The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann) | Disorganized Crime (Jim Kouf) | Chrome Soldiers (Thomas J. Wright) | Thunderheart (Michael Apted) | Out of Bounds (Richard Tuggle) | Harley Davidson and the Marlborough Man (Simon Wincer) | True Identity (Charles Lane) | Godfather III (Francis Ford Coppola) | The Terminator and Titanic (James Cameron) | I Come in Peace (Craig R. Baxley) | Double Impact (Sheldon Lettich) | Peacemaker (Kevin S. Tenney) | Mystery Date (Jonathan Wacks) | Firebirds (David Green) | Stargate (Roland Emmerich) | Speed (Jan De Bont) | Fair Game (Andrew Sipes) | Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) | The Krays (Peter Medak) | Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective (Christopher Lewis)

Classic Film and Television Home Page

The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann)

This film is extraordinarily dream like. Mann's images, always a strong point of his Miami Vice TV series, are in full force here. Many of the images seem to be remarkably reminiscent of the experience of dreams: marching through forests, seeking to reach a loved one during an attack, rushing waters, chaos and confusion in all directions in the fort scenes, of barely understood activities going on all around. Not to mention the terrifying scenes of falling and flying. So are the endless struggles and debates. And in another way, the constant eroticism of the encounters between Hawkeye and Cora, always going on despite the constant attempts of the world to interrupt and distract: the lovers never seem to have any firm position in the scheme of things, or shelter from the world.

Some of the force of this film is undoubtedly due to Cooper's plot. As has been pointed out before, film is the true twentieth century heir of Romanticism. Cooper's art, like that of his contemporaries Scott, Coleridge, Shelley, Dumas, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and the Brontë's, is the ancestor of modern film art, both in form and content. So its emotional force and driving plot are in total synch with the traditions of film narration.

In addition, one might point out the contribution of screenwriter Christopher Crowe. Crowe is a unique writer, with, at his best, a pipeline right into the unconscious. His Nancy Drew episode, "The Lady on Thursday at Ten", is one of the best TV works of its era (1978). It too has a remarkably dream-like quality, and is full of many scenes with a mysteriously surrealistic feel. Nancy is shaken up at the beginning of the show, and many of the remaining scenes seem like one long hallucination, as if they could be eruptions of her subconscious mind into the streets of New York. Crowe is unfortunately not his own best director, and his recent Whispers in the Dark (1992) is a depressing turkey. By contrast, Crowe's work as a scriptwriter for other directors, on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (the fascinating and also dream like "Campus Terror"), The Mean Season (1985) for director Philip Borsos, and now the Mohicans, is often outstanding.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992) has been discussed critically as if it were mainly an adventure film, a sort of eighteenth century version of Lethal Weapon or a Chuck Norris flick. Admittedly, there is plenty of action in the film, and there are times in the fight scenes when it looks as if the Indians have been taking karate lessons from Jean-Claude Van Damme. But Mohicans' main focus is emotional, and the film has a grim, but overwhelming emotional effect. I cried twice during the latter scenes in the film.

Mann seems unusually knowledgeable about old films for a Hollywood director. The two sisters in the film have been made up (especially in their hair styles) to look like the Gish sisters, and their performing style often seems to be inspired by them, too. The business with the gun recalls scenes in such Gish films as An Unseen Enemy and The Wind, and there are certainly echoes of Orphans of the Storm, too. The script was partly based on the 1930's Mohicans script by Dunne, Balderston, et al, and one wonders if Mann has seen the 1920 silent version by Maurice Tourneur (I have, and it is extremely different).

Year of the Comet (Peter Yates)

Year of the Comet (1992) is an entertaining adventure story, based on a very old script by William Goldman. It has beautiful location filming in Scotland and the Riviera, and is an example of the consistently above average entertainments put out by director Peter Yates.

Swing Kids (Thomas Carter)

Carter is a TV director, known for many successful pilots, such as Miami Vice, and the lawyer series, Equal Justice. Now he is attempting to break into the film medium.

Disorganized Crime (Jim Kouf)

I was quite disappointed with Disorganized Crime (1989) during the first half of the movie: absolutely nothing had happened, and the characters were too stupid to accomplish anything or get anything done. All of a sudden I realized that far from being a flaw, this was the whole point of the movie: to see how far this cast of incompetents and screw-ups could stretch things out without accomplishing at all. (The characters on screen were incompetent, not the delightful comic actors who were playing them.) At this point I relaxed and really began to enjoy the movie. Soon I was laughing hysterically at each new roadblock in the plot (and it's a plot that consists entirely of roadblocks.) As an exercise in pure minimalism Kouf's movie has few equals in the cinema: it is about literally doing nothing.

Chrome Soldiers (Thomas J. Wright)

Chrome Soldiers (1992) is about a former motorcycle club that reunites to investigate the murder of a friend. The members, all successful now in various disparate professions, re-don the black leather biker jacket of the Chrome Soldiers, and reunite to solve the mystery. They clash with the corrupt local police authorities, finally quite dramatically, and with the local banker. The end of the movie, where the now arrested local police are booed and jeered by the local populace, reminds one of the fallen communist tyrants being jeered by their own people.

The movie sees hope in achieving an identity outside proscribed social roles, such as a biker associating with other bikers. Just being a member of such a group as the bikers, is to take part in an organization and a social bond that is not encouraged by the right wing guardians of society, who are relentless about promoting social order, and keeping people isolated from each other, and trapped in traditional social roles.

Chrome Soldiers, a little TV movie, seems much more optimistic than many current films about the possibilities of men's lives. The heroes, a brotherhood of men from all races and backgrounds, are all gainfully employed and successful in their work. They are caring and decent and want to help people in trouble. They all enjoy themselves and each other, and get to do neat things, like ride around on motorcycles and solve crimes. They have special skills, which they can use at the drop of a hat, and are more like princes than victims as they ride around doing their thing. Especially enjoyable is the scene where the lawyer member of the bike group gives expert legal advice while done up in the team's black leather jacket. He violates all the stereotypes of low brow bikers, and oozes class and power, a power often denied to bikers and other working stiffs in the movies. In its own quiet way, this film is suggesting a realignment of relations in this country, where ordinary Americans use their often far from negligible skills to do things, and bring about some social changes. It also suggests that people can cut across the social roles in which society has fixed them, and form new organizations and ties, such as the group of high powered bikers in the current film.

