Kevin Kline is a most versatile actor, having proven himself equally adept at serious drama ("Cry Freedom," "Sophie's Choice") and wacky comedy ("The Pirates of Penzance," "A Fish Called Wanda").

But even Kline cannot make a good movie out of a bad script, and especially one that is badly directed. Hence, the thoroughly dreadful, nearly unwatchable "The January Man."Pat O'Connor, the Irish director of "Cal" and "A Month in the Country," for some reason has abandoned the easygoing, whimsical style of those films and opted for confused frenzy, pushing his actors over the top from their first appearances on the screen.

Rod Steiger, who has a propensity toward overacting anyway, is at fever pitch here, matched by Danny Aiello, with whom he has most of his scenes. And Kline himself is all over the walls, knocking them down when he's not climbing them, with so much nervous energy he can't seem to stand still for a moment.

Only Harvey Keitel, an intense, introspective actor anyway, remains passive and quiet in the eye of this storm. In fact, he's so calm he seems to have mistakenly wandered in from the set of a different movie.

Kline is a New York supercop who has been bounced from the force for some obscure reason and now works as a super-firefighter (he is introduced to the audience rescuing a little girl from a burning building). He's eccentric, of course, and his best friend is an even more eccentric artist (Alan Rickman, the villain in "Die Hard").

And Kline is the only man alive who can track down and capture the serial killer of Manhattan who murders one random woman, alone in her apartment, each month. Or are these killings as random as they appear?

So Police Commissioner Keitel brings his brother, Kline, back on the force, by order of the mayor (Steiger) and much to the consternation of the police chief (Aiello).

Kline agrees to track down the killer, if he can fix dinner for Keitel's social-climbing wife, Susan Sarandon. They used to be lovers, you see.

But soon Kline has eyes only for the mayor's young daughter, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Meanwhile, he sits and thinks a lot, when he's not ordering expensive computer equipment to help him solve the crime. (But he doesn't carry a gun, of course.)

Screenwriter John Patrick Shanley's plot is ridiculously convoluted, with Kline eventually discovering precisely where, when and at what time the killer will next strike, with the help of mathematics, astrology and three-dimensional computer art. But when the killer is revealed, there's no mystery solved, no motivation revealed - no revelations whatsoever. He's just some New York killer.

Plot aside, however, Shanley's characters are so forced and "cute" in their obvious eccentricities that it's hard to believe this was written by the same guy who populated his Oscar-winning "Moonstruck" with so many natural, recognizable human characters.

Kline and friends try hard . . . too hard, actually . . . but the script and pacing eventually wear them - and the audience - down.

"The January Man" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity and a lot of profanity.