“The white male, football-playing prerogative is to be a dick,” John Salter (Robert Sean Leonard, Swing Kids) lectures his old high-school buddy Vince (Ethan Hawke, Training Day). Both are white males on the edge of 30. But Vince seems more a parody of what could have been his glory days on the pitcher’s mound. A can of beer in hand, Vince stands in his underwear before the mirror of his motel room. As John stands across the room behind him, Vince draws a bead on his buddy’s reflection, cocks his leg up in a pose straight from a baseball card, pivots with a battle roar, and pitches the Rolling Rock right into John’s strike zone. “I don’t know why I said you had violent tendencies,” John sarcastically responds as the can sails by. “The warm beer, the boxers, the Motor Palace — who needs Betty Ford?”

Vince might. Though he works as a volunteer fireman — every red-blooded American boy’s dream job — he keeps himself in brewskis providing a service that John typically euphemizes (with his grandiloquent political correctness) as “private dope delivery to ex-hippies” (including Vince’s fire chief). A percentage of his profits go up in smoke — and up his nose.

Do overage frat-boy behavior and grassroots criminality make a guy a “dick” (or have “phallic tendencies,” as John later corrects himself)? Maybe. But that’s what Tape is about. John’s just a polite dick in Prada shoes, the gentlemanly Jekyll to Vincent’s boyish Hyde. John inflicts his judgments on everyone, including himself. His violence is rarely unleashed in action, often in what he calls “excessive linguistic pressure.” (Vince calls it “excessive bullshit.”) Each seems to narcissistically see himself as a god frustrated that the world won’t run on his minor-league divine plan. (John even creates his own worlds as a fledgling film director.) Each guy “just wants people to partake in his vision” — at least that’s what the girl that they both dated in high school, Amy Randall (Uma Thurman, The Golden Bowl), says of Vince. His ironic and lightly diabolical scheme reunites them to resolve the love triangle that has festered for more than a decade. While both characters turn about the shaft of violent male immaturity, its effects (real or imagined) on Amy — and a recorded confession — are the hub of Tape.

But Steven Belber’s script (adapted from his play) confronts the all-American, white-male ego (John) with his taunting and shadowy id (Vince). They put each other on trial for crimes against themselves, each other, women and humanity in general, turning Vince’s motel room into a moral courtroom where they dramatize their cases. Ironically, it’s Assistant District Attorney Randall who is the least judgmental.

Hawke, Leonard and Thurman give well-crafted, detailed performances, some of the best of their careers, and form a perfect cast. Thurman opens up true emotion between Amy’s lines. Leonard’s John expertly realizes Vince’s description of him as a “highly articulate poet, filmmaker” — and “so up himself.” Vince is a tour de force, the motor and steering wheel of the picture; Hawke plays him as fueled on self-righteousness, vengeance and chemicals. His portrayal goes over the top — when it needs to. He manages in a beat to go from the juvenile, wide-eyed, mugging mania of a cokehead Opie to the gone-to-seed and burned-out high-school hero he may be. He’s the clown prince of director Richard Linklater’s rogue’s gallery of slackers.

Linklater may be our poor man’s idea of French cinematic philosophers like Jean-Luc Godard (perhaps best known for films of the ’60s such as Breathless) or Eric Rohmer (Autumn Tale, 1998). Tape is suitable vehicle for some of his themes: the marginal and unemployed, putting “belief into action,” and questioning the nature of reality.

Linklater’s made a career of shining cinematic light through slices of life and projecting them on the big screen. This time, he puts his drama under digital video surveillance, perhaps acting on a line of one of his Slacker characters: “A video image is actually more powerful than an actual event.” The jury is still out as to how this film’s exaggerated but well-composed handheld camcorder imagery compares to his more conventionally shot dramas like Before Sunrise (1995, starring Hawke in a much milder role). But Linklater seems to have gotten most of his issues down on Tape.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W, Maple, west of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

Visit the official Tape Web site at tapethemovie.com.

Read a dialogue with director Richard Linklater, auteur of the verbose.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].