Thunderheart (Michael Apted)

This excellent movie shares many features with Chrome Soldiers. Both are mystery stories, both have political overtones, both look at the possibility of liberal change coming to America. Thunderheart (1992) gives a good role to Val Kilmer, a very interesting performer who has never quite clicked into "big hit" status with the public. Kilmer has given very good performances in Top Secret, Pure Genius, Top Gun, and The Doors. Many of his performances were in musical or comedy vaudevilles, which perhaps lacked the realism and grim, low brow seriousness that seems to impress the public: drek like Fatal Attraction or Silence of the Lambs always seem to outperform the most inventive spoofs or musicals at the box office. If a film doesn't have "realism" stamped all over it with a trowel, forget it, as far as big sectors of the public go.

In Thunderheart, Kilmer has a well defined character, and a role. His biting, humorous sarcasm is only unleashed occasionally, and at appropriate moments of the plot. This sarcasm, which mocks all established truths, seems to be melting down movie conventions and social shibboleths with equal fire, and can completely destroy an audience's belief that it is seeing reality.

Here in Thunderheart, Kilmer's ability to eat up lies about society is linked to a plot where his character is asked to do exactly that. He is very good at penetrating right wing lies about Indians. He also throws sarcastic roadblocks into the radical chic expressed by some of the characters on the left wing side. This is an interesting use of an actor's special gifts by a writer-director.

Thunderheart also demonstrates once again the tremendous variety of artistic possibilities available to the mystery story. The film mixes politics, comedy, human relations, mysticism, plot twists, and scenery without missing a beat. Mystery plots can have a richness that is not always allowed to other genres, including the "serious drama". Most film critics have not realized this, and are always putting down the genre.

Out of Bounds (Richard Tuggle)

Out of Bounds (1986) is a lot better thriller than most reviews today suggest. Richard Tuggle completely disappeared off the Hollywood map after making this film and the Clint Eastwood thriller Tightrope (1984). This is typical of Hollywood's huge waste of talent.

The film derives much of its subject matter from a contrast between the then economically depressed Middle West, and an urban world in Los Angeles filled with music video type excitements. Donna Linson's costume design contributes heavily to the mood. Everywhere we go in L.A., we see people dressed in elaborate mod outfits of the kind usually seen only on TV. The hero no sooner gets off the plane when he encounters two Elvis impersonators in gold lamé jumpsuits. Not to mention punk rockers and the villain in an iridescent silver suit. Later, the hero gets dressed in mod threads himself. The clothes in the film are the scenario, in some ways. Watching their progress, and that of the elaborately designed interiors of the film, constitutes much of the visual spectacle of this movie.

The outdoor scenes tend to invoke urban, "downtown" looking areas of Los Angeles. Much of the real L.A. consists of endless suburbs joined by strip malls. This film concentrates instead on areas with stores, night clubs, and large office or warehouse buildings with alleys between them. These areas look like the traditional centers of American cities. I think the idea is to emphasize human connections. The hero has arrived in an area full of urban life. Both during the day and at night, he is an a locale where he need only step out on the street to meet other people, and to go interesting places, including night clubs and discos. Even the residential centers where people in the film live seem distinctly un-suburban. They tend to be areas filled with steep hills, curving streets, and often open all night urban emporiums in the near distance. The hero is always connected with an urban center. Such a connection is one of the film's main subjects.

Out of Bounds is full of the mandatory police car chases of the 1980's. In fact, there are so many comically wrecked police cars here that the film begins to resemble The Dukes of Hazard. No one ever gets hurt in the car chases, just as in a Road Runner cartoon. Tuggle also likes huge trucks and busses. These scenes are well executed and entertaining, however. I confess that after all the repulsive gore of 90's thrillers, that the 1980's emphasis on car chases seems refreshing. It also is cinematic, involving interesting moving shots through the architecture of Los Angeles.

Out of Bounds has never been linked to the world of "neo-noir". That very term tends to conjure up ugly looking 90's movies filled with human betrayal and nastiness: think of the unpleasant L.A. Confidential (1997). I confess that as much as I love 1940's and 1950's genuine film noir, that much of what has been presented as neo-noir in the 90's leaves me cold. The paranoia about human relationships that fills neo-noir is not present here. The good guys in Out of Bounds are entirely good, and are completely trustworthy and supportive of each other.

I might suggest, however, that Out of Bounds in a film with many similarities to genuine noir films of the 1940's. As in Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947), here we have a naive, innocent, not very grown up hero on the run from a bunch of vicious adult baddies. The hero soon joins up with a heroine who shares his pursuit, just as in many "couples" noir films. Also like genuine noir: the way Out of Bounds depicts L.A. as an urban paradise. This is definitely an ideal place to live. Like William Keighley's The Street With No Name (1948), we see L.A. as an ideal world, all the while we are experiencing an exciting thriller shot in its streets and buildings. Both films have the hero getting a complete new life in the city, one that involves him dressing in exciting new urban clothes, as well. Felix E. Feist's film noir Tomorrow is Another Day (1951) has a similar movement and meaning.

Harley Davidson and the Marlborough Man (Simon Wincer)

This action adventure film, Harley Davidson and the Marlborough Man (1991), done by the Australian director Simon Wincer, is surprisingly entertaining. One thing you would never guess from the ads is that the film is set in the near future. It has a vaguely science fictional flavor, and a sort of Mad Max feel to its story of kind-hearted motorcycle types going up against evil banker-drug dealers. However, the science fictional elements become less and less pronounced as the film progresses, and the movie's image of a future America is not that different from present times. The film is just one big macho fantasy, with bikers, stunts, shoot outs, machine guns, armored car robberies, one way mirrors, obscenely ostentatious board rooms, hit men, helicopters, big money deals, Yuppie bankers, arm wresting, rodeo scenes, trains and Las Vegas all in one movie! (What - no sports cars?)

