After Dark, My Sweet, an adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1955 novella, is about a kidnapping that's so badly planned -- the three principal characters are all amateurs, and not particularly clever ones -- that we know from the outset the criminals don't really have a chance. The hero, Bill ''Kid'' Collins (Jason Patric), is a handsome young ex-boxer who killed a man in the ring and has been in and out of mental institutions ever since. Kid has a childlike simplicity, but he isn't really crazy. He's a tormented naif who lives close to his instincts; when anger wells up in him, he can't keep a lid on it.
The movie is about how this volatile, well-meaning drifter falls into the clutches of a couple of desperate schemers: Fay Anderson (Rachel Ward), a widow and round-the-clock drunk who's attracted to Kid but spends most of the time treating him like dirt, and Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern), a lowlife ex-cop who specializes in cheap con games. It's Bud who has cooked up the kidnapping plan (at least what there is of it) and Fay, the slovenly temptress, who lures Kid into helping them carry it out.
The book itself is far from Thompson's best. It's written in his handsomely terse, hard-boiled style, yet everything that happens has a groggy inevitability. As a novel, ''After Dark, My Sweet'' is about people who are so jaded they've had most of the life force drained out of them. And that's true of the movie, too.
The characters keep thrashing around on screen, as though something terribly important were going on. They snarl and fight, they make violent love -- and the whole thing feels weary and spent, like a film-noir scenario that somebody chewed on for too long. Set in the sun-baked suburbs of Palm Springs, ''After Dark, My Sweet'' has a clinical, hothouse garishness, yet the atmosphere doesn't really come from the characters; it's imposed on the material. What's really weighing the movie down is the ghost of Thompson himself. The late pulp novelist has acquired such a hoity-toity reputation that his grimy little melodrama has become fodder for an existential art film.
''After Dark, My Sweet'' is cool and compelling for about 45 minutes. Patric makes us respond to Kid's gullibility, his need to be talked to without deception. It's a challenging role. Patric has to alert us to the workings of Kid's mind and, at the same time, keep some of those workings in the dark; he does an admirable job. And Ward, at least for a while, seems to be giving a sly, lived-in performance. Her Fay is like one of Jacqueline Bisset's haughty vamps.
Fay and Kid quickly establish a hostile, taunting relationship, and we keep waiting for the antagonism to erupt into erotic nastiness. Instead, it just stays nasty. Director James Foley (''At Close Range'') and his coscreenwriter, Robert Redlin, have updated the story from the '50s to the present day. This, I think, was a crucial mistake. As a character, Fay -- a pre-sexual-revolution femme fatale -- no longer makes sense. Despite a few moments of vivid yearning, she comes across as blowsy and disinterested: a nag. When she and Kid finally do bed down, their desperate consummation has been so pumped up with ''meaning'' that it no longer means anything.
The kidnapping gives the movie some suspenseful drive, even as everything in it goes wrong. Kid thinks he's being set up, and it takes a long time to discover whether or not he's paranoid. But the film is so ''subjective'' -- the action is completely limited to Kid's point of view -- that we begin to feel starved for another vaguely sympathetic character. (It's certainly not Dern's Uncle Bud, who has a haggard, used-car-salesman creepiness.) The trouble with ''After Dark, My Sweet'' is that doom keeps crashing in from all sides. That's not Fate -- that's claustrophobia.