Merging a love story with a political thriller is a daunting challenge for a filmmaker. I remember seeing Warren Beatty's Reds in 1981 and thinking that while the John Reed-Louise Bryant love story was engaging, Beatty could have used help from someone like Constantin Costa-Gavras in staging the scenes of political revolution. When I saw Costa-Gavras's Missing just a year later, I was impressed by the high-tension scenes on the streets of Chile, but underwhelmed by the personal dramas. Perhaps he could have used the input of someone like Beatty.

John Malkovich faced a similar dilemma in The Dancer Upstairs, his feature-film directing debut. Though the film--scripted by Nicholas Shakespeare and based on his 1995 novel--is ostensibly about the search for a political terrorist in an unnamed Latin American country (clearly meant to be Peru), the framework holding the story together, at least in the novel, is the passionate love story between the policeman in charge of the investigation and a mature dance teacher who may or may not have a connection to the violent fugitive (ergo the title).

The fugitive's name is Ezequiel (named after the sixth-century prophet who foretold doom for those nations that didn't obey God's laws), and the film is at its dramatic best early on as it reveals how the Maoist terrorist movement Shining Path developed. It started with placards and political slogans, followed by the gruesome image of dead dogs hanging from light poles. (In China, a dead dog symbolizes a tyrant who has been condemned by the masses.) Things escalated quickly:  dogs were used as galloping grenades, followed by child suicide bombers.