The costume design contributes especially to the lurid mood, with enough leather and expensive Yuppie suits to make "Hell's Angels Versus Wall Street", which after all would not be a bad title for this movie. I have a long black coat that looks a lot like those worn by the hit men in this movie, and have been telling people for a long time that I like it because it makes me look like a mob hit man. Well, here is the proof! In any event, the way the hit men are all in "uniform" throughout the film, either in their coats or in identical yuppie evening wear suits, is a neat idea. In action with their coats and Uzis, or suited up for polite society where they are dressed better than everyone around them, they seem really tough and formidable. Daniel Baldwin does an excellent turn as lead hit man, too.

Wincer is a graceful director with considerable technical skills. This film might not be great art, but it is very well made as a piece of storytelling. It has a pleasant emphasis on both character and humor, and less on any type of gore, especially when compared to many other current adventure films. Rating: 7.

True Identity (Charles Lane)

Charles Lane is a young black director who attracted attention with his first film, a low budget silent movie called Sidewalk Stories (1989). (More directors should try to make silent movies. They are very inexpensive to make, and have tremendous artistic possibilities that have only rarely been explored since they fell out of favor in 1930.) This led to a contract with Disney to make this comedy-mystery, True Identity (1991), his first film in Hollywood. He also plays the hero's best friend in this film, a theatrical makeup and special effects wizard. When the hero, a struggling young black Shakespearean actor, accidentally discovers a former mobster's true identity, the mobster puts a contract out on his life. To hide, his friend disguises him as a white man, and the fun begins. The film has an ingenious script and develops a plot that puts the hero through many different disguises and roles.

This film is a most pleasant combination of comedy and ingenious story. Lane has an ability to reveal character through his set pieces; all of the characters, from the hero down to small roles such as the cab driver, seem like real people.

The Godfather Part III (Francis Ford Coppola)

The Godfather Part III (1990) is Coppola's most artistically successful picture since Godfather II, made back in 1974. One can tell from this statement that I am not an enormous fan of the director's work. He is talented, and always in there trying, but he rarely makes pictures that I really like. Godfather III draws on several of the director's previous works. Its main approach is that of Gardens of Stone (1987), his look at the military guard in Arlington cemetery. The macho fantasy that was the backbone of that film is repeated here. Even the visual styles of the two films seem similar.

Godfather III celebrates the will to succeed of Andy Garcia, a young mob hit man on the make. We see Andy Garcia learning to make connections, Andy Garcia learning to dress for success in a series of sharp double breasted suits, Andy Garcia fighting off an assassin, Andy Garcia becoming a leader of men in the mob, and Andy Garcia killing his enemies while dressed as a mounted police officer, in a scene that recalls a similar assassination by a hit man dressed as a New York City policeman in The Godfather. Andy Garcia rises completely to the top. This sort of success is what most men want, including myself, and it is pleasant to spend three hours dreaming about it in a movie theater. Coppola clearly knows what buttons to push, and has the technical skills to do them. But it all seems a bit artificial. There is nothing special about the Andy Garcia character to justify his success. He is just young and hungry. His machismo is contrasted with Al Pacino's opera singer son, who wants no part of the mob world. While the opera singer is not caricatured or made out to be a wimp, as he would have been in most 1950's movies, he is clearly a contrast to Garcia. Do we really need this old-fashioned approach? Another disturbing point of view is the myth of success that just naturally seems to fall on good looking young white men in the movies. They are somehow just automatically at the center of all accomplishments. Coppola is not the only offender here; there are many others, so it is unfair to pick on him. But there is really very little to the Garcia character other than being of the "right" race, being macho, and wanting to succeed.

Coppola's success fantasies in Godfather III are in contrast to all of the spectacles of failure that dominate so many of his other films. In Tucker, the automobile manufacturer is inadequate to cope either with the big three automakers, or his own limitations as a business man. Coppola has used his nephew Nicholas Cage to embody all of the character traits of the loser, as seen by Coppola. Nicholas Cage fails as a husband and worker in Peggy Sue Got Married, and as a mobster in Cotton Club. No other director sees Cage as such a worthless schmuck.

Perhaps success is a lot more interesting than failure, at least to Coppola. Or perhaps the stimulus of the Godfather saga releases Coppola from certain arty inhibitions. But Godfather III succeeds as entertainment while most other Coppola films fall flat on their faces.

Coppola includes many highlights of Pietro Mascagni's one act opera Cavalleria rusticana (1890) as part of the last hour of the movie. This opera deals with traditional revenge in rural Sicily, and echoes the themes of the rest of the film. The revenge killing in the opera is very similar to the revenge killing that Andy Garcia staged earlier in the film in "real life". There are many echoes in the costumes. The hooded men carrying the religious statue in the opera are dressed identically to the hooded men who took part in the killing in Little Italy. The long shiny black boots worn by the opera's hero are similar to those worn by Andy Garcia as a mounted policeman when he executed his revenge. Afterwards Garcia tells the singer with a big smile of satisfaction that he likes his costume. Clearly, he feels that all this leather is the appropriate costume for a mob killing. This sort of scene also establishes Garcia and the singer as doubles. The singer is Al Pacino's son; Garcia is his cousin and his adopted, unofficial son. The singer acts out and embodies the revenge code on stage; Garcia acts out these same feelings in real life. The opera singer's experience is extremely theatrical, and in the most stylized of all media, opera; the film implies that Garcia's experiences with the mob are equally theatrical: that everything he does is simply the acting out of traditional mob ideas on the stage of real life. Garcia is a self made man. He has almost nothing at the start of the film; he works his way into a traditional mob role, one that involves him creating himself along traditional mobster lines. This creation is nearly as artificial as the opera singer taking on a role.

