Burning ambition

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DEAD PRESIDENTS Albert and Allen Hughes (18)

MULHOLLAND FALLS Lee Tamahori (18)

FALLEN ANGELS Wong Kar-Wai (18)

BEAUMARCHAIS Edouard Molinaro (15)

HOLLOW REED Angela Pope (15)

THE PROMISE Margarethe von Trotta (15)

MESSAGE TO LOVE Murray Lerner (PG)

America goes up in flames at the beginning of Dead Presidents. Allen and Albert Hughes's unforgiving look-back-with-bitterness, following three young black friends into Vietnam and out the other side, is not the the greatest film you'll see this year. But if they gave out awards for Best Title Sequence ... well, then the 13-strong team responsible for those hypnotic close-ups of flames eating through a pile of dollars would spend next year standing on podiums, thanking their mothers.

Those used bills are the deceased dignitaries of the film's title, all heading for the furnace. But what if someone were to intercept the money on its way there? That comes later. First, the Hughes Brothers take us back, and show how the young black Vietnam vets poised to hijack the truck got so desperate that they swapped their lively ambitions for live ammo.

Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) is the movie's tragic hero. When we first meet him, he's a high-school kid, hard-working, decent and sexy (you'd think he were being paid by the pout!). He loafs around with his buddies, and the Hughes's cut his antics to the rhythm of the slinky soundtrack - James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone - with delicious precision.

Technically, the brothers are already master craftsmen. Anthony's arrival in Vietnam is announced by a single judicious cut which recalls the devastating economy of Sergio Leone, while their depiction of violence prompts astonishment and peristalsis in equal measure.

You worry that Anthony's wartime trauma has been engineered just so that the film can include some horrific hallucinations - until Anthony's girlfriend, Juanita (Rose Jackson), comes out with the line, "The only time I get to hold you is when you've had one of your nightmares", and grimly encapsulates emotional devastation better than a hundred Tom Cruises in wheelchairs and hippy-wigs. On their gratuitous debut Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers proved that it's great to have style. Now they've realised how much better it looks coupled with substance. They're really on their way.

There's nothing more to Mulholland Falls than big guys in big hats making small-talk. Nick Nolte plays Max Hoover, a detective in Fifties Los Angeles who gets caught up in a nuclear-age cover-up after the murder of a woman he was stepping out with. Hoover is the head of an unorthodox gang of LAPD wide boys (Chazz Palminteri, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen) who cruise the streets looking for action. No, not that sort of action, though it may as well be.

For as with most movies where a large amount of testosterone is squeezed into a very small space, there are, well, undertones. We see them driving together, drinking together, stalking the streets together. I'd wager that on a cutting-room floor somewhere there lies a scene of these four toughs lined up beneath hairdryers, passing the Hob Nobs around. Or there would be if they ever removed those damn hats.

To affirm the gang's masculinity, one of the early clues comes from the effete Jimmy Fields (Andrew McCarthy), who outrages Hoover by planting a smacker on him in the interview room. Like all naughty homosexuals, Jimmy has to pay for kissing the unkissable. With him dead, Mulholland Falls can turn to its real question - who killed Hoover's lost love? - while the men can get on with the job of being men. As a portrait of tarnished machismo, the film is accidentally illuminating. As a thriller, it's nothing of the sort.

Wong Kar-Wai fashions mood pieces - tone poems that will frustrate those searching for a narrative. He has been acclaimed for the freewheeling Chungking Express, but Fallen Angels, which follows four disparate characters through the Hong Kong night as they fall in, and out, with each other, is better, and more wildly ambitious than anything we've seen this year. Wong Kar-Wai uses every means at his disposal to translate the romance and recklessness of these nightbirds: he speeds the film up, slows it down, taints it red, drains it of colour, but never lets the trickery engulf the cast, or the dippy comedy. What you get is something like a punk rock take on A Bout de Souffle; it will thrill anyone who still has faith in cinema as a sensuous, fluid medium.

Beaumarchais is a beginner's guide to the fizzy, scandalous life of the 18th-century playwright. It's directed by Edouard Molinaro, best known for La Cage aux Folles, and his lightly farcical touch buoys a story that has plenty of opportunity to preach. The anecdotal structure tends to jerk after a time, but the magnificent Fabrice Luchini glues the picture together in the title role, with his bristling blend of wit and superciliousness. You watch him twitch, or hear his twanging voice, and you feel like somebody just tickled you.

Sam Bould is still at primary school, but with frugal movement and a pair of eyes as big and bright as light bulbs, he gives a performance of such expressiveness in Hollow Reed that his elders - Martin Donovan as his father, Joely Richardson as his mother, Ian Hart as Donovan's boyfriend - look like mannequins by comparison. His character, Oliver, is being beaten at the home he shares with his mother and her new chap (Jason Flemyng), and dad decides it's time to investigate. There are some sore, unflinchingly honest scenes but generally you're witnessing the squandering of great potential. And the birth of a fascinating actor.

Margarethe Von Trotta's The Promise is a love story cleaved in two by the Berlin Wall. You can feel the dull ache in Corinna Harfouch and Meret Becker, who play the lovers in their youth, though the picture seems to last, as well as span, 28 years. Message to Love, a candid and affectionate documentary that goes on and off stage at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, will lift your spirits. Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, thousands of hippies up a hillside, and Keith Moon, so rampant with raw energy that if he were alive today somebody would have privatised him.

n All films are on general release from tomorrow


The Latin American Film Festival

With a preview of Lone Star, a Rio Grande thriller by underdog auteur John Sayles, plus a retrospective of the late Tomas Gutierres Alea - seek out the tough 1968 drama Memories of Underdevelopment, and his last film, Guantanamera. Plus The Eye of the Scissors, a political drama about shifting eras; and Manhattan Merengue, a tale of immigration and mambo. All this and the Metro's reopened too. Hurrah! (Or whatever it is in Spanish.)

6-19 September, Metro Cinema, London W1 (0171-734 1506)