart-shaped cookie cutter as Britney Spears, the parochial-school vamp of VH1. While Swede is busy shooting escaped prisoners for sport, the twins are bedding down in pickup trucks with local losers Thomas Haden Church and Charlie Sheen. Tricked into marrying the twins, who say they are pregnant, Thomas and Charlie are also bamboozled into living under Swede's repressive roof as indentured servants with once-a-month conjugal privileges, though never on Sundays. Naturally, they dream of a big score, which is what the "money train" looks like -- a payload of retired American currency guarded by locals as yokel as they are.

Enter Mira Sorvino, who is not only a special agent with the FBI but also the daughter of corrupt judge Donald Sutherland, whom she hasn't seen in fourteen years. She is as sleekly modern, as trim-lined desktop, as iMac, PanaSync, Pentium III as Brando is primordial and antediluvian. A confrontation scene, in which he beats her on her pretty head with one of her own high heels before she shoots him, may be my favorite television moment of the past several seasons. Director Yves Simoneau and scriptwriters Joseph Brutsman and Tony Peck are obviously aiming for a Fargo sort of farce. What they achieve is more like Wayne's World meets Winesburg, Ohio at the corner of Twin Peaks and Peyton Place. But Marlon and Mira make it hum.


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