The Terminator and Titanic (James Cameron)

James Cameron wrote and directed two huge hits, The Terminator (1984) and Titanic (1998). Both films show many common storytelling patterns.

Both films have a pair of lovers who are good guys, and who a bad man is trying to destroy them: Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn are the lovers in The Terminator; Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio in Titanic. The men trying to destroy them are the Terminator, and the fiancé in Titanic. In both cases, the villain is much more powerful and much more macho than the hero. Schwarzenegger completely out vavoomed Biehn in The Terminator, with Biehn coming across as a relative cipher. Di Caprio has a vastly bigger screen presence, but he does play a poor man being confronted by the villain, one of the richest men in America. He also look physically much less powerful than Billy Zane, the actor playing the fiancé, as well as much younger. Di Caprio has spent his career playing skinny teenagers and less than grown up men. He is in a tradition of gentle males over whom women swoon. However, he has tremendous moxie, commitment and grit, and he becomes a true hero in this film, awakening audience admiration the way Biehn never did.

In both cases the villain comes after the heroine with a gun, and tries to blow her away. In The Terminator, this takes place during the entire film; in Titanic, it occurs toward the end, in a single set of connected scenes.

In both films, the world of the heroine is undergoing systematic annihilation. In the Titanic, this is the ship going steadily down. In the earlier film, it is the Terminator steadily destroying every aspect of the heroine's world, her home, her friends, every place she visits. Audiences really seem to respond to this, but I found it a frightening process in both movies. It is apocalyptic. It is a relentless, grinding process, one that goes on for an hour and a half in both films. It is something unique to Cameron; other filmmakers can imitate his violence quotient, but few have mimicked his assault on reality.

Both films have someone from the far future looking backward into the deep past. In Titanic, it is the heroine in modern times and the divers, looking backwards into the voyage of the Titanic. In The Terminator, it is the characters from the far future traveling backward in time to our own day. In both cases, the films spend far more time in the past that in the later time period.

The earlier time period seems much more significant than the latter one, as well: all the important, meaningful decisions of the characters will take place in the earlier period. In Titanic, the heroine has to decide what kind of life she will lead, and who she will marry. She also has to try to survive. In The Terminator, the fate of the Earth will not be determined by the battles we see in the future, but by the struggle in the past, our own time: whether Linda Hamilton will have her baby, or not, and whether the child will survive.

In both cases, the future is full of apocalypse. In The Terminator, this is the horrible total war we see in the future. In Titanic, this is the ruins of the ship we explore.

In both films, the structure of the story invites one to measure what is important not by the concerns of the present, but how they will affect the future. Present day concerns are depicted as transient and easily mutable, and far too easily used to obscure what us really important: the future. When the heroine in The Terminator has a bad day at her waitressing job, her friend and coworker asks her whether a 100 years from now any of this will matter. We soon will learn that whether the heroine has a child and survives the Terminator will matter: it will determine the future of the human race. Similarly, in the Titanic the heroine has to step outside the concerns of her class, and get in touch with the real world.

In both Terminator 2 and Titanic, the final shot of the hero is similar, as both go downward into pools of liquid.

In both films, the heroine will go on to be a mother. This is central to the plot of The Terminator, and in Titanic the heroine is conspicuously accompanied by her grown up daughter in all "future" scenes.

In both films, characters make love by indulging in racy foreplay. In Titanic, this is posing for a nude portrait. In The Terminator, the heroine roommate's boyfriend makes love to her at her request by pretending to by a dirty phone caller. Both of these couples are depicted as blissfully happy. And both are soon under total siege by the destructive forces in the movie. In both films the heroine and hero make love on the run.

I Come in Peace (Craig R. Baxley)

I Come in Peace (1990) is a not bad sf film that is overloaded with too much violence and gore. While the scenes with the killer Compact Discs show some imagination, the writer could have left out most of the violent action and had a much better movie.

The film is noteworthy for the return to the screen of Brian Benben, who was so good as the Meyer Lansky type in TV's The Gangster Chronicles (1980). (Lansky was still alive then, so the character based on him had to appear under a fictitious name.) Benben had not worked a lot in film in the 1980's, but he has recently resurfaced in the 1990's here and in the HBO comedy series Dream On. Ten years have not changed his physical appearance much, but he is now playing comic roles - in his earlier career he was a dramatic actor. Here he does welcome comedy relief as the annoyingly high-handed FBI agent dodging our hero Dolph Lundgren's footsteps, interfering with his plans and dripping Yuppie condescension towards Lundgren's character.

Benben is the best thing in the movie. By contrast, the writer has failed with Lundgren's character, who is depicted as one of those "strong, silent" types, who have been so annoyingly prolific as Hollywood screen heroes in recent years. Silence and monosyllabic replies might make a hero seem more macho, at least in some people's eyes, but it completely sabotages any chance of creating a character that the audience can understand, let alone be interested in. Arnold Schwarzenegger's writers have been far cleverer in having his screen persona keep up a running line of patter and one-liners - Arnie always emerges as a person from his movies, and an interesting, appealing one at that. By contrast, the muscular Lundgren seems a cipher here. Better luck next time, Dolph! Maybe his upcoming Punisher film, based on the Marvel comic book, will give him a better role (it didn't).

I used the word "writers", but apparently most of Arnie's famous lines have been custom scripted for him by the distinguished action screenwriter Stephen E. De Souza, just as John Wayne's dialogue was usually rewritten for him by James Edward Grant. This means that what the public thinks of as "Arnold Schwarzenegger" is really half the real life actor Schwarzenegger, and half the writing style of De Souza. Similarly, "John Wayne" is half the actor Wayne, and half the writer Grant. De Souza did much work on the TV series The Powers of Matthew Star and Knight Rider, before his big screen career.

