Runs 7 p.m. Fri., Sept. 12-Thurs., Sept. 18, at Little Theatre The sadistic glee valve turns easily whilst watching hill-jack teenswho by and large resemble stars of any given Harmony Korine Dogma flickpummel one another with wooden boards, light fixtures, picture frames, and barbed-wire bats. But there are dark, humanistic sagas in this trailer-park trouncing, vignettes of violent upbringings for impoverished, uneducated kids. Documentarian Paul Hough wants to tell those stories, but the Jackass facet of the backyard-wrestling universe is just too goddamn hi-larious. Driving down lonely, scorching interstates, he encounters multiple wrestling communities and their ghetto superstars: the brothers who put themselves through "three stages of hell" in an effort to both memorialize and demystify their abusive father; the conservative California precollegiates who mewl like kitties when their friends bleed. Most memorable is the Lizard, an undersized, marble-mouthed enthusiast who actually qualifies for the early stages of a WWE Tough Enough contest in Vegas. It's being screened as part of the Little Theatre's Wrestlezania! series, which also includes two docs about pro wrasslin' icon Fred Blassie (9 p.m. Fri., Sept. 12), the Bowery Boys in No Holds Barred (9 p.m. Sat., Sept. 12), and Japanese women wrestlers in Gaea Girls (9 p.m. Tues., Sept. 16-Sun., Sept. 21, reviewed next week). (NR) ANDREW BONAZELLI CABIN FEVER
Opens Fri., Sept. 12, at Varsity and others The world has waited too long for Rider Strong, Ben Savage's surly, wrong-side-of-the-tracks sidekick on the syndicated teen melodrama Boy Meets World, to snag his first Hollywood lead. Doubt anyone saw Boy Meets Decaying Flesh in Mid-Cunnilingus coming. Intended as a broad homage to a litany of horror classics, Fever doesn't have enough of its own macabre thrillslast sentence excludedto transcend tribute status. Director/co-writer Eli Roth spins strands of Friday the 13th (sexy teens vacation at isolated cabin), Evil Dead (something evil's a-lurkin' in the forest), Scream (the kids are potty-mouthed, self-aware cretins), Night of the Living Dead (paranoid, boxed-in protagonists turn on one another), and Creepshow 2 (aforementioned nauseating flesh-eating virus) into an enormous ball of yawn. Rotting flesh ain't exactly the deepest metaphor, and Fever closes with a garish, inappropriate one-liner rather than specifying a crucial cast member's fate or even courteously justifying the preceding grotesquerie. (R) A.B. HEROD'S LAW
Opens Fri., Sept. 12, at Metro The most relentlessly cynical film I've seen since Chicago, Luis Estrada's 1999 satire savagely explicates the titular law: In life, you're either fucking someone over or getting fucked over yourself. Estrada and cinematographer Norman Christianson craft beautiful, noirish, sepia-toned sequences that play like a hybrid of Shakespearean scheming and Chaplin-era slapstick. The year is 1949, and simpleton Juan Vargas (DamiᮠAlcạr) finds himself entangled in local politics when a small-town mayor loses his head and the party bosses install Vargas as a puppet. What ensues is the usual skulduggery, snappy in execution but hardly original. Vargas' power-hungry wife (Leticia Huijara) turns into Se� Macbeth, while Vargas himself locks horns with local lawbreakers, only to end up accepting bribes and conspiring with a lecherous priest and a stone-hearted madam. The film, also known as El Ley de Herodes, goes on a bit too long and includes an embarrassing performance by Alex Cox (as a meddling gringo), but in this age of Bush II, for those living on either side of the border, this wicked, sharp-edged political satire is all the more welcome. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER MATCHSTICK MEN
Opens Fri., Sept. 12, at Metro and others The real mark in any con-man flick is the audience, and in that sense Matchstick adequately pulls off the job. It's not The Sting, but there's enough larceny in its blood to winor stealyou over. Nicolas Cage is Roy, an obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic, tic-afflicted, chain-smoking neatnik with a highly developed skill for taking money from the greedy. His junior partner is Frank (Sam Rockwell), a louche, loose, and seemingly lazy slob who brings none of Roy's patient craft to their small-stakes scams. In other words, it's Felix and Oscar turned to crime, until their criminal routine is disrupted by the arrival of Roy's hitherto unknown 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman). Combining two TV-familiar premises, Matchstick basically works for that reason: We know we're being set up; we know there's something lurking beneath the hugs and tears and lessons; we know better than to trust a con-man flick. There's got to be a twist. And thankfully, there is. Unfortunately, before we get there, much sitcom stuff must be endured (Roy is forced to go to a shrink; he and Angela bond over pizza, chocolate ice cream, bowling, and crime; yadda, yadda, yadda). Director Ridley Scott does some interesting stuff with backlighting and vertical blinds (like a vampire, Roy hates sunlight), but he's famously dependent on the quality of the scripts others write for him, either good (Thelma & Louise) or bad (G.I. Jane). Here, the source novel by crime writer Eric Garciabetter known for the Casual Rex seriesplays like a lower-wattage version of Elmore Leonard, without the chandelier of Leonard's dim-bulb supporting players to lend sparkle to the treacle. Matchbook lacks the hard-heartedness and hardheadedness to rival the very similar father-daughter grifter comedy Paper Moon, but it makes for a pleasantly satisfying swindle. Scott generally has the good sense to let Cage be Cage, even tossing in a Roy-trapped-in-a-slow-line scene that nods back to Honeymoon in Vegas. And, by and large, Cage has the good sense not to overact, as if grateful for the chance to play a character who's already crazymeaning he doesn't have to redline the gonzometer to raise Roy to insanity. "I don't do long cons," Roy tells the more ambitious Frank, meaning that he prefers smaller returns and lower risks to the audacious, dangerous score. In the same way, Matchstick proves the rewards of that modest M.O. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER
Depp steals a kiss from Eva Mendes in Mexico.
