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Like fellow well-paid hack Tony Scott, director Joel Schumacher has generally been able to make good, or at least interesting, films (The Lost Boys, Falling Down) out of good scripts, but seems at a loss when forced to work with mediocre or substandard material. 8MM was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, the gifted screenwriter of Seven, but judging by what's on the screen, it's based on a screenplay that should have either been substantially reworked or abandoned altogether. Like Seven, 8MM is about an essentially decent, honest man (Nicolas Cage) who is drawn into a web of pure evil. This time, Cage plays a surveillance expert assigned the task of determining whether a brutal snuff film is real. Cage's co-star is a grunged-up Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a smart, sardonic porn-store employee who ends up serving as a sort of punk Robin to Cage's smut-battling Batman as the two take on a band of evil pornographers. For its first 40 minutes or so, 8MM at least does a decent job establishing an atmosphere of claustrophobic, malevolent dread. What does it in, beyond its unconvincing plot and clumsy expository dialogue, is its utter lack of moral ambiguity: The film's conception of evil is about as subtle and nuanced as that of a latter-day Friday The 13th sequel. Its knowledge of the world of hardcore pornography, meanwhile, seems to have been derived solely from Marilyn Manson videos, the lesser films of David Lynch, and pamphlets handed out by Evangelical Christians. The world of 8MM is neatly divided into two camps: honest, hardworking, God-fearing good people and sadistically, mythically evil people who deserve to die horrible deaths. That 8MM fails miserably as a psychological thriller is forgivable. The fact that it is nearly as creepy, sleazy, and manipulative as the pornographic films it so cluelessly and hypocritically condemns is not.