John Malkovich’s first film as a director (he’s previously done a good deal of stage direction, of course–starting from his days with Gary Sinise at the Chicago Steppenwolf company) is clearly an actor’s movie–not simply in the sense of being helmed by an actor, but in terms of the scope it gives to its star. On the surface “The Dancer Upstairs” is a political thriller patterned after those of Costa-Gavras, but its leisurely pacing and fragmented structure give Bardem the widest latitude to develop his character–an honorable police detective out to capture a radical subversive threatening his country. Bardem is an extraordinary actor, and thanks to his presence the picture has considerable power as a character study.

In other ways, however, the film is much less successful–despite Bardem’s charisma and an intriguing scenario based on historical events, it’s flabby and more than faintly self-indulgent. The narrative, which Nicholas Shakespeare adapted from his own novel, is fashioned after the capture of Abimael Guzman, the founder of the Maoist Shining Path rebels, in Peru (though here the Latin American locale goes unidentified). Bardem plays Rejas, a policeman who, in a brief prologue while serving as a guard at a rural checkpoint, is shown allowing Ezequiel Duran (Abel Folk), the Guzman surrogate, to escape into the mountains. Years later Rejas is a chief inspector in the capital, married to the social-climbing Llosa (Elvira Minquez) and the father of little Sylvina (Akexandra Lencastre). A quiet, methodical man at work, he becomes attracted to his daughter’s ballet teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante) at the very time that Ezequiel initiates a strange campaign of fear and intimidation in the city. The story joins these two threads at the close, with the eventual apprehension of the rebel leader connected to Yolanda’s school.

Unfortunately, neither of the plotlines proves very satisfactory. The romantic triangle has a stiff, formulaic feel; the characterization of Llosa is thin, and the relationship between Rejas and Yolanda never takes wing. The soap-operatic stuff, moreover, doesn’t make a comfortable fit with the political side of the film, which is based entirely too much on coincidence (not only the connection between Rejas and Ezequiel, which has a decidedly fatalistic element, but even more the ultimate revelations about Yolanda). Even apart from the uncomfortably convenient nature of it all, the investigation and discovery of the culprits are presented in too desultory and random a form; the cryptic, jagged style is probably meant to be suggestive of Costa-Gavras’, but the Greek director’s films were actually very tightly structured, so that while they conveyed the maker’s messages they made dramatic sense, too. In “The Dancer Upstairs,” however, almost everything seems arbitrary. The picture meanders when it should go straight for a nerve, and the clarity the story should have dissolves in a mist of uncertainty. (Even the cinematography of Jose Luis Alcaine has a hazy, indistinct quality.) In this connection the very object of righteous indignation, always clearly identified in Costa-Gavras’ films, remains opaque. On the one hand, the government is unquestionably corrupt and brutal, but on the other Ezequiel is a megalomaniac whose ideas are never articulated and whose methods, while amusingly theatrical, can be equally cruel. And what’s to be made of the close, when Rejas has an opportunity to challenge the status quo which he detests but decides to throw it away in order to satisfy a hopeless romantic impulse? At this point, one has to say, the point of the picture goes beyond obscurity to pure incomprehensibility.

That leaves Bardem as the fundamental reason to see “The Dancer Upstairs”–he gives a rich, textured performance. But the haphazardness of the script and Malkovich’s lethargic direction sap its force.