photo: Rico Torres ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO
Opens Fri., Sept. 12, at Metro and others If you thought Johnny Depp was nonchalant as a pirate, you should see him as the three-armed CIA bandito in Robert Rodriguez's shamelessly raffish follow-up to El Mariachi and Desperado. His third arm is a fake left one, propped up on the table, while underneath his real left arm points a gun at one-eyed underworld type Cheech Marin. Depp is a peripheral figure, because he's responsible for propelling the plotthe flick's least important element. He wants Cheech to help find and recruit the elusive hero, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who's a cross between Clint's Man With No Name, Jackie Chan, and 007 with a weapons-packed guitar case instead of an attach頣ase. To thwart drug lord Willem Dafoe's attempt to topple Mexico's government, "El" (as El Mariachi's jokingly known for short), along with "sugar butt" federale Eva Mendes, wired-Chihuahua-toting expatriate Mickey Rourke, FBI guy Ruben Blades, and walking acne scar Danny Trejo race around evocatively backlit Mexican rural and urban scenes detonating firefights, car crashes, and acrobatic combat. (Back from El Mariachi, Salma Hayek appears only briefly and in flashback.) Incredibly, the patchwork plot winds up making a semblance of sense, but it's as fake as Depp's third arm. The real point of it all is the Spy Kids-like mood of frolicsome cornball romp and the distinctive beauty of the action scenes. With a modest budget, writer/director/editor Rodriguez has crafted fights and chases infinitely more personal and distinctive than those of the blah blockbusters that have so alarmingly begun to run out of creative and commercial steam this summer. When "El" blows away a dozen bad hombres without incurring a scratch, the dead guys may be as generic as Arnold victims, but each gunshot has character. Now and then, there's a satisfying basso profundo bullet-boost on the soundtrack, and each explosion is as festive as a pi� on fire. "El" stylishly executes aerial pirouettes as impossible as the plot twists, hopping from runaway motorcycle to waiting car seat like a Road Runner who gets away with his every defiance of physics and never accordions against a mesa. The bloody finale occurs on an especially anarchic Day of the Dead. But Mexico is alive, unlike the cadaverous illustrated deal memos most studios are making. It's trivial, yet it has some of the joie de vivre that seems to have bled out of Tarantino and company. (R) TIM APPELO
Catfight! Mok (left) battles Shu in Close.
photo: Jeff Lau SO CLOSE
Runs Fri., Sept. 12-Thurs., Sept. 18, at Varsity It starts out so promisingly: With her hair being fluffed as if by her own invisible, personal fan, Hong Kong beauty Shu Qi strides purposefully into a sleek, airy skyscraper. There, an evil narco-banker sneers at her through his protective translucent enclosure (think Get Smart's Cone of Silence without the laughs). Then the elegant assassin sends her Aeron chair spinning into a delirious slo-mo hail of hot lead, spurting blood, and flying shards of glass. Then it gets even better: Contract killer Shu and her younger sibling assistant/ computer whiz (mainland Chinese actress Zhao Wei) leave a signature tag song to taunt cops and mobsters alike: the Carpenters' "Close to You," which amusingly underscores the mayhem stylishly staged by director Cory Yuen. (The butch cop on their trail is HK vet Karen Mok, chewing cigarettes, scenery, and sapphic double entendres with equal gusto.) Then it gets worse: sibling rivalry and sappy family-veneration stuff as Shu falls for a square (shades of La Femme Nikita), repents for her past bloodletting, and mourns the girls' slain parents. Oh, please. Can't we enjoy the wire work, cheesecake, and CGI turbocharging without a conscience? What's the use of a sure-shot action flick if it's only firing .22 slugs? (R) B.R.M.