Speaking of Schwarzenegger, I Come in Peace plainly shows similarities to The Terminator. There a robot killer from the future ran amok on Earth; here a drug pusher from another planet has invaded Earth, or, at least, Houston. Both figures are hugely powerful; both are malevolent; both are high tech.

This film shows some good satiric touches in its treatment of the FBI, and its depiction of a drug pushing gang who dress up and act like yuppies, with power suits, fancy boardrooms and expensive cars. The film's anti-yuppie humor is somewhat reminiscent of similar jibes in Die Hard. Yuppiedom represents so many people's success fantasies, and often the very same peoples' concern over moral irresponsibility and class arrogance in our society, that it is not surprising that our love-hate relation with the yuppie spills over onto the screen, that magic barometer of all our hopes and fears. See also Wall Street, and The Untouchables, especially gangster Al Capone's speech to his troops with a baseball bat, which parodies every corporate pep talk ever given. Also noteworthy is the opening, in which a bad guy takes over a policeman's identity. He opens his fancy leather jacket, and underneath is a complete police uniform, identical to the one worn by the officer. The new cop then removes the name tag from the policemen's chest, and fastens it on his own. Between posing as yuppie businessmen, and posing as policemen, the film's gang is quite busy. All of these snazzy costumes are provided by costume designer Joseph Porro, who went on to work extensively with Roland Emmerich on such sf films as Universal Soldier, Stargate and Independence Day. Porro's work is among the most inventive of the 1990's.

Double Impact (Sheldon Lettich)

Double Impact (1991) is a surprisingly good film starring Jean Claude Van Damme, the Belgian karate star. Most of Van Damme's previous films are short on plot and storytelling, and long on crunching bones and karate chops. Van Damme has escaped from his Grade Z movie cellar with this one, a film full of entertaining plot twists and well staged action scenes of the Lethal Weapon variety.

Here Van Damme plays two characters, twin brothers separated at birth. Both brothers are surprisingly well characterized, both on the writing and acting level. It also allows the producers to stage a scene in which Van Damme fights a Karate duel with himself. On one level, this is a rousingly well done action sequence. On another, it is full of every sort of symbolic meaning. There are also more philosophical meanings symbolizing internal struggles within ourselves, of two sides of our nature battling it out over an issue. All in all, the filmmakers have come up with a symbolic image worthy of Hawthorne, in its richness, suggestiveness, and psychological depth.

The Hong Kong scenery is also well done in this film, as are the excellent costumes. My favorite scene involves a chase across an entire cart of pummelos, one of my favorite fruits, and much more popular in Hong Kong than in these United States.

Peacemaker (Kevin S. Tenney)

Peacemaker (1990). This interesting science fiction film is one of many that have been inspired by The Terminator. Here there are two aliens on Earth, one a space criminal, the other a "peacemaker" sent to track him down. The gimmick is that both claim to be the good guy, and the film's heroine has to figure out which is which. The cleverly constructed plot persuades her that first one, then the other is the criminal, with the heroine (and the audience) oscillating throughout the movie.

The classic mystery plot of this type can be found in John Dickson Carr's novel Death Turns the Tables (1941), in which a judge is suspected of murder. First he looks guilty, then he looks innocent, then he looks guilty ... . Carr keeps developing the plot with the mastery for which he is noted. An outstanding TV movie with a similar, did he or didn't he do it plot, is the Amy Prentiss "Baptism of Fire" episode (1974). This episode contains one of William Shatner's best performances.

Tenney ups the ante on his heroine by having her fall in love with one of the aliens, played by promising new performer Lance Edwards. (Is his Austrian sounding accent for real, or is he just doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation? Only time, and other movie roles will tell). This plot, where the detective falls in love with a suspect, goes back to E. C. Bentley's novel Trent's Last Case (1913). Here it has a sex role reversal, with a female sleuth in love with a male suspect who may or may not be the criminal.

Because of the emphasis on both plot, and the human relationships of the three characters, there is much more character development here and less pure action than in many contemporary science fiction films. This is a welcome development. All three lead actors do very good jobs with their roles.

Mystery Date (Jonathan Wacks)

Mystery Date (1991). This interesting little comedy thriller starts out like an utterly conventional teen comedy of the early 1980's. For the first ten minutes, the audience thinks it is viewing a PG rated and none too original revival of the teenagers get dressed up and go on a hot date flicks of that era. But then things start to go totally off the rails, as a murder plot and various surprises keep crossing our hero's path. This deliberate playing with film genres seems to me to be an interesting strategy, a sort of longer drawn out version of the Energizer Bunny TV commercials, where the bunny interrupts surprisingly accurate recreations of various styles of commercials. There are even some mystery clues hidden within in the apparent conventionality of the early Teen Comedy scenes, so that the film's undercutting of the scenes' effects goes on throughout the whole picture, whenever one of the clues is brought out and used to elucidate some of the mystery. Through these innovative technical means, Mystery Date breathes new life into one of the most important, exciting and hopeful messages of the traditional mystery story, that Things Are Not Always What They Seem.

Unfortunately, Mystery Date never becomes as wildly imaginative as it could be. It is such a good premise, and always so likable, that one wishes the execution had more oomph.

Some of the best scenes involve the eruption of poetry and romance into a more prosaic world, such as the scene where the hero and heroine are suddenly covered in flowers thrown from a florists' van while riding in their car. This poetry is memorable and beautiful, and a testament to the surrealist concept that life is full of things that are unusual and unconventional.

Firebirds (David Green)

Firebirds (1990). Ever since Top Gun (1986) and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), there have been a million military macho films attempting to find box office gold. This one is much better than most. This is not a war movie. Instead, our heroes (Nicholas Cage, Tommy Lee Jones) are US Army helicopter pilots attempting to fight Evil Drug Lords, so there is no war mongering or controversial military propaganda to make pacifists in the audience feel guilty. Even Mother Theresa could cheer these dudes on. The helicopters are really neat, and the cast is really talented. Hint to the US Army: if you want the sort of Hollywood career the US Navy has had, you'll have to come up with snazzier uniforms. These ugly jump suits just don't cut it.

