Sure, Rosenberg tosses in plenty of explosions and flippant brutality, but he also knows how to engineer a little mischief. One of the heroes, US Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack), has at his disposal an arsenal of synonyms rather than shot-guns. And even the bad guys - a gang of psychotic convicts (including John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi) who hijack the plane that's ferrying them between prisons - find as much pleasure in mind-games as murder. Whether you take to the film or not largely depends on how convinced you are that it's all unfolding within giant inverted commas. The performance by Nicolas Cage seems to embody the picture's spirit - as a kindly ex-con hitching a lift to freedom he delivers his lines in a sardonic drawl that would be unintelligible were his tongue jammed any further into his cheek.
Cage has some ridiculous errands to run, hurtling through a ball of fire to deliver an insulin shot to his diabetic chum, or defending the honour of the fluffy bunny that he's taking home for his daughter's birthday. You're faintly disappointed when, after all the fun and games, Con Air is stripped to its bare essentials. Never mind Dostoevsky and gags about cuddly toys: it all comes down to how well you can swing an axe, ride a motorcycle or engage in unarmed combat aboard a speeding fire-engine.
The French director Luc Besson began his career with a science-fiction movie, The Last Battle, and has invested elements of the genre into his work ever since. But in his new film, The Fifth Element, he demonstrates less assurance than ever in constructing a convincing futuristic universe, let alone pacing a thriller. His vision of alien worlds on earth in Subway and The Big Blue displayed more breadth and originality than the overcrowded, consumerist metropolis that constitutes this film's vision of 23rd-century New York - it's like Blade Runner with the brightness cranked up. That's where the movie's hero, a cabbie named Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) resides, living his Long Goodbye-gone-sci-fi life, until a bewitching stranger (Milla Jovovich) crashes through the roof of his taxi. Korben agrees to help her in a quest to stop a sphere of anti-energy engulfing the earth - well, she does hold the secret to the future of civilisation as we know it, and it's not often you meet someone who can substantiate such lofty claims.
The faults of The Fifth Element are in its larger inadequacies - the lack of urgency in the pacing, or the clunking gags that sound like they've been translated from French to English via Urdu and Swahili, or a climax that could be an out-take from The Crystal Maze. But there are some odd pleasures to be had along the way. Jean-Paul Gaultier's costumes are imaginative and daring - or foolhardy in the case of Bruce Willis's orange Lycra number - while Besson's direction is often brilliantly inspired, particularly during one virtuoso scene set at an intergalactic opera. Most of the fun comes courtesy of Gary Oldman, who fully exercises the right that every science-fiction villain has to have a silly voice and an outlandish hairdo: Perspex skull-cap coupled with a floppy fringe. It's going to be all the rage this summer.
The dry, absurdist wit of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki is in glorious evidence in Drifting Clouds, a melancholy tale of a husband and wife who both lose their jobs, and face long, yawning days of depression. Not the most promising material for a comedy, perhaps, but Kaurismaki doesn't force the laughs. He lets the humour emanate naturally from his characters, like breath; he's the least contrived of modern directors. And he works in beautiful, muted colours - the sets and the actors look like they've been left to pale in the sun. He only slips up once, panning across posters for Night on Earth, L'Atalante and L'Argent in a cinema foyer. A director who deems it necessary to make such explicit reference to his influences might be said to lack confidence in his own voice. Kaurismaki is one director who need have no such worries.
In Alive and Kicking, something ghastly happens to an HIV-positive dancer named Tonio (Jason Flemyng). Someone falls in love with him. Like the hero of Jeffrey, Tonio isn't sure how to handle love now he's living in the shadow of Aids, so he plumps for hostility, reckoning without the persistence of his suitor, Jack (Antony Sher). The screenplay, by Martin Sherman, who wrote Bent, finds a nice balance between optimism and realism. Sherman recognises that while Aids gives the picture an abstract urgency, the narrative also requires an immediate motor, resulting in a less convincing race for Tonio to be fit enough to dance in his ailing company's last ballet. But the film's main strength comes from the combination of Nancy Meckler's simple but attentive direction and Jason Flemyng's devilish, irrepressible vitality.
The rest of this week resembles a car-boot sale used by the country's film distributors to clear out all the odds and ends that have been cluttering up the office. There's Men, Women: A User's Manual, a story of love and coincidence that is everything we've come to expect from a Claude Lelouch film - warm, wistful and terribly facile - but with the bonus of the delightful Fabrice Luchini as a self-absorbed worrywart.
The Informer, John Ford's 1935 drama of betrayal in 1922 Ireland, earns a revival this week; the picture's claustrophobic intensity goes some way towards distracting you from some characteristically sentimental flourishes, but it's not Ford at his best. In Entertaining Angels: the Dorothy Day Story Moira Kelly is fine as America's famed crusader struggling against poverty, while Martin Sheen busies himself struggling with a French accent. The term "worthy but dull" might have been invented for this film. Heaven knows how or why Adrenalin: Fear the Rush ever got made, let alone released, but you are urged to avoid this post-nuclear horror movie which is so cheap that Christopher Lambert gets top billing.
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