Black, white and blue all over

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS Carl Franklin (15) THE RUN OF THE COUNTRY Peter Yates (15) THE WAR Jon Avnet (12) LOVE AFFAIR Glenn Gordon Caron (PG)
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The Independent Culture
Carl Franklin is a rarity among the new generation of African- American directors: his films don't broadcast themselves loudly as tackling racial issues, but the black eye behind the camera gives them a subtly different and interesting spin. The hero of Devil in a Blue Dress, based on the novel by Walter Mosley, is a GI returning from the Second World War (Denzel Washington) and determined to grab himself a slice of the action in a culture where everything seems momentarily up for grabs. He buys a house ("the only negro" in his LA neighbourhood to do so). When he loses his job, he has to turn amateur detective to keep up the payments. His social aspirations, his belief that he can share in the white American dream, have a price.

His seedy assignment involves tracing a woman who has been romantically involved with a mayoral candidate but who has now gone missing. She is known to like "dark meat" and hang out on the black side of town; it's Washington's skin colour which gets him the commission. But his search is stalked by a constant danger, as he also ventures gingerly into white- only territory and finds the traditional imbroglio of murder, blackmail and political corruption.

Meanwhile the race barrier operates as strongly in the other direction - one early scene shows a white customer being refused admission to a black jazz club, a motif which will be reprised later in a major key and form the film's main enigma. The voyage into forbidden territory is a core theme of the post-war private eye thriller, but Devil in a Blue Dress gives it a sharp new twist. It puts the noir back into film noir.

The period setting - black LA in the late Forties - is fascinating and Franklin directs confidently and with a good deal of humour; the supporting cast, down to the smallest bit parts, is colourful and strong. Not so, however, the film's central relationship, which ought to crystallise its themes of taboo and transgression - that between Washington and the white femme fatale, played by Jennifer Beals. Alas, it's a real let-down: there's no sense of danger to Beals's character (who sports a wardrobe of hideous blue frocks) and zero sexual chemistry between them. The final optimistic note feels shallow - it cops out on the cynicism we expect from the genre (although it is hinted that the man whom Washington puts back in the mayoral election will push for racist legislation while the sleazy candidate was also, ironically, the one with more liberal views). But these weaknesses do not prevent this from being a classy, thoughtful and intelligent film.

Set just south of the Irish border, The Run of the Country is, as it were, a bog-standard rite-of-passage film: a young man contends with his overbearing widowed father and a budding romance with a Northern Irish girl. Its pedigree is solid - the director Peter Yates and the writer Shane Connaughton, whose previous screenplays include My Left Foot and The Playboys. But it never quite catches fire, largely due to Matt Keeslar, a clean-cut American actor trying to pass for Irish. Victoria Smurfit brings a little spice to his sparky lover and Albert Finney storms around effectively as a sexually repressed type (again). Anthony Brophy is the film's liveliest character, a ne'er-do-well who, according to Connaughton, is supposed to embody Ireland herself: "outrageous, cunning, daring and loyal" but isn't - like the film itself - focussed enough to rise to these grand, metaphoric ambitions.

Some unwary punters may be lured along to The War by the presence of Kevin Costner in the cast. But Waterworld this isn't: it finds Costner in serious thesping vein (and reminds us of how little charisma he projects when not saving the world). The year is 1970 and he's a Vietnam veteran suffering from flashback trauma. The film draws clumsy parallels between Nam and the feud between Costner's two kids and a white trash family, who all talk in completely impenetrable hillbilly twangs (this is small- town Mississippi), not that they're probably saying anything worth hearing. After over two hours, we learn that "the only thing that keeps people safe and happy is love". For those in quest of severe moral uplift only.

Warren Beatty and Annette Bening's remake of the lush, old tear-jerker Love Affair (twice filmed before) is playing briefly at the NFT theatre before proceeding straight to video. Beatty and Bening have a wild fling, then are prevented by Fate from keeping their tryst atop the Empire State Building. Some class acts are involved here - music by Ennio Morricone, production design by the late Ferdinando Scarfiotti - and there's a touching cameo from Katharine Hepburn and a funny turn from Garry Shandling. The enterprise is let down by some very slack direction, but there are several incidental pleasures along the way.

n All films open tomorrow