Stargate (Roland Emmerich)

Emmerich's new science fiction spectacular Stargate (1994) reiterates and develops themes and characters from his last two movies, Moon 44 (1990) and Universal Soldier (1992). Emmerich has been deeply interested in exploring varieties of masculinity. In all three films, there are two main types of male characters. One group is more intellectual: in the last two films, these have been "scientists". The other is more macho and brutish; in the two last films these have been "soldiers". There is also a hero, who has been trained to be part of the more aggressive, "soldier" group, but who is trying to rediscover his feelings, and make connections with other human beings. This is the character played by Michael Pare in Moon 44, Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier, and Kurt Russell in Stargate. This character is one of positive ambiguity; he is trying to escape from or broaden predefined roles, and develop into a better human being.

Emmerich clearly has a lot of sympathy with the soldiers. He likes their competence, and their flair for male bonding, and above all, their machismo. The soldiers are always played by musclemen. Even the leads are very well built, but they are always part of a larger group of musclemen, perhaps a dozen. Being part of a team of macho males is very important, although the relationship is often ambiguous and fraught with danger.

Emmerich especially likes the soldiers' uniforms, and places a great deal of emphasis on these in the films. Many seem to be custom designed by the inventive Costume Designer Joseph A. Porro. In Universal Soldier, the men have special combat armor that emphasizes their chests; there are paired polygonal protrusions on each chest that suggest geometrical versions of pecs. These are probably the coolest military uniforms in recent films. In Moon 44, the tougher group of convicts wear, as part of their uniform, skin tight Army green T shirts. In Stargate, a key scene toward the beginning shows two Air Force officers trying to recruit a scientist; both men are in perfect, absolutely identical Air Force dress uniforms. The men look like twins, or rather robots. (In Universal Soldier, the soldiers are robots: special, technically altered men.) Both men clearly have the power and might of an entire institution behind them: the US. Air Force. Later, Kurt Russell will wear an absolutely identical Air Force uniform. He too will be completely spit and polish, with identical grooming, military hair style, perfectly tied tie, and so on: a projection of the ideal Air Force image of macho robot. But in his case, we will know there is more. Underneath the image of competence and military precision, we know there is a deeply troubled man on the verge of an emotional breakdown. It adds tremendous irony to the military look.

Emmerich's attitude to the "scientists" is also filled with ambiguity. For one thing, Emmerich, and his characters, are clearly enamored of high tech. Even in the case of his soldiers' uniforms, there is an emphasis on high technology. One effect of the geometrical nature of the Universal Soldier uniforms is to emphasize visually the high tech nature of their abilities. The geometrical quality seems to be a visual indicator of advanced technology. Similarly, when Emmerich finally choose a branch of the US. Armed Forces to display in Stargate, it was the US. Air Force, the branch most closely associated with high technology. Unlike other recent filmmakers, he was not interested in the (officer and) gentlemanly US. Navy or in the discipline-oriented US. Marine Corps. Such male stars as Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, and Alec Baldwin have had some of their biggest hits in recent years wearing the uniforms of US. Naval Officers. In all cases, finally earning the right to wear the US. Naval uniform was made to imply that the hero was ready for love, sex, and marriage. Learning to wear the uniform, and all that it implies, is an initiation into manhood, with a special emphasis on fertility and marriagability. The uniform is well suited to these tales of manhood achieved, because the US. Naval dress uniform is one the most authoritative uniforms possible for a man to wear. The hero who wears it looks very gentlemanly, as if he had an responsible position of authority in society. It is navy blue, the color of authority. It has a white dress shirt, and regular black tie, just like a suit. It makes a man look very grown up and responsible, and is perfect for stories of manhood attained, for suggesting that the hero would make an ideal husband and father. I'm sure that the uniform is deliberately designed by the US. Navy to suggest all of these things - it is very carefully and cleverly put together.

All of these actors are major romantic leads. By contrast, the Marine Corps uniforms worn onscreen by action heroes such as Michael Pare, Clint Eastwood, Fred Dyer, and Michael Dudikoff and Stephen James lead to adventure and male bonding, not to romance or marriage. They also serve more as certifications of an already achieved masculinity, with the heroes wearing them towards the start of the film as part of our introduction to their characters, than as tokens in any process of attempting to achieve manhood or marriagability. One might also note that the Marine films featured their characters in the uniforms of Marine Sergeants, while the Naval films show the heroes attempting either to become officers, or to learn how to fulfill their duties as officers. Being an officer is more upper class, and hence more marriageable, while being a Sergeant means working class masculinity, a tough, hard core machismo. Also, a US. Marine Sergeant is a man who imposes military discipline on other men, who develops their manhood. This rank and branch of the Service is more appropriate for films that celebrate male bonding. Making a character a Marine Sergeant is the ultimate certification of one type of masculinity. (Similarly, the Rick Rossovich Police Sergeant in the science fictional Streets of Fire (1984) had his Sergeant's stripes prominently displayed on his fantasy uniform, including chevron pins on his erect military style collar, a neat touch. Far from being futuristic, this uniform (designed by Giorgio Armani) had features designed to make it look like an "old fashioned" cop's outfit, including V arrayed buttons and a leather harness and gun belt.) The TV show "Magnum, P.I." continued this dichotomy: the marriageable romantic lead Tom Selleck was a former US. Naval Lieutenant, while his working class buddies used to be US. Marine Sergeants. Frequent flashbacks showed them all in uniform.

In general, the popularity of military uniforms both on screen and off has dropped like a stone since 1991. In that year, the Persian Gulf war turned military uniforms from a fun fantasy to a frightening reality virtually overnight. Military gear used to be very popular here in Detroit in the 1980's, especially combat fatigues worn as street wear and US. Marine sweatshirts and sweat pants at the gym. All this abruptly disappeared in 1991, and you never see a guy in camouflage fatigues on the street here anymore. Of course, with the popularity of grunge, you rarely see anyone all dressed up in any form at all, anymore. Grunge seems to be a form of political protest: until the economy picks up, men are going to dress as badly as possible.

