Dance-hall daze 

You have to hand it to director Doug Liman. Whenever a nightclubbing culture springs up, he's there with a film that's destined to become its "Saturday Night Fever."

What "Fever" was to the disco boom, so was Liman's 1996 "Swingers" to the lounge revival that swept Los Angeles (and later the country): a character-driven exploration of a generation's mores and mix-ups, one that employed its attention-getting musical milieu as a foundation, not a raison d'être.

This canny dancefloor-watcher has upped the ante with his new Go, an ensemble comedy-drama that's bound to be sold as a romp for the underground-rave tribe, but is actually an extended commentary on the trouble that young adults of all stripes get into in their desperate attempts to enjoy themselves.

"It was in the script," Liman says of the story's grounding in dance music, which sets its opening and closing credits against a throbbing audio-visual montage and sees more than one character suffering the outcome of a life defined by Ecstasy. "With 'Go,' I started going to raves in preproduction. If I hadn't enjoyed the raves, I would have cut it out. If this were a studio film, it probably wouldn't have been shot for another three years, and the rave culture probably would have been over."

To the ascendant director, crafting a modern version of "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" was less important than finding a project whose narrative content was worthy of his rising profile. "At some point you just have to ignore the sophomore jinx," the 32-year-old Liman says (although his first directorial effort was 1994's "Getting In," "Swingers" is somehow given the status of debut feature in both his press kit and his conversation). "This was a story I really wanted to tell. The things I'm most proud of in my life, I saw in the script."

It's a courageous admission, given that most of "Go's" action centers on dope dealing, stoolie-ism and lap dances gone horribly wrong -- hardly the stuff of a glowing self-portrait.

"I've never even experimented with drugs," the wunderkind filmmaker clarifies, explaining that his connection to the material lay in its endorsement of "reckless abandon -- not just playing it safe."

It's also a much darker, more violent work than its lighthearted predecessor. But Liman claims to be unafraid that his cult audience will be put off by his sudden turn into the territory of bloody thuggery.

"I still see it as a very warm, sweet story," he defends. "The world and subject matter are a little more nefarious. `But` plenty of people saw "Swingers" and thought Vince Vaughn was too edgy. Those are not the people I'm making movies for."

What Liman thinks of Vaughn these days is unclear. Now cultivating a mainstream career, "Swingers'" breakout star is nowhere to be seen in "Go," defying the expectations of those who had assumed he would remain the trusty DeNiro to Liman's Scorcese.

"I love Vince, and love working with him," the director says. "And I was looking for a way to fit him into this movie. `But` I don't understand the path he's on. "Go" is certainly consistent with the movies he's been doing, other than Spielberg's film and the Gus Van Sant film." That's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" and Psycho, for those keeping score.

"I don't understand his choices," Liman sniffs.

Potential resentment? It wouldn't be that surprising coming from a still-green auteur who appears to reside in the fragile, transitory twilight zone between unspoiled wonder and old-school hyperbole. In the course of an hour, Liman veers from proudly relating his mother's appreciation of his work to asserting, "It's sort of irrelevant what happens to it `"Go"` at the box office. It's huge in Hollywood. It won't matter at all. "Swingers" was a huge box-office failure at a lot of levels, but everybody in the country has seen it."

Brash sentiments perhaps, but ones totally in keeping with an artistic output that fearlessly celebrates the doomed but fervent battle against the onset of propriety.

"I'm making movies for people who are smarter and cooler," he summarizes. "People like me."

"I didn't mean to connect those two things," he quickly amends, hearing the words leave his lips. "I'm not that cool."


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