To continue with Emmerich and his attitudes toward scientists, Emmerich is clearly impressed with their technical abilities. He is less impressed with their developing weapons of destruction, and their willing subservience to dictators and authoritative and oppressive regimes of all kinds. The relations between the scientists and the soldiers in all three films is full of difficulty. In the first two films it is murderous, with the director-endorsed killing of a bullying macho convict by a smaller, scientific one a memorable highlight of Moon 44: but in Stargate a new ability for the two groups to cooperate and learn from each other is developed. This is clearly an interesting new development. Only time will tell if it is a permanent feature of Emmerich's world view, or a one-picture phenomenon. Also, for the first time there is a hero among the scientists, a character with leading man status in the film: the scientist played by James Spader. Despite some satire and some comic relief, Spader's character is one of a genuine hero. Spader is one of my favorite actors, and here he has one of his best film roles in years. It is also good to see Emmerich getting a chance to work with some real actors in Stargate, after years among the muscle men.

Emmerich also broke new ground, for him, in Stargate by including an evil, androgynous villain, played memorably by Jaye Davidson, no less. It is not surprising that to the macho-oriented Emmerich, androgyny appears evil. I suspect, however, that Emmerich is at a stage of just beginning to "digest" androgyny, and that it will reappear in his films in more sympathetic forms in the future. Both the Kurt Russell and James Spader characters had some androgynous characteristics in the film, and more, I suspect, will follow. Also, villainous characters are often used to embody "forbidden" impulses, things the director and his audience find appealing, but which are currently taboo. Eventually, the director and the culture often find socially acceptable ways to enact these feelings. Activities once confined to the villains become part of the hero's behavior.

All in all, Emmerich is deeply interested in "gender", that subject of current academic obsession. Emmerich has a very different take on the subject than many academicians, but a very worthwhile one, none the less.

Speed (Jan De Bont)

Speed (1994) is unusual in that its heroes commit no violent acts. In Speed, only the bad guys are violent. The good guys are daredevils, and incredibly courageous, but they never try to solve problems through the use of force. Instead, they are constantly trying to help people who are in trouble. I very much like Speed's image of what a good guy is. These men are macho, and cool, and they care about others. These policemen are saints in black. They are not serial killers with badges, piling up bodies left and right, like the "heroes" of so many recent action films.

The civilian characters in Speed are also notable. The bus passengers are very sympathetic, in the way they seem to care about each other. Sandra Bullock is especially memorable as the gutsy young Everywoman who rises to the occasion. I also like the scene were the scared guy is finally set free from the bus by the help of his friend.

Fair Game (Andrew Sipes)

Fair Game (1995) is a well done thriller. It is definitely in the Speed tradition, featuring a likable couple on the run from violent bad guys. Here the couple is supermodel Cindy Crawford, in her first starring role, and William Baldwin. These performers remind one of the old Hollywood, in which supernaturally good looking people acted out the audience's hopes and dreams. Cindy does a good job with her first major role. She has a flair for light comedy, and the producers make the most of it, giving her little bits of comedy business and some good natured romance with Baldwin. Cindy's role is likable, sweet, and good natured. She plays a kind hearted lady lawyer, and the role is clearly influenced by the sweet Everywoman roles played by Sandra Bullock. Sandra zoomed to stardom playing this sort of role in Speed, and producer Joel Silver is clearly hoping that lightening will strike twice with Cindy. Baldwin also does a good job with his romantic role. He seems courageous, but far more gentle than macho - he is also trying to fit into the Keanu Reeves tradition.

Fair Game also has some neat scenes involving heat photography, showing people through walls of buildings. This is really fascinating, and one suspects that it will become a cliché in future thrillers. There is also a lot of high tech computer material in the film. Hollywood clearly thought that this would be the Year of the Internet onscreen, but such well made movies as The Net and Hackers have failed to start any box office fires, unfortunately. In any case, the computer material is well done here as well, with some good touches of comedy and satire. This is also the first film I have seen in which the Russian mob are villains. Led by former KGB agents, they are thoroughly chilling. One suspects that if an army of Evil Russians were on the loose in Miami, the entire FBI, CIA and ATF would be on their trail, not just a few Miami cops led by Baldwin, so this part of the film lacks believability. You really have to suspend your disbelief for the sake of the fun here.

The cinematography by Rob Bowen throughout is superb.

Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty)

Dick Tracy (1990). Fine production values (Art Director Richard Sylbert) mark this version of the comic strip. (There were earlier adaptations, such as Gordon Douglas' fun Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).) While it is different from the comic strip Dick Tracy's color scheme of primary colors against a white background (a color scheme used by such film directors as Samuel Fuller and Jean-Luc Godard, very possibly influenced by the comic strip, a big favorite of French intellectuals), the movie has a non-naturalistic design featuring flaming pastels. Biggest drawback of the film: a dull script. First Dick Tracy goes after the bad guys, then the bad guys go after Tracy, then Tracy goes after the bad guys, and so on, for two hours. This is not exactly a plot. The most interesting parts of the film deal with Tracy's personal life, and Madonna's bad girl, "Breathless Mahoney".

The violence of Batman comics has been greatly exaggerated by defenders of that gruesome film. While the original Batman comics of the forties are dark in tone and "noirish", they are not full of the gore and sadism that made that movie such an unpleasant experience. By contrast the Dick Tracy comic strip was full of violence and cruelty: apart from a few pulp stories, it was probably the sickest and most gorily violent work of art in the entire history of American popular culture before 1975. Somewhat surprisingly, the Dick Tracy movie is not especially violent - it is clearly an attempt to make wholesome family entertainment. I like this approach much more.

Another difference between the film and the comic strip is that the film includes, in one simultaneous plot, a roster of villains that it took the comic strip twenty years to deploy. The style of the villainy has changed too. Here Tracy is battling Organized Crime; the villains are gangsters and their molls. The atmosphere of the movie recalls The Untouchables, where a lone uncorrupted cop took on the Mob. While in the early days of the comic strip, Tracy sometimes battled organized crime, when the comic strip hit its peak period in the 1940's, Tracy fought lone criminal masterminds and their fantastic schemes. This change does not hurt the film, but it does make it less close to the feel of the strip. As my readers can tell, I have very mixed feelings about the Dick Tracy comic strip. While I admire its creatively bizarre art (especially the unusual geometric compositions of the frames) and the way Chester Gould's strongly individual personality comes through in his storytelling, I deplore its violence and its complete lack of warmth. While I love comics as a whole, the Dick Tracy strip will never be a favorite of mine. Some of my favorite Comic Strips: Thimble Theater (starring Popeye), Krazy Kat, Baron Bean and The Dingbat Family, Little Nemo In Slumberland, Nancy, He Done Her Wrong, Banana Oil, Secret Agent X-9, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, Peanuts, Polly and Her Pals, Bringing Up Father, Tarzan, Big George, Gil Thorp, The Virtue of Vera Valiant, Calvin and Hobbes, Brenda Starr, Hagar the Horrible, Beetle Bailey, Broom Hilda, Zippy and The Far Side.

Presumed Innocent (Alan J. Pakula)

Presumed Innocent (1990). Murder mystery, partly filmed in Detroit. Full of the political paranoia, shadowy conspiracies and dark photography of the director's previous political thrillers, The Parallax View and All the President's Men. Good cast and a logically constructed script help.

The Krays (Peter Medak)

The Krays (1990). This gangster film is based on the true story of the Krays, identical twin brothers who terrorized London's underworld in the 1960's. Medak is a Hungarian director in exile in Britain who has piled up an impressive list of credits, including The Ruling Class (1972), The Changeling (1979), Zorro - The Gay Blade (1981) and The Seven Dancing Princesses episode of Faerie Tale Theater (1984). Medak's style is rich and complex, with elaborate visual compositions, much symbolism, and considerable psychological probing of his characters inner emotional lives. He is a very good storyteller.

Reviews that have treated The Krays as a case history of evil criminals are widely off the mark. In The Krays, like most gangster films, the gangsters are the not so secret heroes. They act out all the forbidden, anti-social impulses the audience would like to explore, but dare not. If they want something, they just take it. The two Kray brothers, like most movie gangsters before them, explode all over the screen like creatures from the Id, celebrating anarchy and desire. Of course, to keep audience sympathy, movie gangsters are never shown doing anything really bad. Movie gangsters only attack other gangsters, never innocent members of the public. Movie gangsters deal in bootleg liquor and gambling, never drugs. Movie gangsters are all good looking, whereas real life gangsters usually look like toads (see photographs of Lucky Luciano, say, or Al Capone.)

My favorite gangster films are Josef von Sternberg's Thunderbolt (1929), Mervyn Le Roy's Little Caesar (1931), Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932), Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941) and White Heat (1948), and Richard C. Sarafian's The Gangster Chronicles (1981), this last film being made for television. The Krays is an exciting addition to this list.

Ghost (Jerry Zucker)

Ghost (1990) is a film with a little bit of everything - murder mystery, supernatural tale, comedy, and above all, love story. Zucker brings much of the same ingenuity to this film as his previous Airplane, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun. All of these films contain unusual formal innovations, disguised as avante-garde comedy in the earlier three, and fantasy in this latest.

Writer Bruce Joel Ruben's previous work includes a neglected teen fantasy comedy, Zapped! (1982), whose highlight is a brief and unexpected Star Trek parody.

Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective (Christopher Lewis)

Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective (1990). This interesting made for TV movie focuses on a Philip Marlowe like 1947 private eye. It was shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is full of a remarkable number of interesting old Art Deco buildings. It probably looks more like 1947 Hollywood than modern L.A. does. There is also a great looking amusement park, now a virtually vanished form of establishment on the West Coast, used as location for a scene that goes on and on and on, probably because the producers got excited about shooting in such a photogenic place, and really beat it to death on camera! In any case, Hollywood should travel to more unfamiliar locations like this for filmmaking; it makes a visually interesting picture.

Star Marc Singer has been around since the early seventies. Casting of this 40ish actor is typical of the new casting strategies in Hollywood, where well preserved older types, both men and women, are being favored over the flaming youth that dominated so much of 70's and early 80's cinema. In large part this reflects casting directors attempt to respond to an aging audience. Baby boomers are all thirtysomething or older, and many young people anyway have turned off TV's to watch VCR's exclusively. I know I personally felt consoled to see a 40ish actor look so terrific, have exciting adventures and more romance than he could possibly handle. Getting older doesn't seem at all bad.

This film is based on the pulp Dan Turner detective stories by Robert Leslie Bellem, popular in the 1930's and 40's, but now known chiefly for their campy dialogue and laughable period slang. Actually the best Dan Turner stories are very well plotted. However, writer John Wooley seems to have used only the hero's name and profession, and created an intelligent mystery script from scratch. The good cast acts with conviction, and the excellent costumes (by an uncredited designer) and vintage cars combine with the locations to give a superb period feel.

Our hero, and the general tone of the film, is far less cynical than Chandler's Philip Marlowe tales. The tone, although a loving creation of the private eye ethos, combines it with the traditional idealism and heroics of the Hollywood good guy. This is all to the good in my opinion; even in Chandler's tales the atmosphere of gloom can get pretty hard to take.

The film is subtitled The Raven Red Kissoff, and seems to be intended as the pilot for a projected series. I haven't seen any other episodes than this. The film was apparently made for syndication, not a common thing for made-for-TV movies. When rerun on TV, it is often simply called The Raven Red Kissoff.